‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’ (1986): Other side of what? Where’s the fright? Where are the scares?

So apparently there’s this sci-fi Smurf cartoon sequel out there right now in theaters that’s cleaning up at the b.o., but I swear I don’t know anyone who’s seen it. Why would they? Of course there’s no accounting for taste (for instance: Dwayne Johnson), but sequels are a favorite topic of discussion for fans (particularly within the horror genre) who love to debate their merits…and demerits.

By Paul Mavis

A few years back, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line released a spiffy 2K Blu transfer of Poltergeist II: The Other Side, the 1986 sequel to the 1982 Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg original. Directed by Brian Gibson, scripted by the original Poltergeist’s co-writers Mark Victor and Michael Grais, and starring original cast members JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, along with newcomers Will Sampson, Julian Beck, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, Poltergeist II: The Other Side didn’t blow anybody away in ’86, when it did just okay b.o. business, while critics sat on the sidelines and wrote, “Whatever.”

However, lots of kids saw Poltergeist II: The Other Side over the years on VHS and cable and now streaming, and that nostalgic pull—along with that phony verkakte “curse”—have kept it saleable long past its shelf life. Ironically, considering how today’s viewers have to “pay” for their horsesh*t “elevated horror” thrills with finger-wagging sermons, ideological lessons, and dour social allegories, something refreshingly disposable like Poltergeist II: The Other Side might stick around even longer.

Click to order Poltergeist II: The Other Side on Blu-ray:

It’s been a year now since the Freeling family escaped from their Cuesta Verde housing development in California, chased out of their upper middle-class suburban home by a marauding band of ghosts who threatened to pull their angelic daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) over into the “other side.” Now living with Diane’s (JoBeth Williams) psychic mother, Jessica (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in her big Craftsman in Phoenix, Arizona, Diane watches over Carol Anne and son Robbie (Oliver Robins), while her husband Steven (Craig T. Nelson), a former real estate whiz-turned-door-to-door vacuum salesman, struggles to find work.

Back at the Freeling’s empty Cuesta Verde lot—their home “missing” after collapsing into a cosmic vortex—psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) continues her work for the Freeling family, leading an archeological expedition beneath the Freeling property. What she finds there terrifies her enough (“Too much power,” in that stupid voice) to call in Taylor (Will Sampson), an Indian shaman who, after noting the skeletons found in the watery caverns, understands that the Freelings will not be safe in their new home. The ghosts will pursue them there, led by the “Beast,” Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck), a frightening figure with a murderous past, who wishes to possess the pure, divine spirit of Carol Anne.

I was in high school when the original Poltergeist came out; it was one of those fun, slam-bang summer “must see” popcorn movies that showed up with regularity back in the early 1980s, the kind of movie you didn’t mind lining up to see in a big theater. By the time Poltergeist II: The Other Side debuted in 1986, however, I don’t remember any of my friends in college—nor myself—demanding a return trip to the Freeling family.

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Perhaps it was the prolonged four-year gap in-between the two entries that dissipated that “must see” feeling. Maybe it was a lack of “stars” (previous unknowns Nelson and Williams kind of stayed that way after their big Spielberg break, at least in terms of becoming A-listers). Maybe it was the “cashing in” vibe that inevitably rises up whenever a big popular movie spawns a belated retread: a delayed copy naturally isn’t going to be as compelling as the original (the first Poltergeist was so perfectly contained storywise—what else were you going to do with that family…except the same thing?). All of those factors probably registered with me back then, but more than likely, the underwhelming box office reports and the slew of iffy-to-bad reviews were the main reasons keeping me away from Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Until it showed up fast on cable, that is, where it played cheap and contrived on that little 24-inch square tube.

Watching Poltergeist II: The Other Side now, it hasn’t really improved…although it looks a hell of a lot better with Shout!’s 2k restoration. Apparently it’s common knowledge among dedicated fans of the Poltergeist series that the sequels were extensively fiddled with by the studio after initial shooting. That’s certainly evident here in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, where continuity errors, obviously tacked-on fright scenes, and dead-end plotlines are unfortunately revealed in the sometimes choppy editing.

What’s curious is that no one seemed to have understood back then that with a movie like Poltergeist II: The Other Side, the moviemakers just needed to get on with it. The first Poltergeist was iconic. Everyone saw it. So you didn’t need a prolonged set up for the sequel. Just get the characters in place and crank up the scare machine but quick. Nobody was looking for subtlety or art here, least of all the ticket buyers.

Unfortunately, Poltergeist II: The Other Side takes far, far too long in reestablishing the Freeling family in their new unfamiliar surroundings, with lots and lots of talk and feel-good scenes and goofy spiritualism and spousal bantering (no doubt included to satisfy “serious actors” Williams’ and Nelson’s sense of self-importance), all of which is totally unnecessary to what this movie’s primary function should have been: scare the sh*t out of the paying customer. There’s a lot of noodling speechifying from these characters, but if the intention was to “grow” and expand them for the viewer, it failed (I already liked them from the first movie…now I have to like them even more?).

The loss of the empathetic Dr. Lesh character from the first movie (I couldn’t find why Beatrice Straight passed on the sequel) is clumsily filled by Will Sampson’s stereotypical wiser-than-wise, braver-than-brave, enigmatic-sounding one-liners-at-the-ready Indian shaman Taylor, whose inexplicable involvement with the Freeling family is justified with nothing more than a frankly ridiculous, “It’s my kind of job.” (with that kind of story logic, it’s a good thing Carol Ann didn’t speak to the dryer, or the Maytag Repairman might have shown up). We’re never told what previous connection he has with Reverend Kane (we assume it goes way back, implying Sampson’s character is immortal or something), nor does it make any sense that Sampson’s main purpose in the story is to re-teach the Freelings what they already learned the hard way in the first movie: family love conquerors all.

As for Poltergeist II: The Other Side’s central Kane storyline, boring dialogue exposition reveals it too quickly (gee, I love radio…but couldn’t you have shown us some of that backstory?), with the subliminal contrast between Sampson’s cosmic Indian/hippie spirituality and Kane’s insano Christian doomsday cultism making a facile juxtaposition that delivers zero food for thought (can Hollywood please retire the cliched “Indian-as-a-combination Superman, All-Knowing God-Head, and Star Child from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY” once and for all, for god’s sake?).

So, if Poltergeist II: The Other Side’s story and characters are wanting…hows about them spookums, huh? Decidedly tame, unfortunately. Importantly, Poltergeist II: The Other Side’s milieu—Grandma Jess’ spacious, spread-out Craftsman—just doesn’t lend itself to being believably besieged…or they just shot it wrong (the original’s bland, cookie-cutter Reagan-era mini-Mc-Split Level was a wonderfully bland canvas for the wild, evil spirits inhabiting it). TVs are out for the Freelings this go around, so Carol Ann’s little plastic toy phone is the new dopey gimmick for her communication with the spirit world (visually, the phone’s not frightening at all, compared to those creepy shots in the original, with Carol Ann bathed in snowy TV interference).

So where are the scares in Poltergeist II: The Other Side? Even though the sequel cost twice as much to make as the original (while ironically delivering not even half the amount of frights), most of the special effects look pretty chintzy, and not primarily because of the limitations of the practical and optical effects of that pre-CGI era. A prime example of this is that smoke demon in the opening scene; apparently visual consultant H.R. Giger’s original concept was far more elaborate than the wispy little nothing that fades across the screen for a second or two. The effect itself is fine (looks like smoke to me); it’s the design of the effect that’s lame.

Giger’s other two major concepts here—“The Great Beast” and the “Vomit Creature” are more successful…which isn’t saying a lot. Everyone remembers Nelson ralphing up that big wormy thing (it’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side’s best gag—sorry), but why didn’t they keep the camera on it just a little bit longer? Would it have killed director Brian Gibson to center in on that thing spinning around on the floor, or show that legless creature squirming around a bit more? I mean…that’s what we paid the money for: some scares.

As for the “Great Beast,” it’s too dark in that hallway to properly see it (the scale seems off, too), while the reverse happens on “the other side”—the Beast looks all too cut-rate (like one of the talking trees in H.R. Pufnstuf) with the green screen lines around it. And I can’t think of a less scary wrap-up for this story: the cast unconvincingly strung up on wires—your legs still obey gravity out there, huh?—floating around in a chirpy-bright, colorful miasma that looks like one of those Filmation backgrounds for an Archie Show musical interlude.

Too bad more of Poltergeist II: The Other Side couldn’t have been like the movie’s best scene, when a quietly menacing Kane visits the Freeling house, ultimately screaming through the screen door that they’re all going to die. It’s a pretty cool, unsettling scene, nicely shot and scored and perfectly enacted by genuine weirdo Julian Beck (and without an expensive special effect in sight). But unhappily, it’s an isolated island in Poltergeist II: The Other Side’s sea of relatively mundane, cheap tricks, a sea perfectly described, reportedly, by its star, Heather O’Rourke: “I just thought [Poltergeist II: The Other Side] was too boring. You could fall asleep. It didn’t excite me, it didn’t even scare me. I don’t think it would scare anyone.” You got it, Heather.


Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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