Yikes! I had reasonably positive memories of the original Tobe Hooper/ Steven Spielberg production of Poltergeist from 1982; a ghost train ride for sure, with plentiful bangs, flashes and carefully posed skeletons. But I’d never set eyes on the two sequels until now, when they dropped on Freevee, the imdb’s channel of Conference League movies not quite ready for prime-time and interrupted with ads at the most annoying possible moments, like six minutes from the end in the final scene. Considering the high profile of the original film, and its obvious influence on the Conjuring and Insidious franchises, it might seem surprising that the Poltergeist franchise is so unpopular, but a look at these movies reveals why….
Brian Gibson’s film is a straightforward legacy sequel; most of the original cast return as the Freeling family, who bought a house that turned out to be haunted by the spirits of the burial ground that was underneath it, as in Stephen King’s Pet Semetary. King’s 1983 book used a Native American burial ground as a striking metaphor for American land-grab/genocidal guilt but this sequel makes it its mission to avoid that potent racially-charged angle. So instead we have a laborious ret-con of the events of the first film; Will Sampson plays Taylor, a Native-American Indian who discovers that a bonkers religious evangelist named Kane (Julian Beck) murdered a group of children under what would become the Freeling house, and that’s the real reason for the haunting rather than revenge. That almost makes some kind of sense, since it explains the anomaly of why the Freelings are the only family on their street being harassed by the angry spirits; Diane (Jobeth Williams), Steve (Craig T Nelson) and Carol-Anne (Heather O’Rourke) are left to battle various supernatural gooulies with a little help from the family’s venerable Psychic Grandma (Geraldine Fitzgerald).
Yes, Psychic Grandma saves the day in a sentimental, icky finale in which the Freeling family believe they have finally and forever lost their daughter to the evil spirits, only to find that the last minute intervention of their Psychic Grandma has saved the family; who would have seen that coming? In general, Poltergeist II sticks closely to the first film’s structure, doing most of the same spooky things but not as well. Steve has developed a drinking problem, as you do when you’re necking tequila out of a bottle, and a worm gets lodged in his throat before metaphormosing into an HR Giger creation that might look cool if it wasn’t for the awful matte lines appearing around it in the cheap-looking finale.
As least Poltergeist II seeks to address the urban-lore assumption that Native-American spirits are the bad guys; that’s about the only thing that works here. As the Freelings incongruously emerge laughing and joking from the sinkhole that their house collapses into in the first film, they can agree that the real poltergeist was inside all of them all along, and they’ve never had a better family outing that they did when wrestling with skeletons in a hole full of mud. Most of the talent involved here didn’t return for Poltergeist III, and neither did the audience, but thanks to the magic of streaming, we’re all headed back to The Other Side in the next few days…