A franchise burning out is nothing new; in fact once audience interest starts to wane, there’s no garantee that even the biggest film series can’t splutter to a close when the quality starts to dip. However, if you want to see this phenomenon happen in double time then the eighties is definitely the decade to watch. Some stellar examples of fast declining quality are how spectacularly awful the Jaws and Superman movies became in a relatively short amount of time with their fourth entries regularly being tossed around “worst movies ever made” lists, but there’s one franchise that’s rarely mentioned in the same breath that impressively crashed and burned in nearly half the time.
Poltergeist started its (after) life as a bonafide classic and a rare example of ambitious horror being achieved on a large budget, barely seven years later it rounded off its trilogy with tragic, real life deaths and whole lot of smoke and mirrors – literally.
Carol Anne Freeling has left the warm skies of California for the windy streets of Chicago due to her family sending her to live with her auntie Pat and her money bags husband Bruce Gardener while she attends a school for gifted children with emotional problems. As callous as it sounds, it’s also somewhat understandable considering that the golden-haired moppet is catnip to ghost snd spirits led by the demonic being known as Reverend Kane and sure enough, thanks to her bringing up her past in therapy, the malevolent spooks track her down in the towering apartment block her uncle owns.
The next thing you know, Reverend Kane is popping up in the reflections of the buildings endless mirrors and screwing with the automated temperature, but even though Carol Anne has form with these type of otherworldly assaults, everyone around her thinks she’s creating a form of mass hysteria. But while Carol Anne’s therapist is merely convinced she’s some master manipulator, aunt Pat has darker suspicions and believes that her family simply has offloaded the child onto her due to all the trouble that follows in her precocious wake.
Thankfully Carol Anne has at least one defender in the form of Tangina Barrons, the squeaky-voiced medium who has assisted the Freelings during their previous instances of paranormal activity, but even if she manages to get to Chicago in time, can she save the young girl from yet another trip to the Other Side?
As Kane’s latest campaign involves switching out Bruce’s daughter and her boyfriend with evil duplicates from the mirror dimension continues, will he finally succeed in claiming Carol Anne’s light in his latest bout of high-rise horror?
Where the union of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg gave us a ghost movie that blended the family dynamic of E.T. with the bowel shifting wonders of Close Encounters and the admittedly muddled sequel still managed to give us one of the most underrated baddies of the ’80’s, Poltergeist III shifts the action to a high rise and proceeds to give us one of the most lackluster spook shows of the decade. The main reason seems to be that for this third time round, there’s one too many no-shows that noticably affects the quality. Spielberg and Hooper jumped ship ages ago, but also choosing to tag out for this third go round are Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and even composer Jerry Goldsmith, which only leaves Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein to gamely represent the OG cast but they simply aren’t enough to stop this entry from drifting into the wispy realms of silliness despite the occasionally successful jump scare.
Left to shoulder the burden, along with a 12 year old girl and a 4 foot 3 veteran actress, is Alien’s Tom Skerritt and Robocop’s Nancy Allen who, despite having previous form in genre cinema, look decidedly uncomfortable having to fill in for all the absent members of the franchise. It also doesn’t help that Allen’s character arc makes her act like it’s perfectly acceptable to want to abandon her own niece to malevolent supernatural forces that seek to sweep her away in order to give them an all access pass to the afterlife and while it may be a realistic urge to go with, it makes her looks like a total b-word – especially considering that Skerritt’s character is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for his step niece. Hindering matters even further is the fact that roughly about a third of everybody’s lines (even Kane’s) requires them to yell “Carol Anne” repeatedly until you get to the point where you think that maybe Aunt Pat might have a point and it’s a far cry from the genuine warmth of the original movie.
Director Gary Sherman (Dead And Buried, Death Line) approaches a franchise known for its colourful bells and whistles and bizarrely sucks all the life out of it, exchanging grandiose ILM money shots for clever, but repetitive in-camera trickery involving moving reflections and ingenious body double-work, but while Poltergeist gave 80’s audiences something they’d genuinely never seen before and the flawed sequel doled out some funky, H.R. Giger designed beasties, Poltergeist III instead invests its budget in a shit-ton of strobe lights and dry ice machines. Yes, it’s initially alarming the first time someone’s reflection suddenly spins round to grab them, but that’s seemingly the only trick Sherman has up his sleeve and it soon becomes predictable.
Not even the return of Reverend Kane has the same effect as it once was, mainly because actor Julian Beck had succumbed to the cancer that awarded him his memorable appearance and the actor chosen to replace him simply nowhere near as effective. However, making matters all the more awkward is the shockingly premature death of actress Heather O’Rourke who passed before the movie was even released due to complications brought on through illness (she has visible facial swelling thanks to the steroidal injections to treat Crohn’s disease). and the fact the final movie she appeared in features a plot about her being carried off into the afterlife makes things feel more than a little uncomfortable.
Visually bland, annoyingly illogical (why does a ghost need to use a window cleaners lift?) and constantly mistaking random loud noises for genuine frights, if Poltergeist III genuinely thought it could match up to the majesty of the original, it soon discovered that it didn’t have a ghost of a chance.