35 Years Ago: Why ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’ Failed So Spectacularly
If the question is what went wrong with Poltergeist II: The Other Side, then the answer is easy: everything. If the question is why it went wrong, then things are a bit more complicated.
Released on May 23, 1986, the project initially had a lot going for it. It was a followup to the smash hit Poltergeist, from 1982. It was carrying on the vision of not one but two Hollywood legends: writer/producer Steven Spielberg and director Toby Hooper, the subjects of a long-running and contentious argument over who was more responsible for the initial film's success. Virtually all of the original cast also returned for the second movie.
What resulted from all this, though, is not just a disastrously bad film. It's also a case study for all the ways a sequel can go sideways in Hollywood.
Poltergeist II picks up a year after the events of the first movie, where a family's California home had been infested by malevolent spirits as a result of being built on an old cemetery, then ultimately disappeared into a portal to another dimension. Steve and Diane Freeling (played, as in the original, by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) have now moved their family to Phoenix to start over. Already there's an issue: Pasadena, where they shot Poltergeist II, doesn't really look anything like Phoenix.
Not surprisingly, the Freelings' new house is troubled by poltergeists too. Their young daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) even gets to reprise her famous line from the first film when she converses with them on a toy telephone and turns to the camera to intone: "They're back!" Pretty quickly, a wise Indian shaman named Taylor (Will Sampson) shows up to inform them that it's actually not new spirits which are haunting them, but the same ones from the first film.
Watch the Trailer for 'Poltergeist II: The Other Side'
It turns out that the graveyard in Poltergeist was actually the burial place of a religious doomsday cult led by the evil Rev. Henry Cane. His spirit has lived on, aging like fine wine into even more evilness, and he's still after the Freelings. An interminably long middle section follows in which nothing remotely scary happens, then the Freelings journey back to the cavern beneath their original house in California to confront Cane. They get sucked into "the other side," and defeat Cane when Steve stabs him with a magic Native American spear.
From first shot to last, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a turd. The direction is uniformly lazy, both visually and in character terms, without Hooper's sense of the macabre or Speilberg's legendary ability to create an immersive narrative and setting.
There's a scene, early on, when the Freelings are first encountering Taylor, that is shot in front of what is so clearly a painted backdrop imitating an Arizona landscape that it appeared to have been on loan from a high-school play. The film also attempts to signal Steve's torment by having him stomp around drinking tequila out of the bottle – while playing with his children and having pseudo-philosophical discussions with Taylor – without ever getting noticeably drunk. Perhaps he's so tormented by these ghosts that he can't even bring himself to drink the real stuff, and has filled up the bottle with iced tea?
This laziness extends to the rest of the characters and into the plot, as well. One can almost feel the producers' terror at not having access to the homey Speilberg's touch which made the first Poltergeist so successful. Lacking that, and seemingly unable to come up with an engaging supernatural tale, they apparently decided that conjuring up some ridiculous depictions of magical Native Americans engaged in ceremonies involving purple fire and peace pipes might really engage the audience. Spoiler: it doesn't.
The film opens with Taylor and another aging Native American sitting atop a 200-foot tall rock spire in the desert, chanting and communing with spirits and whatnot. In another scene, Taylor sits in the Freelings' suburban yard enjoying the company of a flock of magical butterflies. In a third, he takes Steve to a kiva out in the desert that he apparently keeps for no other purpose than saving white folks from evil.
Watch the 'Good vs. Evil' Scene From 'Poltergeist II: The Other Side'
To say that Poltergeist II reduces indigenous people to the status of plot functions and bigoted tropes is a severe understatement. A racially kosher film, this is not. What one sees demonstrated by this on the filmmaking level, though, is an almost impossible lack of imagination. Rather than trying to build on the first film's success in crafting a supernatural universe, the writers simply hoped that derogatory stereotyping would pull them through.
Finally, there's the dialogue, which itself is several degrees worse than abysmal. Somewhere along the line, the decision seemingly got made to try to make the film a bit more lighthearted than the original – perhaps as a way of trying to recapture some Spielberg magic. This jokiness falls flat not only because the tone doesn't work with the material, but also because the jokes themselves exist somewhere between groan-inducing puns and a six-year-old's idea of clever.
Typical is the scene when Steve accuses Taylor of being in cahoots with someone, and Taylor responds: "I cahoot with no one." This line is so shockingly ridiculous that when poor Will Sampson – who once played across from Jack Nicholson in the magisterial One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – is forced to deliver it in front of the aforementioned painted backdrop, one expects to see his acting soul shrivel up and die right there on screen.
In the end, the cautionary tale here is clear. If you luck into an opportunity to make a sequel to a hugely popular movie helmed by the likes of Hooper and Spielberg, avoid cutting corners. Don't simply try to ride the coattails of the first film's success. Pay the money to hire the talent necessary to put something on the screen that doesn't embarrass itself at every turn.
If not, expect something along the lines of Poltergeist II: The Other Side.
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