POLTERGEIST III (1988) Blu-ray
Director: Gary Sherman
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Shout! Factory’s "Scream Factory" has released on Blu-ray POLTERGEIST III, a collector’s edition of the 1988 sequel to 1986’s POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE. Co-written and directed by Gary Sherman, co-scripted by Brian Taggert, and starring POLTERGEIST series regulars Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein, along with Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn Boyle, Richard Fire, Nathan Davis, and Kipley Wentz, POLTERGEIST III proved the old law of diminishing returns for franchise sequels. Even with a severely truncated budget it didn’t show a profit on its slim box office returns (which weren’t exactly helped, either, by the depressing real-life death of O’Rourke four months prior to the movie’s release). However, just from a visual standpoint—please excuse me for just a moment, readers: “Carol Anne! Carol Anne! Where are you?!” Sorry—POLTERGEIST III is an improvement over the first sequel, with a nicely chilly atmosphere and some sweet live, in-camera special effects and trickery making up for the regrettably soft PG-13 scares. Shout!’s restored 2k interpositive 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer here is another big selling point for POLTERGEIST III fan double dippers, along with an agreeably hefty amount of new extras, including commentary tracks and interviews with Allen and Taggert, and others.

Chicago, in the massive, 100-story John Hancock Center skyscraper. Building manager Bruce Gardner (Tom Skerritt, M*A*S*H, ALIEN), his art gallery owner wife, Pat (Nancy Allen, DRESSED TO KILL, ROBOCOP), and Bruce’s teen daughter from a previous marriage, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle, WAYNE’S WORLD, HANSEL & GRETEL GET BAKED), have taken in little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke, POLTERGEIST, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE) for a few months. Pat is Carol Anne’s aunt, and the Freelings (not shown in the movie) have sent Carol Anne to Chicago so she can attend a special school for children with “emotional problems.” Carol Anne’s therapist, Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire), thinks Carol Anne is a straight-up manipulator who can induce mass hypnosis in people, but we know Carol Anne is still being sought by “other side” boogeyman Reverend Kane (Nathan Davis, CODE OF SILENCE, THIEF), who needs Carol Anne’s purity and innocence to cross over into the “light.” Thanks to douchey Dr. Seaton, the constant harping on Carol Anne’s nightmares has sent a spiritual beacon out to Kane, who descends upon the skyscraper, intent on capturing her through devilish trickery, including animating everyone’s reflections in the building’s mirrors...and, um...turning up the AC. Will emotionally chilly Pat finally declare her love for Carol Anne, Carol Anne, Carol Anne, before Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein, POLTERGEIST, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE) arrives to save Carol Anne, Carol Anne, Carol Anne!?

Considering all the negative waves that seemed to be aimed at POLTERGEIST III, what’s surprising is that it managed to scrape up anything close to its final, meager $14 million and change box office haul. By 1988, the POLTERGEIST franchise, such as it was with only two movies released in eight years, was played out. The series’ only indispensable star, 12-year-old Heather O’Rourke, was getting older (she looked too big for that red romper), with the narrative window for a sympathetic audience being frightened for this “child,” already closing fast. Co-scripter Brian Taggert (OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN, VISITING HOURS admits (in one of this disc’s extras) that eliminating the Freeling family connection from POLTERGEIST III was a big, big mistake; a (literally) distant aunt for Carol Anne just didn’t cut it for the franchise’s central premise of the tight-knit Freelings constantly re-discovering that family love conquerors evil.

Director Gary Sherman admits in this disc’s commentary track that he didn’t really want to do POLTERGEIST III—never a good thing, no matter how much of a pro the helmer is—but that he did it out of obligation to the MGM studio heads he “owed.” And once he was on-board, he was severely limited in what he could film in terms of violence, due to a mandatory “no R” rating from MGM (why in the world would you take the guy who made the transcendentally violent exploitation masterpiece VICE SQUAD, and tell him to make a family-friendly horror movie?). A lack of chemistry between the two second-tier (or even third) leads did nothing to bring in patrons, and of course, the death of O’Rourke put a pall over the whole movie, a pall made worse by MGM, in a misguided attempt to be “sensitive” and “non-exploitive,” basically dumping the movie by barring any extensive promotion by the cast, and by refusing to ballyhoo the real-life tragedy associated with it. If that sounds insensitive, it is...but it’s nothing compared to what the barracudas in Hollywood really think and feel (if someone at MGM, which needed a hit in 1988 like you and I need air to breathe, had had the tactless, amoral balls to smell opportunity and really play up what happened, you could have added another $20 million to that b.o. total).

Too bad, that, too...because POLTERGEIST III beats out the better-attended POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, at least in terms of a cohesive, well-meshed visual and special effects strategy. Whereas the first sequel fell apart with its hodge-podge, boring visuals and diffused special effects, POLTERGEIST III has a unified, consistent vision that’s quite nice. You can argue whether or not a sterile glass, steel and stone skyscraper is the proper setting for a POLTERGEIST movie (Taggert claims it wasn’t, but Sherman, who grew up in one, specifically chose the setting). However, in terms of getting that world on screen, Sherman pulls it off. Icy blues, greens, blacks and ghostly whites fill the screen, and chilly, impersonal, unwelcoming surfaces like metal and glass mirror dominate. With composer Joe Renzetti’s crappy synth score (they couldn’t afford Goldsmith this time around) playing over these modern, frosty, claustrophobic interiors, POLTERGEIST III initially feels like some kind of sweet Italian giallo, all surface menace amid the depersonalized surroundings.

Adding to the fun—at least for movie buffs—are all of Sherman’s intricately designed in-camera tricks. According to everyone, no opticals were used; all effects were achieved through mirrors, doubles, and practical mechanical effects. And initially, it’s quite fun to see how they mix. The opening shot—for people who notice these kinds of things—shows how cool the shots can be on Sherman’s doubled sets, when the camera p.o.v. pulls right through what should be Kane looking in on Carol Anne (because we can see him in the opposite reflection). Sherman also has a lot of fun cutting back and forth between characters trying to distinguish between what they see in their reality, and what’s different in their mirrored reflection, making for some amusing, zippy scenes.

Unfortunately, my qualifications above—“for movie buffs who notice these things”—are all too true for the average POLTERGEIST III viewer, then in 1988 and now. A couple of my older kids watched this with me, and they had no idea there was anything special about those shots until I explained them. And once they understood the process, they basically said, “So what—why isn’t it scarier?” Exactly. PG-13 POLTERGEIST III may look like some weirdo stylized/cheapo giallo, but it delivers few if any genuine shocks (and certainly none of the disgusting, splattery carnage normally associated with that genre). As for the effects, they’re intricately choreographed, certainly, but their cleverness is ultimately for naught because the scares within those tricks just aren’t there (one gets the feeling that reluctant-to-begin-with Sherman decided to deal with this unwanted project by hunkering down with his Erector set visuals, and screw the rest of it). Some set pieces that should jolt the viewer are only just okay (when Boyle starts coming out of that Rubenstein mummy, you’re going with it...until you notice how clean and un-slimy she appears breaking through what looks to be a rather large blackberry crumble pie), while others are cheated because of the budget (you set up Rich as the movie’s slimy villain...and then cut away when he’s pushed down an elevator shaft? Seriously?). Thank god those boring teens are around for their interminable G-rated PORKY’S hijinks, in-between 121 exclamations of “Carol Anne!” from the various characters, as well as the hilarity of the other dialogue (when a visibly fed-up Allen screams, “Who the hell goddamn cares!” when Carol Anne almost drowned, I hit the floor dying).

By the time the jerry-rigged finale comes around (re-shot when the first one crapped out), POLTERGEIST III isn’t even about its star O’Rourke anymore (a double hides her face in shame)—it’s about whether or not frigid bitch Allen will admit...that she can’t always express her feelings very well (to hell with Tangina—call Dr. Phil!). As for Kane, he’s almost an afterthought, too, when his poor widdle noggin is popped off like a dandelion head (that is the cheapest, most hysterically phony mechanical head I’ve ever seen). For all you POLTERGEIST fans who are convinced that the alternate, original ending—included on this disc—would magically fix POLTERGEIST III’s many problems, well...forget it. Amid the laughable frozen dummies of the main characters, and the supposedly malevolent Kane illogically reduced to the spiritual equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree as he’s led into “the light,” (he just needed a little love, I guess...), we see that nothing could have saved this misguided effort. Not even that last shot of a seemingly relieved Heather O’Rourke.

The newly restored 2k interpositive MPEG-4 AVC 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of POLTERGEIST III looks terrific. Colors are chilly but subtle; the picture is bright when it should be, and inky dark when required, while fine image detail is pretty respectable considering the color scheme. Grain is filmic and tight, tight, tight (the BD-50 high bit rate makes everything look super-glossy smooth; no artifacting). There are two English audio track options: DTS-MA 5.1 and 2.0. I listened to the 5.1, and it’s just as impressive as the cleaned-up mix for POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE). Effects are spread out nice and wide and loud over an expansive soundscape during some of the busier effects sequences, with awesome bottom and super-clean dialogue. English subtitles are available.

A ton of new extras for this Blu POLTERGEIST III should seal the deal for double dippers. First up is a commentary track from director Gary Sherman, moderated by Michael Felsher...who gets the best laugh on the entire disc when he tells Sherman that he’s making noise on the track with his microphone (Sherman gives a small, compliant, “Sorry"). Lots of interesting detail from Sherman on how he achieved his special effects tricks (pretty cool and involved), along with some honest appraisal of why the movie doesn’t work (summed up neatly by Sherman’s blunt, “I don’t think this movie is scary enough”). Next, a commentary track with blogger David Furtney is included. I liked his pointed, detailed discussion of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, but here...he’s pretty quiet. Good info, though, particularly in relationship to what happened in post-production.

Next, a few new documentaries. "High Spirits: An Interview With Screenwriter Brian Taggert" (16:00), features a first in my experience: a Hollywood artist who actually takes responsibility for a failed movie! Remarkable (Taggert says he shouldn’t have taken out the Freelings from the story, and he should have pushed not to have the story set in a skyscraper). Interesting asides from the veteran writer. Next, "Reflections: An Interview With Actress Nancy Allen" (12:15), features that exploitation dream queen (still looking great) discussing the movie’s production. Another straight shooter, Allen admits she fought with Skerritt (unfortunately, she offers no further details...but you can see on screen they weren’t happy together), that eventually she just wanted the movie to be over (“Can we just shoot this movie?”), and that O’Rourke’s funeral was awful (“Open coffin is bad enough...but you put a child in it”). Next, "Mirror Images: An Interview With Special Effects Creator John Caglione, Jr." (12:47), has POLTERGEIST III’s special effects creator Caglione discussing his role as facilitator of all of the movie’s Dick Smith designs. He’s complimentary of this tough, but well organized, shoot (and his funny story of bringing in a stripper for a production meeting is a classic). Next, the infamous alternate ending (2:38) is included—a bit of a misnomer because it was POLTERGEIST III’s original ending, before it was ditched and re-shot. No sound, just subtitles (taken from the script), and poor printing end up sabotaging what looks to be already unpromising material. An original (and ineffective) trailer (1:04), four TV spots (each around :30), a still gallery, and the script round out the extras. (Paul Mavis)