Judge Ike Oden is in love with anything regurgitated by Craig T. Nelson.
It's been a year since the Freeling family experienced the nomadic haunting of the original Poltergeist. They now live with their grandmother (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dark Victory), who possesses psychic powers not unlike her ghost magnet granddaughter, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). With the arrival of a malevolent preacher, Kane (Julian Beck, The Cotton Club), the paranormal pests returns to terrorize the family. Luckily for the Freelings, their former psychic savior Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein, Warlock II: The Armageddon) is back on the case, this time handing over the ghost wrestling reigns to Native American spiritualist Taylor (Will Sampson, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). Meanwhile, Taylor's intentions are met with hostility from patriarch Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson, Coach), whose feelings of inadequacy threaten the bond of the family, leaving them more vulnerable to poltergeist attacks than ever.
Poltergeist, like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, tried to be the ultimate experience in haunted house films. It was a suburban funhouse of terrors that was expertly directed, well acted, and utterly terrifying throughout. Part of the scariness of Poltergeist can be attributed to as the sense that the ghostly villains could do almost anything, from possess inanimate objects to open dimensional portals to create nightmarish hallucinations. Being utterly intangible villains with mysterious motivations, audiences were able to accept almost anything thrown at them. With this sense of freedom, producer Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) expertly stacked the deck of scares against the rich ensemble cast, crafting a powerhouse film with equal amounts of familial heart and ectoplasmic horror.
With this in mind, Poltergeist II was destined to fall short of the original. Not only is there no story or realistic character development, there are hardly any substantial scares. When compared to the virtual scare-a-minute ratio of its predecessor, Poltergeist II comes off as kid stuff in comparison. Director Brian Gibson (The Juror) and original Poltergeist scribes Mark Victor and Michael Grais earn points for focusing on the backstory of the titular ghosts, but seem to miss the point that the less known about the malevolent spirits, the creepier they were.
Like a tornado or an earthquake, the Freeling's original haunting came on like a natural disaster that could have happened to anyone unlucky enough to be living in their house. The explanation for the events never made a lick of sense, but it didn't matter—the ghosts were pissed off and they wanted Carol Anne for their own, striking in a storm of psychic fury.
Poltergeist II alleviates the force-of-nature motif in favor of a flesh and bone villain in the form of Reverend Kane. See, he led his congregation to a grisly fate underneath what used to be the family Freeling's old house, hence he's returned from the grave to terrorize them. Or something. Julian Beck is suitably ghastly as Kane, recalling Phantasm's undead Tall Man with a little bit of Roger Mitchum's Night of the Hunter preacher mixed in for good measure. It's too bad the filmmakers never really give Kane the opportunity to do anything more than ape the aforementioned horror icons as he pursues Carol Anne. Kane skulks around a lot, sings ominous hymns and tries to corrupt various members of the family, but never accomplishes anything beyond endowing the Poltergeist franchise with an unnecessary mascot.
It doesn't help matters that the mascot's motivations remain unclear. Why exactly does Kane need Carol Anne? How Native American spiritualist Taylor stands in his way? I still have no idea, though Will Sampson does his best to explain it all with cryptic New Age dialogue. Sampson doesn't seem to mind since he's given the opportunity to steal so many scenes; usually by verbally sparring Craig T. Nelson's Steve Freeling. Nelson delivers typically fine work, carrying the weaknesses of the script with good-guy warmth we love him for. The rest of the cast sort of drifts in and out of the film looking confused. JoBeth Williams seems especially uncommitted, though who can blame her when all the script allows her to do is look worried, scared, and scream. Heather O'Rourke is the only supporting actor who stays on the ball, throwing out a one-two punch of onscreen precociousness with enough consistency to melt even the deadest of horror fan heart. Most disappointingly, Zelda Rubenstein is relegated to an expository cameo. One assumes she asked for a bigger paycheck this time around and got her part cut back in during pre-production. Geraldine Fitzgerald stands in for her, but is removed from the narrative to early to make a substantial impact.
So the acting's uneven, the story's uneven, and the scares are few and far between. What makes Poltergeist II worth slogging through?
How about some badass, Academy Award nominated special effects by Richard Edlund (Ghostbusters, Fright Night)? The film sort of sucks, yes, but I defy anyone not to enjoy the miraculous wonders of such animatronic works of art as the Tequila Worm Monster. This grotesque phallus is painfully coughed up by a drunken Craig T. Nelson in the film's most jaw-dropping and brainlessly fun sequence. As created by Edlund, the demon is a cancerous, mono-eyed thing that represents the worst of Steve Freeling's frustrated fatherhood. The effect has haunted me since first seeing the Poltergeist II on television as a kid. It's gooey, icky, squishy, slithery, and would probably more at home in an H.P. Lovecraft tale than a Poltergeist sequel, but that's more of a compliment to Edlund's effects than it is a criticism. Other eye popping delights include possessed braces (returning actor Oliver Smith's only substantial set piece), levitating chainsaws (an obvious nod to Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and a considerable measure of octogenarian zombies. Though they hold up pretty well, it must be noted that none of these sequences ever top the simple pleasure of the Tequila Worm Monster, a truly tough SFX act to follow that looks pretty nifty hi-def.
Speaking of hi-def, MGM churns out Poltergeist II on Blu-ray as a lazy, bare bones disc. The 2.35:1/1080p high definition transfer isn't all that good, sporting some decent color and passable blacks, but lacking in overall visual clarity and detail. Thankfully the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a relatively clear mix with some decent effects and a full sounding Jerry Goldsmith score. There are no bonus features aside from an obligatory trailer.
I can only recommend Poltergeist II on Blu-ray to the most ardent fans of the franchise. The disc feels like an upconverted DVD that MGM dumped out in time for Halloween. If that's the case that could have at least thrown Poltergeist III in along with it. After all, the pair debuted on DVD as a modestly priced double feature. Since MGM refuses, they force fans have to cash in again for the studio's inevitable double dipping.
Guilty, but Tequila Worm Monster is acquitted for gross behavior.
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