Poltergeist II: The Other Side is sound and fury signifying nothing, a good-looking special effects show that contains no less than a flying chainsaw, a set of killer braces and a creature excised from the human body through vomiting, yet it can’t find a cohesive foothold to string any of those ideas together. Then again perhaps they couldn’t. How exactly do you build a narrative that leads to killer braces?
It isn’t exactly news to report that Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a sequel to the hit 1982 thriller, but the surprising news is that this movie does everything wrong that the original film got right. Like The Exorcist, key to the success of Poltergeist was that the characters were so grounded in reality that when the supernatural stuff started to happen, it leant the special effects a degree of credibility. This sequel goes the other way around so we feel the effects but the characters are simply there to be knocked around.
That’s too bad because Poltergeist is one of the rare horror films that actually earns the right to a sequel by virtue of ending on a note so melodramatic that we might have been disappointed if someone didn’t find a way to get that family out of their funk. That film, you will recall, ended with the Freeling family fleeing their house as dead bodies popped out of the ground before the house was sucked into oblivion. The family, now homeless, checked into the Holiday Inn.
As much as Poltergeist II: The Other Side is valid enough to continue their story, it does not, however, live up to the original. The story is silly and the characters feel like cardboard cut-outs, with witty little jokey dialogue, when it isn’t laced with supernatural hoo-ha. The supernatural stuff in the original was mounted on a semi-plausible idea: their house was mounted on the grounds of a relocated cemetery. Here there’s some nonsense about protection from evil forces and the protective force of the family bond. This is filtered through Indian mystical nonsense and something about a 200 year old religious sect that wants Carol Anne’s life force back on “the other side”. Whatever.
The story picks up a year later, which is a problem because the two movies were produced four years apart. That means that the little blonde Carol Anne, who was five years-old in the original is six now and played by Heather O’Rourke, who is actually nine. That gives us the agonizing sight of watching a nine year-old playing a six-year old. Why not just set the movie four years later?
Anyway, the story deals once again with the Freeling family, Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), and the kids Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne. The teenage daughter Dana is absent here and never mentioned. They have moved in with Grandma (Geraldine Fitzgerald) after their house was sucked into oblivion. Naturally, Dad refuses to buy a TV.
The hole where their house once stood is under investigation by the medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein) and a Native American mystic named Taylor (Will Sampson) because “there’s a presence.” What that “presence” is steps on the premise of the original film. In the earlier film, it was explained that a real estate company made a strange decision to uproot the cemetery without moving the bodies.
Now we learn that a 19th century cult sealed itself inside a cave at the urging of an evil minister named Henry Kane. Kane is alive and well and stalking around trying to capture little Carol Anne and take her back to the other side. It is hard to figure out exactly what Kane is, whether he’s a spirit or some kind of satanic manifestation. We never know. There’s some suggestion that he can manifest himself into a different forms but that is never really explained either. This movie is one long series of loose-ends.
The movie is also one long series of special effects for their own sake. Hardly a scene in this movie isn’t crafted without one. The back half of the movie is a strange venture into the mystical world that seems to be neither here nor there. Somehow the family does battle with the forces of evil by using their strong family lifeforce – nevermind the fact that one of their numbers, 17 year-old, Dana is missing. Somehow they enter the netherworld through a multi-colored Indian campfire, and I was never completely sure how they got out. I suppose I wasn’t supposed to ask. It’s a sad day when the only way to enjoy a movie is to stop questioning its overwhelming gaps in logic.
The one thing that does work here is the performance of Julian Beck as Henry Kane. Dressed in the vestments of an 19th century minister, his face is skeletal with large teeth beared over curled lips. His voice is slippery and unnerving. There is something about his presence that, in a better movie, could have really come to something. He shows signs of what the movie could have been. More priest and less family bonding might have helped. You know what would have been a great sequel? This family in therapy.