Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Recent Watches: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

Being a genuine blockbuster and one of the most iconic horror films in a decade full of them, it’s inevitable that “Poltergeist” would get a sequel. It took three years before “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” began to haunt theaters. While most of the original cast could be assembled for the second film, directors Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg both passed. Instead, the sequel was handled by relatively unknown filmmaker Brian Gibson, whose most notable previous credit included a Styx music video. “The Other Side” was not as huge a hit as the preceding film but still did well at the box office and was nominated for an Academy Award. Today, it has a cult following separate from the original.

Despite a noticeable older Carol Anne, “The Other Side” picks up months after the original’s story. The Freeling family is living with Diane’s mother, eager to put the haunting experience of their previous home behind them. The grandmother has psychic powers and believes her daughter and granddaughter inherited them. Which doesn’t stop Grandma from dying of a sudden heart attack. Afterwards, a ghostly reverend named Kane attempts to gain entry into the house. Kane, turns out, was the leader of a religious cult who died decades ago in an underground cavern… Beneath the future location of Cuesta Verde. Now, the spirits have returned and will do anything to reclaim Carol Anne’s power.

“Poltergeist II” makes some controversial alterations to the original’s story. Retroactively changing the nature of the first film’s haunting, from simply a bevy of pissed-off spirits to an organized cult led by a mad villain, is one thing. More bothersome to me is the decision to make Carol Anne and her family special. That’s a mistake, you might notice, also made by the notorious “Exorcist II.” Horror runs on the random, on the idea that anyone – including the people in the audience – could be the target of malevolent forces. Making Diane Freeling’s mother clairvoyant makes it seem less unlikely that she’d be so freaked out by what happened last time. Carol Anne is no longer just a little girl. Now she’s straight-up magical. She’s a beacon of innocence and hope desired by the evil Kane. It changes the context a bit and not necessarily in a good way.

Another questionable addition “Poltergeist II” makes to the story is an element of Indian mysticism. Here in 2016, the troupe of the Magical Indian is largely discredited, thanks to a wider cultural sensitivity. This was clearly not the case in 1986. Taylor is an Indian shaman with an intuitive connection to the spirit world. Sent by Tangina to protect the Freelings, Taylor often delivers grave warnings about evil ghosts and Carol Anne’s growing power. When not doing that, he performs magical rituals, such as summoning butterflies. Taylor also contributes some questionable comic relief, involving the family car. Though played by prominent American Indian actor Will Sampson, who gets some okay pathos and humor out of the part, the character still seems like a potentially unneeded addition to the story. Why couldn’t Zelda Rubenstein’s Tangina have played a similar narrative role, considering she’s in the movie anyway?

For all its evident flaws, “Poltergeist II” still has fans. This is primarily because of the movie’s villain. The Beast of the first movie was more a concept then a concrete character, a malevolent force totally devoid of personality. Reverend Kane puts a face to the horrific hauntings. Moreover, Kane is incredibly fucking creepy. Kane is played by Julian Beck, an anarchist and founder of an experimental theater troupe, who was dying of stomach cancer during filming. This lends Kane a genuinely ghostly pallor, a sunken face and a gaunt body. There’s little overtly threatening about Kane yet something undeniably disquieting about him. Beck’s body language is unnerving, Kane twitching with a spooky energy. His delivery, which includes repeatedly singing an unsettling hymn, is primed for maximized creepiness. “Poltergeist II” may not be a great movie but Rev. Henry Kane certainly has his place in horror history.

While a simple spook show on one hand, the original “Poltergeist” also featured some brilliant moments of startling horror. The sequel has trouble topping this. Middle child Robbie’s braces grow out of control, pinning him to the ceiling with metal wires. While potentially playing off issues of bodily discomfort, the scene borders on comical. The sequel repeatedly uses the gag of corpse-like faces appearing in unexpected places. Zombie hands will yank Diane into the ground, appear in a mirror, or pop out of a closest. It’s mildly shocking once but the movie definitely returns to it too many times. The least effective gag in “Poltergeist II” is the actual poltergeist activity. Tools in a garage, including a chainsaw, come to life and float towards the family car. It’s silly. However, the sequel has at least one genuinely great moment. After downing a body of tequila, and swallowing the worm, father Stephen becomes possessed by Kane. Diane’s declaration of love forces the evil spirit out of him. He does this by vomiting out a giant worm like creature, which grows into a skeletal monster with Kane’s face. Now that’s a good gag!

The first film briefly featured Diane traveling through the ghostly world, reclaiming her daughter. The actual dimension was kept off-screen. As the subtitle promises, “Poltergeist II” shows us the other side. And it’s a pretty underwhelming sight. Told to confront the Beast on his own turf, the Freelings leap through a portal into the spirit world. Said world is mostly composed of glowing, swirling green and blue lines. The family floats through this odd place between the living and the dead. They are then handed a magic spear by Taylor which they use to vanquish Kane and his followers. The Beast’s final form was designed by H.R. Giger. The amalgamation of rotten flesh, black hair, and skeletal bodies is interesting but not Giger’s most inspired work. After being such an unsettling presence throughout the film, it’s disappointing to see Kane defeated so easily. The conclusion even borders on cheesy, once the angelic spirit of Carol Anne’s grandmother rescues her.

Thanks to Julian Beck’s incredibly creepy performance and an occasional inspired moment, some people recall “Poltergeist II” with fondness. At one point, I even preferred it to the original. Yet watching the two films back-to-back doesn’t due the sequel any favors. It lacks the bold scares of the first, has a less effective ending, and overemphasizes the theme of love conquering all. Still, Reverend Kane is a spooky bastard. That counts for something. [6/10]

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