Second Chances: POLTERGEIST III is Simply Amazing

Second Chances is a column where our writers reflect on a movie that maybe they didn’t love the first time around…or even the second…but grew to love in the end.

Sometimes, your first impression ends up not being the correct one. I have seen my fair share of horror movies that I unabashedly love and adored from the first moment I laid my eyes upon them, whether it be the pure fun thrill ride and Kurt Russell at his most charming with Big Trouble in Little China, or the movie that started my love affair with my favorite horror icon, Jason Voorhees, with Friday the 13th. Then there are those horror movies that, after my initial viewing, I don’t have a particularly positive reaction to, and consider it a one-and-done viewing, a flick that I will most likely never revisit again. One such feature is a movie that I first watched back in the early/mid-90’s. This was around the time I was starting to truly develop my love of the genre and literally trying to get my hands on any horror film I could see. The film that I speak of is 1988’s Poltergeist III.

The Poltergeist trilogy initially sparked varying critical reactions from entry to entry. I am a huge fan of the original 1982 classic, with its funhouse thrills and genuine excitement and terror that was splashed across the screen from Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg, combining light hearted haunting sequences with some truly vivid and graphic scenes of terror and a family in peril. Poltergeist II: The Other Side was, at the time to me, just a semi-carbon copy of the original’s MO. While it did add a dash of a sinister menace named Kane (played with constant unease by Julian Beck) and some decent practical effects during a few sequences (Robbie’s battle with his braces and the tequila worm/monster scene involving Craig T. Nelson’s Steve come to mind), it all still came off as just a simple retread and cash grab by the studio to ride the success of the original. It also ended with one of the most hokey and tacky effects endings I could remember. As for the final entry, Poltergeist III, while it did shake up the formula in many ways, I ended up liking almost nothing about it upon first viewing. I wasn’t happy that no one was returning from the first two films outside of main protagonist, the youngest daughter Carol Anne, played by the late Heather O’Rourke, and the offbeat psychic Tangina, played by the late Zelda Rubinstein.

I just wasn’t invested or felt any real connection to the new characters it was presenting to me (the Gardner family, relatives of the Freeling family of the original two films), nor was I particularly interested in the new setting of a bland and generic high-rise building in Chicago, and I distinctly don’t remember being scared or thrilled by any sequence that was thrown at me throughout its scant 88-minute running time. I essentially forgot all about it after that day.

However, in recent years, I have been hearing from multiple sources, whether it be my favorite horror podcast, chat rooms, magazine articles or online reflection pieces, that Poltergeist III is a fantastic movie, extremely more entertaining that Part 2 and can ALMOST stand toe to toe with the original, and it was not getting the love that it truly deserves. I scoffed at the idea when I heard about it, but after hearing multiple different sources repeat the same mantra, I thought to myself “Did I see the right movie? Are these people mad?” So, a few months ago, I decided to revisit Poltergeist III with an open mind and was trying to see if I missed anything. After it’s conclusion, I decided to purchase the blu ray that Scream Factory released back in 2017. Yes, I can admit it now. I was wrong on Poltergeist III.

The plot revolves around poor little Carol Anne, still being terrorized and harassed by the spirits that she encountered in the first two movies, led by the sinister preacher Kane (now played by Nathan Davis, filling in for the late Julian Beck). Carol Anne now lives with her mom’s sister and family, the Gardner’s, in a ritzy and state-of-the-art high-rise complex in the busy metropolis of Chicago, and Kane has followed her all the way there, all in effort to bring her back to the other side and lead him and his fellow deceased souls to the light. While the plot is threadbare and just present to move from one set piece to another, that’s not the reason why I have such a newfound appreciation for this movie. This movie is one of the most expertly shot movies in terms of in-camera trickery and practical optical effects that I have ever seen in a motion picture and is the main crux of the current appreciation I have for this threequel. I can’t recall a horror movie that was able to accomplish so many amazing practical effects with so little money to go around.

Director Gary Sherman wisely decided against using any CGI effects in his movie, which could have looked real chintzy to the noticeably lower budget that was allocated to this film vs. the two previous entries, and apparently spent around a year storyboarding and designing the camera trickery that he wanted to pull off, all done within the camera lens. The theme of mirrors is utilized heavily throughout the movie, and these objects are used to portray amazing scenes, including having doubles recreate the actor’s movements while walking side-by-side with them and even building two of the same room to allow for variations between both scenes and create the illusion of a sinister reflection. It’s quite amazing to learn that these are not the doing of computers, but of true craftsmen of the genre that are able to maximize their talent to deliver the product they want to show with whatever assets they are allotted. There are literally multiple scenes of practical effect goodness and genuinely terrifying sequences of horror strewn throughout, one involving a puddle that sprouts arms that pull you into the abyss and a tense scene involving the Gardner’s, a frozen over parking garage and some possessed vehicles that are seeking a body count.  

Heather O’Rourke does a commendable job once again as the constantly-in-danger Carol Anne. She easily falls back in the role for the third time with very little trouble, displaying great ease with the character and even showing a greater sense of humor with the dialogue scenes she shares with her more experienced co-stars. I came around to appreciate the other actors involved in this movie, who I initially wrote off as bland and uninteresting. Whether it be Tom Skerritt (Alien) and Nancy Allen (RoboCop) playing the Bruce and Patricia Gardner, the current parental guardians of Carol Anne, or Lara Flynn Boyle (in her first movie) played the Gardner’s daughter Donna, they all turned in good performances and made their predicament believable. Lara Flynn Boyle in particular, has some amazing horror sequences that she is involved in and has the tall order of making these scenes truly horrifying and creepy. She aptly handles the range of emotions that she needs to convey, whether it be pure terror or even a little menace. Let’s just say the scene when she crawls out of a dead body, screaming at the top of her lungs and covered in black leech-like objects, the terror feels quite potent and real.

There is one amazing thing about this movie, but it could easily fall into the terrible and pain-inducing category depending on how you approach it, and that is the number of times character’s call out Carol Anne’s name. Her name is literally uttered every minute or so in this movie. It’s so ridiculous how many times her name is branded about that one individual online, who shall remain nameless, counted how many times her name was spoken, and it ended up at 121. That essentially means the name Carol Anne is said every 72 seconds across this 88-minute movie. That’s batshit. You can either groan at this fact, revel in the complete insanity of little tidbit, or for the adventurous viewer, make a seriously drinking game out of this knowledge, which could end up causing permanent damage to your liver.

Poltergeist III is probably a movie that will elicit two specific feelings out of people. One will say “I love that movie, its ingenuity of practical and downright inventive effects, dedicated filmmakers and all around committed performances make this a movie that deserves all the love it has been getting in recent years”. The other response will fall more in line with my first reaction to the movie when I saw it, and that would be “Poltergeist III was completely forgettable and is the very definition of one and done movie. Nothing remarkable. You can skip it”. To those naysayers, I must tell you something. Give it a shot. Don’t try to compare it to the original, since honestly that is a classic across all movie genres and would be hard pressed to top no matter what. Judge it for what it is, what is set out to accomplish, and marvel at the beautiful camerawork and mind bending optical tricks that the team behind Poltergeist III was able to accomplish, and relish in a good old fashioned 90-ish minutes of terror and danger. Most of all, if you are planning to do a “Carol Anne” drinking game for when her name is spoken, please use shots of light beer and not hard alcohol. Your liver will appreciate the thought.