We are watching "Poltergeist II" (selected theaters) and hackles are rising. A deadly specter again haunts the Freeling family, the Middle American clan whose misadventures thrilled millions in 1982's "Poltergeist." Back then, they were confronted with an explosion of wrath from beyond the grave--zooming out of the TV to entrap their children, wreak havoc throughout the community and send their house blasting away to the great beyond.
Now, far away, in the desert haven of Grandmother Freeling's home in Phoenix, trouble brews again. The floors shake. The windows rattle. The house lifts. An evil old man arrives on the doorstep with his own private rain cloud. A horrible, wormlike being thrashes around in Papa Freeling's stomach. Robbie's braces try to strangle him, and Carol Anne gets eerie calls on her plastic phone. At night, ectoplasmic kibitzers cavort on the lawn.
Something has gone horribly wrong--though the Freelings are far away from their old town, Cuesta Verde, and its violated graveyard; far from erstwhile producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper (replaced here by Brian Gibson).
The hapless Freelings (JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke and Oliver Robins) are suffering from something worse than ghosts: that inexplicable horror, The Inevitable Sequel. Like Sisyphus with his rock--like Rocky and the grads of "Police Academy"--they are condemned to the eternal return. No matter where they go, they keep winding up in the same movie, trapped like rats in the same plot.
It isn't that producer-writers Mark Victor and Michael Grais (co-scenarists on the original "Poltergeist") haven't tried to break out, expand on their original, show new character development. They use some reflexive inside humor--son Robbie asks for a new TV, and Papa Steve continually refuses; the parents lament that they can't collect insurance on a home destroyed by the Afterlife.
But maybe it's felt that audiences at sequels will get angry if they don't see the same movie--like finding Cheerios in their Wheaties. The jokes are like running gags in TV sitcoms; they establish familiarity but not depth. (Nelson's Steve might be a latter-day Ricky Ricardo at times, with the ghosts as his Lucy.) And, once the film gathers momentum, its form is identical to the first.
That creates more problems. In the original, part of the fun lay in the contrast between banality and terror: the parents' practicality and disbelief played against the grotesque nightmares around them. (Since it was a Spielberg movie, it was the children--and Zelda Rubinstein's childlike medium--who had the truest insights.)
By now, Mom and Dad don't have to be convinced. But, faced with horrific new experiences, they hang around anyway; even after their only protector--Will Sampson as an Indian Shaman named Taylor--skedaddles. When they all wander down into a cavern under the old Cuesta Verde graveyard in the dead of night--protected by nothing but a flashlight and some of Taylor's fireside chants--you hate to say they're asking for trouble. But when it shows up, you're hardly surprised.
The trappings of "Poltergeist II" are fairly effective: Jerry Goldsmith contributes another eerie score, and H. R. Giger ("Alien") has dreamed up some loathsome monsters. (One of them is listed in the cast as "Vomit Creature, played by Noble Craig"--a memorable credit.)
But the second film never has the hardness or urgency of the first. Its best moments, perhaps happily, tend to come from the actors rather than the story or Richard Edlund's effects: especially newcomers Geraldine Fitzgerald and Julian Beck. Fitzgerald is sweet and maternal as the grandmother, and Beck, in his last performance, is indelibly evil as the wraith-like Rev. Kane--a hypnotic portrayal of unbending malevolence. Kane almost seems a thankless bogyman role, but Beck is great in it--and if the rest of the movie were up to him, it would freeze your blood instead of curdling your spirits.
'POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE' A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release of a Victor-Grais production. Producers Michael Grais, Mark Victor. Director Brian Gibson. Executive producer Freddie Fields. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Camera Andrew Laszlo. Visual effects Richard Edlund. Production design Ted Haworth. Editor Thom Noble. Associate producer Lynn Arost. With JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Will Sampson, Julian Beck, Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).