Making film trilogies is a tricky business. No matter how much promise your first film might show, replicating that success twice very rarely works out, whether it’s a planned trilogy or just a film with two sequels. Even The Godfather came across problems when it came to Part III, even if it’s nowhere near as disappointing as popular opinion likes to paint it. So what hope for a trilogy of horror films, that genre where so little effort seems to get put in when it comes to sequels? And that’s even before a curse comes along…
Poltergeist is one of the best horror films ever made, in my opinion. It combines the skills of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (with reports claiming the latter did a lot more directing than the former) to be both a convincing horror story and a convincing tale of an all-American family in extraordinary circumstances. The Freelings start off seeming like a perfectly normal happy family in a perfectly lovely suburban neighbourhood, watching sports, dealing with dead pets and never, ever shutting their curtains. Even with the world’s scariest tree right outside the bedroom where the young kids sleep. But anyway…
Their descent into a nightmarish world of poltergeists, evil trees, pint-sized ghostbusters and floating corpses thus is dealt with really well to be both scary and affecting, taking the audience along with them throughout. It was a big success for these reasons, so obviously a sequel was going to be made. However, it didn’t take long for the series of films to develop a reputation of being cursed, with elder sister Dominique Dunne having been murdered by her boyfriend only months after the first film was released.
Despite this, the rest of the family returned for Poltergeist II, as did Zelda Rubinstein as the wonderfully eccentric medium Tangina. It also brought in a face for the evil, the frankly terrifying Reverend Kane, played by Julian Beck, as well as adding a touch of Native American mysticism for good measure. There’s apparently some controversy around the ‘retconning’ of the reasons behind the haunting, but it’s really more of a deeper look into it, which is what you’d expect from a sequel, surely.
A lot of the ingredients in this sequel were really good, particularly as it still focused on the relationships within the family more than the ghosts, with Craig T Nelson doing some of his best-ever work as the dad coming to terms with his inability to protect his wife and children. Beck’s suitably haunting performance as Kane came at a price though, as he was dying of cancer while making the film and passed away before completing it. His character had to be replaced by an H.R. Giger-designed ‘Beast’ for the closing scenes, which pretty much makes the scare factor evaporate, really weakening the overall film.
By the time the third film came around, someone really should have realised that it was time to let these ghosts lie. Not only had Julian Beck passed away, but Will Sampson (who played Native American mystic Taylor in the sequel) had also died, and child star Heather O’Rourke was suffering from what had been misdiagnosed as Crohn’s disease. With the writers from the first two films and the rest of the Freeling family all not returning, it’s hard to see what made anyone think Poltergeist III would be worthwhile making.
But made it was, and they really did try to make it work. A decent replacement family was brought in (Carol-Anne’s aunt and her family), with Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen and Lara Flynn Boyle all capable of better than they had to deal with on this film. But one of the main, crippling weaknesses is that Reverend Kane is still the bad guy, but has to be shown and heard in fairly anonymous ways because obviously he wouldn’t look or sound like the late Beck. So, from being genuinely scary in the second film, Kane is almost hilariously unscary in III.
The final strike of the curse was the most tragic. O’Rourke, still only 12, had been ill throughout filming and died after suffering a cardiac arrest caused by septic shock on February 1st 1988. The film had been finished by then, but a new ending was demanded and filmed a month later, resulting in a feeble finale to the trilogy where neither Carol-Anne or Reverend Kane are properly shown, with a body double replacing O’Rourke and keeping her face turned away from the cameras, presumably hoping no-one would notice.
Making film trilogies is a tricky business, and the Poltergeist trilogy is proof that sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort when there’s been so much adversity and actual human tragedy.
- Poltergeist – 1982 (mylibrarycardworeout.wordpress.com)