It doesn't quite feel like a Poltergeist movie. Most of the regular cast had either met untimely deaths or chosen not to participate, with the only familiar faces being Heather O'Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein and even they disappear during the last half-hour. It's based in a high-rise apartment block in Chicago, rather than a small-town family home. Oh, and the movie's clearly cheaper than the other two.
Furthermore people get killed! That's a first for this series, believe it or not.
Nevertheless I prefer it to the boring Poltergeist II. It's quite well done, if you overlook its problem with beginnings and endings.
The bad beginning would be the first ten minutes or so, which had me convinced that I was in movie hell. The characters are loathsome, their dialogue will make you stick forks in your ears and even the acting suffers. No little girl will sound natural saying "A woman's entitled to change her mind!" O'Rourke doesn't break the rule. Meanwhile the Loony Doctor has a big chunk of exposition that sounds as if he's an amateur reading off cue cards or something. The odd thing is that for the rest of the film he's quite a good actor, with enough screen presence to make you rather like his laughably moronic character, who might as well have been christened Mr Wrong.
Good stuff in those first ten minutes would be the oogie-boogie. Unlike its predecessors, Poltergeist III tips its hand from the start with the special effects. They're subtle and effective. However the extent of the failure of those first ten minutes can be gauged by the fact that the teenage couple are actually two of the best characters in it. However that bizarre hiccup soon passes and the film settles down.
O'Rourke has been sent to live with her aunt's family in Chicago and is attending a school for intelligent kids with emotional problems. This might sound good, but I have to wonder what the Freelings were thinking when they chose this school for their darling. Maybe it wasn't them who chose it? O'Rourke is being counselled by Loony Doctor, who says things like, "When you talk about things, they go away." Really? I'd like to see the scientific research, please. He also has some theories about paranormal phenomena. Theoretically we've seen a million characters like this man, but he manages to avoid cliche through a charismatic performance and by being nuts. Even the evidence of his own eyes can't convince him. A hand comes out of the table and throws a coffee cup at a mirror, breaking it, for instance. Loony Doctor decides that O'Rourke must have hypnotised everyone, making him hallucinate and commanding the people who'd been watching through the one-way glass to break it, despite the fact that she hadn't even known they were there. Eh?
Needless to say, I was looking forward to his death. Oooh yes. You'd think the enemy would want to keep him around, but fortunately it seems not. Alas he doesn't get a sufficiently humiliating death, which brings me to the film's other problem. Endings. Well, make that closure. Loony Doctor needed a more satisfying end, preferably involving agony, terror and/or live rats. The film itself also has a limp noodle of a finale, in which a dead character leads away the baddie and suddenly it's all happy ever after. Replacement Dad comes out of the closet with the kidnapped girls. The end. We don't even see O'Rourke's face! Unfortunately there's a reason for this. O'Rourke was dead by the time MGM realised they weren't happy with the film's original PG rating and asked writer-director Gary Sherman to shoot more graphic scenes and a new ending.
Hmmm. That might also explain why the last half-hour felt a little bit too long. It's not actually bad, but it's just Replacement Mum and Replacement Dad running through special effects with little real connection to anything else in the film. It would explain a lot if some of that material wasn't in the original movie but had been added in reshoots. Oh, and returning to the finale, there's a third character who got kidnapped by the spirits but never gets seen or mentioned at the end. It's the boyfriend. Did he get left on the Other Side? Maybe his girlfriend just didn't love him after all, then.
The actors are fine, once you've got past that opening. Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen are standing in for O'Rourke's parents and most of the time they do a good job. Allen in particular manages to keep our sympathy in a role that could have made her look like a screaming bitch. You probably remember her as Officer Lewis in the RoboCop films and as Chris Hargensen in Carrie. Nathan Davis stands in for the dead Julian Beck. Zelda Rubinstein gives her best performance of the series, which may not be saying much but I still liked her. She really takes charge of the movie when she turns up and I even got the feeling she'd been working on that squeaky bat voice of hers. Weirdest of all though is Heather O'Rourke. She looks much older, now clearly twelve instead of five, but she's still got the same hairstyle around the same round face. Yes, I'm saying she's fat. However she was also on the brink of death, though no-one knew it, and taking medication for what the doctors thought was Crohn's Disease but wasn't. Her performance is fine when she has sensible dialogue to deliver, but I'd have been happier if she hadn't become a plot coupon as usual in the second half.
The special effects are great, though. It's not as flashy as the last film's vomit monster, let alone the Spielberg original, but they have lots of sinister fun with mirrors. That was eerie. Neither of the first two films ever really tried for this kind of atmosphere. The first film was too loud and the second film too boring. There's also lots of ice, a killer car park and more. I even jumped once or twice. There's a line being walked here between fantasy and reality that compares well with even the Nightmare on Elm Street series. This film's handling of its spooky special effects is one of the biggest reasons for watching it. No, really.
I haven't talked about the curse yet.
1. O'Rourke died during production, aged 12.
2. The set caught fire while shooting the killer car park scene.
3. Zelda Rubinstein was doing a photoshoot for the film when she paused and lurched. Gary Sherman asked what was wrong and she brushed it off, but several minutes later they learned that Rubinstein's mother had just died. Apparently the two had always had a particularly strong bond, as you sometimes get with twins. Then after developing the photos, almost all of them turned out completely normal but one of them showed a cloud of light coming from the left and covering Rubinstein's face.
Disquietingly, the curse is all but mentioned in the credits. Julian Beck is credited with having originally played Reverend Kane, which films never normally do, and the movie is dedicated to Heather O'Rourke, 1975-1988.
Overall, I liked this movie, quite possibly more than most people will. The plot's full of little holes and it's a cheaper film than its predecessors, but I liked the way it handled its otherworldliness. It's subtle and more intelligent than it deserves to be. It's not very good at following its threads through to their end, but I can forgive that. That dedication in the credits gave me the creeps, though.
P.S. The 1980s. Shoulder pads. Were the eighties really this eighties?