Released in 1982, Poltergeist was the eighth highest-grossing film of that year, which means only one thing in the world of Hollywood: a sequel was inevitable, whether one was warranted or not. Surprisingly, it took MGM four years to put out Poltergeist 2, haunting theaters in 1986. And the wait, as is all-too-often the case with movie sequels, wasn’t exactly worth it.
Set one year after the events of 1982’s classic, Poltergeist 2: The Other Side once again centered on the Freeling family, who packed up their bags and moved to grandma’s house. Paranormal events resume shortly after the death of grandma, and the arrival of a mysterious stranger indicates that the original film’s demonic spirit wasn’t attached to the family’s home, but rather to young Carol Anne herself.
Poltergeist 2 has been somewhat woven into the fabric of pop culture history in recent years, and the reason for that is largely due to a particularly chilling performance by the late Julian Beck. The actor, who passed away prior to the film’s completion, portrayed the sinister Reverend Henry Kane, who the sequel explains as being the evil entity that terrorized Carol Anne in the first Poltergeist.
Diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, Beck’s health was already failing by the time cameras started rolling on Poltergeist 2, a fact that unfortunately contributed to the character being etched into the nightmares of so many horror fans. But it’s not just Beck’s gaunt appearance that turned Reverend Kane into such an iconic villain, as his manner of speaking and overall performance are downright bone-chilling.
If there’s a best thing about Poltergeist 2 it’s unquestionably the character of Reverend Kane, who we learn was a mad cult leader that encouraged his followers to hide out underground – warning them that the end of the world was near. After the doomsday date that he predicted came and went, without a single sign of the apocalypse, Kane kept them trapped underground, where they all perished.
The group’s hideout was, as fate would have it, underneath the burial ground that was underneath the Freeling family’s original home. Okay, so it’s all pretty silly stuff, but at least an attempt was made to explain some of the things that went down in Poltergeist. And Kane is genuinely a character whose story quite frankly could’ve been turned into a movie of its own – outside of the franchise.
The death of Julian Beck is most definitely reflected in the finished product that is Poltergeist 2, as any horror film is naturally going to suffer when the actor playing its lead villain doesn’t survive the production. At some point in the film, Kane completely disappears and is jarringly replaced by a series of inhuman monsters, which I suppose were supposed to represent his true form.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Poltergeist 2 is that Alien‘s creature designer H.R. Giger briefly worked on the project, brought on board after Beck passed away. Giger created both the legless ‘vomit creature’ and the second iteration of Kane’s demonic shape, and it’s the former that is the visual highlight of the film. The creature is seen for only a few seconds, but it’s cool enough to make a lasting impression.
As for the other effects in Poltergeist 2, they all pale in comparison to even the most unremarkable ones on display in the first film. The sequel was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Visual Effects category, though there’s hardly anything special to see here. A scene where young Robbie’s braces come to life and wrap him up like a mummy is particularly silly, for example, and it feels like it belongs in a different movie.
Like Giger’s effects work, another aspect of the film that doesn’t nearly get enough screen time is the possession of Steve Freeling, which takes place after he consumes a demonic tequila worm – yes, a demonic tequila worm. Channeling his inner Henry Kane, actor Craig T. Nelson is fantastic as the evil version of himself, but he snaps back to normal just as it’s starting to get fun.
Like all of the surviving cast members, Zelda Rubinstein returned to play psychic Tangina in Poltergeist 2, but her role from the original was mostly replaced by Will Sampson’s Taylor – a Native American shaman who helps the Freelings overcome their situation. His scenes mostly fall flat and feel out of place, while Tangina randomly pops up every once in a while – and Rubinstein is not nearly as on point as she was in 1982.
Pretty much everything about Poltergeist 2 is underdeveloped and executed with a general carelessness, up to and including briefly touched upon themes like sticking together as a family, a young boy coming into his own as a man, and a father who worries that he can’t protect the ones he loves. All of these ideas are brought up, but they vanish almost as suddenly as they’re presented – it’s as if the writers couldn’t be bothered to follow through on, well, anything.
On the whole, Poltergeist 2 feels like a very rushed film from start to finish, and there’s a serious sense of creative bankruptcy on display throughout. Quite frankly, what we got with this one was the sort of sequel you’d expect from a fourth or fifth installment in a franchise, rather than a second. There’s very little meat on the bones of the story, and the pacing and overall structure is just plain terrible.
It’s a shame, really, because it’s not like the film was rushed into production. According to my calculations, MGM had at least three years to come up with a good story and make a halfway decent sequel, but it unfortunately feels like they just didn’t care very much. By the time the laughable ending forces you to roll your eyes, Poltergeist 2 cements itself as the very definition of a ‘cash-grab sequel.’
Up next we revisit Poltergeist 3, so come on back to HL tomorrow for that retro review!
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