[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 24 – Poltergeist III (1988)

Director: Gary Sherman
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein
Screenplay: Gary Sherman, Brian Taggert
98 mins. Rated PG-13.

The Poltergeist franchise is one of the most iconic and recognizable franchises in horror history, which is interesting as it only spanned three films. Most of the heavy-hitters of the horror realm come from lengthy franchises like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, or even Saw and Paranormal Activity. Poltergeist has a lot of history, though, for three films, and the impact it had on cinema cannot be overlooked. Poltergeist is also of a select group of horror franchises that have just as much discussion of what happened behind the camera as they did in front of the camera. The Poltergeist franchise is considered a cursed group of films. We’re going to break down the final film of the Poltergeist franchise, the one that holds the most heartbreak, today as we continue with the 31 Days of Horror, so let’s not waste any time.

Some time after the events of the previous film, Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke, Surviving, Believe You Can…And You Can!) has been sent to live her with Uncle Bruce (Tom Skerritt, Alien, Ted) and Aunt Patricia (Nancy Allen, Carrie, RoboCop) in the big city, where she’s able to go to a special center for gifted children. Tensions are high because Patricia doesn’t want Carol Anne living with them. Carol Anne is being tested by Dr. Seaton, who believes her stories of ghosts and the paranormal are a fabrication, and when he pushes her to her limits, her location is discovered by Reverend Kane, who was trapped on the other side. Now, Kane’s found Carol Anne, and he’s determined to have her by any means necessary.

The screenplay for Poltergeist III bolsters a lot of great ideas and concepts, but it is a little rocky in its execution of those ideas. There’s this amazing Mirror theme running through the film, but it kind of comes out of nowhere and it seems to be the only thing Kane has at his disposal. Did he use mirrors in such a way before, and why does he only use them throughout this attempt? Then, there’s the repeat offense of everyone shouting everyone else’s name constantly. In fact, “Carol Anne” is spoken in dialogue 121 times in the movie, so don’t plan on any drinking games for that one. I also liked the idea of Dr. Seaton, a rare human antagonist in this series, but in no way do I believe that this man should or would have a job at this center for gifted children. He’s quite an asshat, but that’s the way he’s written.

Then, there’s the mixture of the new characters and lack of returning players. As it stands, O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein (Sixteen Candles, Southland Tales) are the only returning performers this time around. I guess you could also count Kane, who is returning with a new actor due to the death of the previous performer after the second film, but that’s all we have for our known characters, and we miss the rest of the Freelings. There’s a notable absence for this family, and their replacements are a little hit-and-miss. Skerritt is fine for Uncle Bruce, but Nancy Allen’s Patricia is insufferable for a good amount of screen time. Not the actress’s performance, but again due to the poor screenwriting choices, she is almost too unlikable to root for when the film demands it later on.

As a director, I found Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried, Death Line) to be rather exciting and ambitious. He wanted to shoot in the real John Hancock Center where the film was set, and he was allowed to on the agreement that he not disturb any of the tenants, so he went into full planning mode and took two months to schedule and figure how to accomplish this feat (it was later heard that most tenants never even knew a movie was filming at all in the building). The effect is rather spectacular, as the new set does have a lot to play with, and Sherman’s concepts, however clunkily written, worked pretty well in the new location.

Sherman also elected to focus entirely on in-camera special effects work. Poltergeist III was coming up in the time of great strides for CGI, and Sherman felt it necessary to meticulously plot out his sequences so that they could be done live. There’s an element of magician how-did-they-do-that to the finished product, and I found myself really enticed and drawn in by the set pieces.

As I mentioned earlier, a number of horrible incidents are tied to the cast and crew of the Poltergeist series. The most notable stain on Poltergeist III is the loss of Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. It was during post-production (just a month after her 12th birthday) that O’Rourke passed due to a misdiagnosis. Her loss was very difficult on the cast and crew, and Sherman had grown rather close to the young actress. He wanted to shelve the project for a little while, but the studio stepped in and forced him to finish work on the film. There were some planned reshoots to heighten a few scenes and aim for a PG-13 (the film had already gone through the MPAA process and received a PG), so Sherman had to work around his franchise star. If you’d like to know more, check out the incredible documentary series Cursed Films (Poltergeist had a Season 1 episode).

The reshoots added a lot of fluff to the ending, which ultimately dragged it on too long and lost me a bit. I’d be more interested to see Sherman’s original plan for the ending, as he was pretty ambitious with his ideas, and I’m sure they would look better. This makes me wonder because it seems that O’Rourke had shot the original ending, so where is it? #releasetheshermancut

Poltergeist III was a tough film, damaged by true life tragedy in a way that forever ties it to these sorrows. As a film itself, it suffers from a rough screenplay with great ideas that just didn’t execute as well as they could. Sherman tried his best, an ambitious undertaking that may have been stronger than his skillset at that time, but overall, this final entry in the saga is still rather intriguing, completely imperfect, and suffering from a lack of warmth that the entire Freeling family of the first two films contained. There are some pieces that work, some that don’t, and the film is a hodgepodge of these elements. I enjoyed it, but it’s probably the weakest entry, I’m sorry to say.

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, click here.
For my review of Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, click here.

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