Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) [Collector's Edition]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-01-25 00:53

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: January 31st, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

While Poltergeist has been immortalized as one of the more big-budget, Amblin-tinged, spectacle-laden horror efforts from the 80s, director Tobe Hooper (and, yes, “producer” Steven Spielberg) should also be commended for showing tremendous restraint during the film’s climax. For all its demonic trees and sprouting corpses, Poltergeist retained some sense of mystery in its refusal to allow more than a glimpse of the mysterious “Other Side.” Whispered about as a nefarious dimension beyond the grave, it largely stayed off-camera during the climax when Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) rescued her daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke).

It was a daring but effective approach, one that left a little something to the imagination; of course, it also couldn’t be replicated a few years later when the inevitable sequel arrived, hurtling towards one obvious direction. Even the subtitle for Poltergeist II makes no bones about its only course of action: finally, it promises, we will see The Other Side.

It’s a gesture that’s as symbolic as it is literal. Certainly, it’s in keeping with most sequels, which promise to go bigger and bolder than their predecessors. Rarely does this result in a better film, but it does sometimes yield perfectly solid films that probably didn’t need to exist in the first place. So it is with Poltergeist II, a completely serviceable and sometimes riotously entertaining follow-up to a genuine classic. You could certainly do worse than a sequel that’s respectful enough not to tarnish the legacy, even if the gist of its plot is “more weird shit happens to The Freelings.”

Specifically, it’s been a year since the events that sent the family fleeing from their Cuesta Vista subdivision in the first film. They’ve* since moved in with Diane’s mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in nearby Phoenix, having mostly moved on with their lives (they’re understandably still a little spooked about investing in a new TV, though). Even Carol Anne seems to be back to normal—at least until she runs into a mysterious, sinister reverend (Julian Beck) at the local mall, thus triggering the return of the malevolent forces that terrorized the family in the first film.

It’s kind of nakedly obvious approach that all but announces this story had few viable directions to take. Maybe a more creative person than myself could dream up one, but it seems like the only options were to have the same shit happen to the same family or have the same shit happen to a different family. And that most horror sequels had revolving doors for cast members during this era, keeping the Freelings along for the ride actually seems like the more unconventional choice of the two.

Doing so also all but guarantees that Poltergeist II would take another familiar approach by pulling the curtain back on the mysterious evil from the previous film. The script accomplishes this with a literal excavation, as a crew has been investigating the hole beneath the Freelings’ home, particularly a hidden cave full of corpses. When Native American shaman Taylor (Will Simpson) visits the site at the behest of a returning Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), he uncovers a horrifying truth that he must carry to the Freelings. This embellishment to the mythology—the grisly backstory involving Reverend Kane—is the most infamous and noteworthy element about this sequel, and it’s just intriguing enough to justify its existence.

Most of that owes to the transcendent performance by Beck as Kane, who might have been one of the genre’s most iconic villains had he not debuted in a relatively underseen sequel (well, compared to the original—this one grossed a fraction at the box office). Hell, I’m tempted to bestow that status on him anyway just because he’s a bone-chilling old fucker, one who’s scary in that very specific way that unsettles small children. Like The Tall Man, he’s the ultimate childhood boogeyman, a seemingly kindly old man twisted into a Satanic avatar for death. Forget Santa Claus: we should start threatening children a visit from Reverend Kane if we want to keep them in line during the year. Everything about Kane is designed to unsettle, from his gaunt, skull-like visage to the unnerving evangelical lilt in Beck’s voice. Any charges about the redundant or perfunctory nature of Poltergeist II are single -handedly rebutted by Kane’s presence.

The rest of Poltergeist II is pretty solid, too. Williams and Craig T. Nelson’s return as Diane and Steve brings an immediate gravitas and continuity: the Freelings are as amiable as ever, and one of the film’s more unsettling scenes—wherein a possessed Steve assaults his wife—plays off of their relative stability. It’s an effective little burst of Amityville-style energy that’s genuinely disturbing in this context. Once again, the underlying subtext here involves an ideal suburban family coming undone at the seams, torn apart by disquieted spirits from the past that won’t rest.

In this case, however, the nature of those spirits is specified, and it’s sort of interesting that it prominently features a Native American. For whatever reason, everyone recalls the original film involves an “Indian burial ground” when it most certainly does not. Part of me wonders if this can’t be attributed to Taylor’s presence in this sequel, especially the sequences involving his native rituals. But even this actually reverses the long-held misconception about Poltergeist: in this sequel, Taylor helps to reclaim his people's reputation by revealing the truth about Kane’s band of ill-fated pilgrims. Where history suggested that a Native tribe massacred this band of people, the truth is more sinister: ever the doomsday fanatic, Kane actually convinced his followers to stay below ground and starve to death in an evangelical fervor. In a roundabout way, the Freelings—who earlier wonder aloud if they were ever radical hippies—do their part to set the record straight.

You might have to squint, but it’s nice that Poltergeist II manages to be faintly about something, especially when so much of it is clearly dedicated to orchestrating another special effects spectacle. In some ways, it’s almost as if everyone involved keyed in on the haywire funhouse vibe of the original and set out to recreate it in grand fashion. Only this time, Spielberg’s stewardship has been replace by the spirit of Charles Band: sometimes, Poltergeist II feels like the gonzo, big budget extravaganza Full Moon or Empire could never produce. An assortment of horrors--dolls springing to life, a boy’s braces going absurdly haywire, a chainsaw becoming sentient—is unleashed on the audience, who are invited to both delight in and recoil from the on-screen wizardry.

Never is this contradiction more clear than a sequence that finds Steve vomiting up an oversized tequila worm that shuffles across the floor as a goop-soaked mutant. It’s a show-stopping brainchild courtesy of a deranged art direction and effects team that boasts everyone from H.R. Giger to Screaming Mad George. Given that these combined departments are the size of a small army, it’s no wonder Poltergeist II lives and dies by how much wild shit it’s flinging at the screen, and it keeps this commitment all the way to the climactic trip to The Other Side. Unfortunately, this sequence only confirms the effectiveness of the original film’s approach since it’s mostly revealed to be an ethereal plane haunted by dodgy, corny optical effects work. The half-hearted, anticlimactic nature of the whole thing betrays the fact that this wasn’t the original ending at all, as the film just kind of limps to its credits. In the end, all it has to offer (in addition to an extended glimpse of The Other Side) is the entire family rescuing Carol Anne instead of just Diane.

Still, I suppose Poltergeist II has enough going for it that helps it land among that class of sequels that work well enough, even if they never had much of a chance of equaling their predecessors, much less topping them. Considering that nearly a third of the film was lopped off and some scenes re-ordered, it’s a wonder the film is even coherent; that it’s breezily entertaining is perhaps even more surprising. Then again, if all “lesser” sequels delivered memorable villains like Kane and boasted a “vomit creature” in their credits, we wouldn’t necessarily be immediately skeptical of them. Hell, I wish the ill-advised Poltergeist remake had anything during its actual runtime that was as cool as reading “vomit creature” in the credits for this sequel.

*Well, minus oldest daughter Dana, whose existence is retconned because actress Dominique Dunne was murdered just before the release of the original film. Did you realize her killer didn't even serve four years in jail before he was released and went on to have a successful career as a chef? I can never stop thinking of this whenever I watch a Poltergeist movie anymore.

The disc:

Despite having already been released to Blu-ray before, the Poltergeist sequels have been ripe for the Scream Factory treatment. The previous releases were practically barebones (not to mention hastily slapped together in a double feature release just ahead of the remake) and sourced from old transfers, both of which are rectified here with a new 2K restoration of the interpositive and a wealth of newly-produced supplements. As is always the case with production of a Poltergeist movie, there’s plenty of drama to sort through (though none of it approaches the level of the Hooper/Spielberg debates of the original).

Separate commentary tracks with write Michael Grais and Poltergeist fan site webmaster David Furtney sort through many of the issues here. Don’t expect much dirt-digging and mudslinging or anything of that nature—faults are acknowledged, but this is mostly fond reminiscing. The same is true for the newly produced interviews with actor Oliver Robins, special effects designers Richard Edlund, Steve Johnson, and Mr. Screaming Mad himself (who is still proud of the aforementioned vomit monster).

A third round of interviews with Giger's agent and friend Les Barney focuses exclusively on the artist's contributions to the film, particularly how they were mostly limited to the design phase. It turns out he never quite took to the effects as they were realized on screen because he barely had any input at that stage, a revelation that probably counts as the harshest criticism offered on this release. The bevy of Giger sketches and artwork revealed in this segment make it the most of interesting of the three new interviews, which are about an hour long in total.

A further glimpse at the Poltergeist II that could have been is offered with an electronic copy of the shooting script's fourth draft, which includes some excised material. The rest of the disc is your typical promotional material: a 6-minute vintage EPK from ’86, a trailer, TV spots, and stills galleries. Of course, it should be noted that if these were the only supplements, they’d still outnumber the previous disc’s offerings. Once again, Scream Factory has done what a film’s rights holders have been hesitant to do for years (even the DVDs for the sequels didn’t feature many extras), and it should delight longtime Poltergeist fans.
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