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Movie Reviews : 'Poltergeist III' Goes Through the Looking Glass

June 11, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"Innocence is what you're given as a gift," Zelda Rubinstein chants fervently as she glides down glassy corridors in "Poltergeist III" as spook nemesis Tangina Barrons. "Everything else you have to fight for."

You'd think anyone making movies like "Poltergeist III" (citywide)--second sequel to a 1982 box-office hit that didn't need even one sequel--would have abandoned innocence long ago. But it's nice to know sentiment survives packaging.

Not much else does. "Poltergeist III" is another sequel that seems to exist for no better reason than justifying its title and number. Here, an entirely new set of film makers sends a member of the bedeviled, bothered and bespooked Freeling family, little Carol Anne (the late Heather O'Rourke), through another horrendous battle with the great beyond: with squashy, grabby evil things reaching through mirrors, walls and puddles to yank her off to some Lovecraftian underworld.

Transplanted to Chicago and a towering, many-mirrored 100-story high-rise, Carol Anne again finds herself besieged by sepulchral varmints. But, by now, the secondary battle--between actors and special effects--has been hopelessly lost. The effects, which revolve around the conceit of a demonic mirror-world, are ingenious and cleverly executed. The acting plummets into realms of posturing camp, howling corn and eye-rolling hamminess that shatter illusion like a dropped glass.

The premise could have been brilliant. The ghosts chasing Carol Anne from movie to movie have now taken up residence in the omnipresent mirrors in the high-rise. There, they pop up when no one is watching and, occasionally, yank people, Alice-like, through the glass. Director/co-writer Gary Sherman deserves every credit for dreaming up and helping realize these unsettling crazy-house tricks.

But he also deserves credit for batteringly coy dialogue and for encouraging his cast into what seems a spirited competition to win awards for archness and wild overstatement. Perhaps these prizes could be called Archies. (Richard Fire, as the skeptical Dr. Seaton--who grafts Boris Karloff intonations on a Richard Deacon base--wins the first Archie hands down.)

This is a film where villains cackle fiendishly, and everyone else pales with horror, shrieks with fear or pontificates with idiot skepticism. More amazing than the cast's repertoire of gasps, yelps and gulps, however, is their resilience. People just subjected to brain-rattling attacks--gelatinous dry-ice mirror onslaughts, lost girls clawing their way out of putrefying corpses--invariably recover within 10 seconds and chatter away with the self-possession of TV-generation magpies.

The inane Seaton, who keeps insisting it's all post-hypnotic suggestion (doesn't the man recognize optical effects?) symbolizes the movie's attack on rationalism--which the film makers seem to associate with the destruction of the nuclear family, something only amulets and love can forestall. In the entire assembly of "Poltergeist III" (MPAA rated: PG-13, for language and graphic grotesquerie), only Heather O'Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein--who've been through it all before--manage to outshine their reflections. Even an easygoing naturalist like Tom Skerritt gets caught up in the "Had-I-but-known" hysterics.

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