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A Bloody Good Time 9.04.08: Poltergeist Franchise Breakdown

September 4, 2008 | Posted by Joseph Lee

Welcome to A Bloody Good Time. Not much fan mail last week, when I discussed the career of George A. Romero. I did get some questions from Andrew Crow:

No mention of the NotLD remake? He produced it while Tom Savini directed it. It’s actually great, as far as remakes go. Not as groundbreaking as the first, not even too gory, but the acting is surprisingly good (thanks mostly to genre-favorite Tony Todd). There’s enough twists and turns on the original to keep it fresh, too […] Also, no talk about his rejected screenplay (and how it was a million times better than what we got) for Resident Evil? Or directing the TV commercials for Resident Evil 2? Or even his influence on the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright duo, and how he gave them his blessing for Shaun of the Dead?

No I didn’t mention these things. I was mainly focusing on Romero’s directing career, and didn’t feel it was necessary to mention those things. Sure he produced the remake of Night of the Living Dead, but that movie was Savini’s baby.

I said in last week’s column that I would cover another horror icon. Well, I lied. This week it’s another franchise breakdown! Not only that, but this one is cursed!

Before I really get into it, I should direct you over to Series Link, Arnold Furious’ new column. If you like my franchise breakdowns, you’ll love this, as he does the same thing only with other films besides horror. They’re in depth and well-written.

I’m talking about the Poltergeist franchise. Three movies, one television series and a ton of death and misfortune. Not only will I cover the franchise, but I will talk about the curse as well, as it seems approrpriate. It seems even more so now that it’s officially being remade. I don’t approve of this, because the original has aged very well and is still frightening. However, nothing is sacred anymore and so I’m just accepting it. I’ve heard it could be a sequel/remake, similar to the upcoming Friday the 13th reboot. It’s still in the early stages so who knows what will happen? One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t sign up to be a part of it. Not because it’s a remake, but because of the curse. I’ll get to that later. I should add the only thing I won’t cover is the television series, because I’ve mentioned that in previous columns before.

They’re here!

The first of the films was Poltergeist(1982). The original is always the best in a series and this is no exception to that rule. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), this is the movie Spielberg referred to as the “suburban nightmare”. It opened a week after E.T: The Extra-Terestrial, which he called the “suburban dream”. The movie starred Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Heather O’Rourke. The movie starts out simple enough. An all-American family moves into the suburbs and have a normal, calm peaceful life. Until their little girl Carol Anne starts talking to the “tv people” and strange things begin happening. Soon Carol Anne vanishes into the spirit world and the Freelings have to get her back and escape the hell their home has become.

It’s a very simple movie in the fact that it doesn’t hardly ever leave the house, and the entire story builds and builds on a supernatural level until the very end when the house is sucked into the netherworld. It’s this gradual building (which starts with chairs moving, a fairly tame beginning) that culminates in a wild ending and at this time you’re behind the Freelings and just want them to get the hell out. This is done with the great performances from the cast, the superb direction of Hooper as well as the amazing special effects that still hold up now. Considering the movie is twenty-six years old, that’s amazing.

Critics loved the film as well. Most loved the family aspect of it, how this one family holds together in spite of the most overwhelming circumstances. Others enjoyed the scares and special effects. It has an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. Financially, it was one of the biggest hits of 1982. With a budget of nearly 11 million, the film went on to make seven times that amount with a little change. It was a huge success, and of course this warranted a sequel, a practice which was becoming commonplace in the eighties.

They’re back!

Poltergeist II: The Other Side(1986) picks up right where the original left off. The house is gone, and has exposed a cave with a lot of dead skeletons. Tangina sends Will Sampson (who plays the man known as Taylor) to protect the Freelings as she feels they may not be safe. Carol Anne’s grandmother begins to notice she has a gift for psychic abilities and tells her she should hone it, right before she dies. This is just the start to the strange events as a mysterious man begins stalking them. Reverend Henry Kane, who is clearly established in the beginning as evil and a ghost. Taylor tells the Freelings it is their strength that hurts the spirits and they must stick together if they want to save Carol Anne and send Kane back where he came from.

The Other Side features some new additions to the plot, such as Taylor, Kane, the reason the spirits want Carol Anne and the fact that she’s apparently psychic. It also featured more monster effects and a special-effects filled journey into the otherworld (hence the title) that was a little too hokey for audiences. It’s still a fairly decent picture in it’s own right, however. While the spiritual subplot and final climax leave a lot to be desired, those who are against the sequel will miss a very unsettling performance by Julian Beck and the return of most of the same cast (except Dominique Dunne). So the good acting from the original is still present here, as everyone tries their best to make a movie on par with it’s predecessor.

Critics for the most part didn’t enjoy The Other Side. It has a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most reviews dismiss it as tedious with a bad ending, even if there is some good there. Financially it didn’t fare as well as the original, but it still made double it’s budget, which goes in it’s favor. It can be said this wrote a nice little chapter onto the original story. We know why the spirits want Carol Anne and where they came from. Now the Freelings are even stronger and their bond will stop any future attempts to capture the little girl because her family will protect her.

Until MGM decided they wanted another sequel, that is. Poltergeist III arrived in 1988. This film already had some strikes against it. First of all, how do they put Carol Anne in danger again? Send her to live with other relatives. This was helped by the fact that hardly any of the original cast returned, Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubenstein being the exceptions. The second being that the “curse” was in full effect at this time, hurting the film’s production in a crucial way. Once again, more on that later. Carol Anne has now been sent to live with her aunt and uncle, which makes no sense given the fact she’s supposed to be in a really strong family now. Henry Kane is once again trying to capture her, now that she isn’t protected. This time he’s played by Nathan Davis. Carol Anne has to be saved again, this time from the spirits using mirrors and a huge apartment building to get her.

I liked Poltergeist III for what it was, even if production problems basically screwed the film over. It’s nowhere near the quality of the original (or the sequel) but it’s still better than 85% of the horror films these days. Critics hated it, giving it almost unanimous negative reviews. It also barely earned back it’s budget, so audiences were apparently tired of it too. This was the final death blow to the franchise, as the curse had been trying to kill it off already.

Yes I know, I’ve mentioned the curse a lot. Do you not believe in curses? That’s fine. Neither do I. I do believe in this one, however, and there’s enough evidence to suggest it’s not merely coincidence. It started out with little things at first, things that could either be made up or just trivial. JoBeth Williams claims her pictures in her house were askew when she returned from the set. The house used for the Freeling home was damanged in an earthquake in 1994, things like that. But other events are more sinister. The prop skeletons were real skeletons, which angered the cast. A set in Poltergeist III was destroyed by fire. The mechanical clown in the original malfunctioned and actually choked the actor.

Then there are the deaths.

Oh yes, the Poltergeist series is known for having an unusually death rate for those who star in it. This what I meant when I said I wouldn’t want to be involved with the remake. There are coincidental deaths, such as director Brian Gibson (The Other Side) dying of bone cancer in 2004 and a girl who starred in a commercial with Heather O’Rourke being murdered at age 10. While tragic, those can be shrugged off as nothing to do with the movies.

But how can you shrug off the deaths of four major cast members, who all died while the trilogy had yet to be completed? First is Dominique Dunne, who played Carol Anne’s sister. She died shortly after the release of the original film, in a very horrific way. She was murdered by her boyfriend, via strangulation. Not only that, but the guy only served two and a half years…for murder! When they made the sequel, this is why she wasn’t present. They simply wrote her out and went on.So next two more actors died. Will Sampson, who played Taylor, blessed the set in order to remove alien spirits. In 1987 he died of post-operative kidney failure. He was only fifty-three. Julian Beck, who played the demonic Henry Kane, died in the middle of production due to complications with stomach cancer.

Finally, there was what most consider the most tragic death of the series. During the production of Poltergeist III, Heather O’Rourke died at the age of 12 due to septic shock. In case you’re wondering, not many people die of septic shock these days. It was believed to have been caused by an acute bowel obstruction. The most random of deaths and the star of the series was taken. Needless to say, this hurt the production of the film severely and they had to alter a good portion of it and film the end with a body double.

So sure, maybe you can still say they were coincidences. But if I were trying to bring back Poltergeist, well I wouldn’t try to bring it back, actually. I wouldn’t be surprised if the marketing for a new movie played up the curse and made up “incidents” that occured on set. Curse or no curse, this series had a high death rate. Just something to think about.

Remember, The 100 Greatest Horror Films Ever Made list is coming. While you wait, next week I’ll be presenting a column that looks at remakes you should actually be excited about. See you next week.

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Joseph Lee
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