Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Supernatural: Poltergeist III

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/04/2016 – Supernatural: Poltergeist III (1988)
Directed by Gary Sherman

Picking out where to start when talking about supernatural horror can be a bit challenging since it can be extremely broad if we want to. If you want to get broad about things, the genre can encapsulate so many others such as vampires and werewolves and in fact usually does when discussing the supernatural drama (shows such as Buffy and Grimm). But when it comes to film, when we discuss “supernatural” what we really mean is along the lines of ghosts (The Innocents), people with other worldly powers (Carrie), and generally the strange and frequently Lovecraftian (Evil Dead). Let’s start with ghosts and hauntings in general though since that is the subject of today’s movie.

While ghosts can span genres from romance (Ghost) to comedy (Topper) to drama (Hamlet), they will probably always be associated with horror. Aside from the odd film such as The Phantom Carriage though, it wasn’t until the 40’s (with The Uninvited and Dead of Night) and especially the late 50’s/early 60’s (House on Haunted HillThe Haunting) that this started to occur and it’s easy to see why. Ghosts just aren’t very scary especially when you can see them. Aside from those later films, it has turned out such great films as The InnocentsThe Devil’s BackboneThe Sixth Sense, and The Ring though you will notice that each tends to blend in close with other genres (such as drama, gothic horror, thriller). I got into the distinction a bit a couple days ago but western films just feel so much less unified in theme and style than their Japanese counterpoints.

The original Poltergeist (directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg depending on who you ask) is another very good and iconic title. Since it is a horror film that made any money though, it got a sequel that wasn’t very good before sputtering out for a third film, an unrelated TV show, and a remake. The only actors returning to this film though are Heather O’Rourke (who tragically died four months before release at the age of 12) and Zelda Rubinstein (and the voise of Corey Burton from II). Instead we get genre regular Nancy Allen (*groans*), Tom Skerritt (AlienPicket Fences which costarred Rubinstein), and Lara Flynn Boyle (Twin PeaksHappiness). The film has also moved from its famous suburban setting to the genre of urban horror.
Despite the change of setting we get more of the same things. The film is stuck between its desire to try something new with the skyscraper and desire to just churn out the same bland copy with the cool visuals replaced by lots of ice, fog and people climbing out of human shells (an idea far better than its execution). O’Rourke has a larger role this time around before she gets inevitably sucked into the other place. I really appreciate that the film took every opportunity it could to yell her character’s name (“CAROL ANNE!”) so I wouldn’t ever forget it. It’s the kind of writing decision that makes the writer’s inexperience at creating naturalistic dialogue incredibly apparent (see also the writers on The Walking Dead). Rubinstein has descended even more into a parody of her original role with her voice that constantly sounds like she is patronizing every character and the audience.

Freddy Chopin? Has violence against a teacher ever been more justified than when one starts talking to pre-teens about “Freddy Chopin” in a way to make him seem hip. Then again the film sure does try to. The doctor who follows them around to basically naysay all the supernatural bits but they went so far in trying to make him an obnoxious ponce that I just want to slap him through the screen. The film realizes this too SPOILER and in true slasher fashion, shoves him down an elevator shaft. END OF SPOILER Then again he’s not as bad as Nancy Allen, hack actress, who despite seeing clearly supernatural things, instead denies them and constantly talks about abandoning her 12(?)-year-old niece who she believes is special needs. Heck even after she does acknowledge the supernatural she still blames THE 12-YEAR-OLD KID. Somehow she is not the villain but I know I was rooting for her brutal murder. You are “taking care of” two kids now, not a fücking giant brood. Tom Skerritt just looks and sounds bored throughout the film and I can hardly blame him.

O’Rourke’s death may have killed the box office (hard to promote your low budget sequel featuring a recently deceased girl whose notably puffy cheeks throughout are because she was being misdiagnosed and treated with a drug that led to her death without feeling like a monster) and consequentially the series, but this was clearly a series on its last legs anyway. A series out of ideas and struggling to narratively justify existing.

Bonus Episode #10 – Supernatural: Poltergeist (2015)
Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a classic film is always a dicey proposition, but despite their reputation, horror sequels actually tend to rise above those of other genres and are often even exceed the originals (heck yesterday we even just discussed a film with a superior remake in Piranha) and for a simple reason; it’s hard for a film to stay scary over time. Granted I don’t generally find horror movies “scary” so I tend to appreciate all the other components making this not matter so much, but there’s still plenty to improve. It’s an effects heavy genre and even if the 80’s were a peak of practical effects, when used judiciously, CGI can be a huge boon. That’s not even counting the frequently larger budgets which can help with the look and better actors often attached as the genre gains a better reputation to this day.

Poltergeist wasn’t begging for a remake, and we all groaned when it was announced but replacing Coach with Sam Rockwell and filling the rest of the cast with Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married, Jared Harris (Mad Men), and Jane Adams (our second connection between Happiness and the Poltergeist franchise today) certainly softens the blow. Rockwell brings life to his role which has the disadvantage of no longer having any actual tie to the site since he is no longer the developer. The whole being built on a cemetery is reduced to backstory and doesn’t meaningfully die into the story in any way. It reduces a complex story down to its basest elements.

The main kid is an easily afraid, annoying shit (okay that makes him a kid but that doesn’t make it pleasant to watch) which if I was a cynical person (ha!) I would think was a choice that was just made to throw in a bunch of cheap scares. This early fear is supposed to lead to a character arc but there doesn’t seem to be any progression. SPOILER Spending 95% of the film being afraid and then heading into a quick and oddly glossed over act of bravery is no character development. Can’t even call it an act of redemption since he lived and his act doesn’t actually fix anything. END OF SPOILER

Despite how closely the film resembled the original, the film I kept thinking back to was The Shallows. There are some neat ideas here but it is just such a bland, generic end product that begs for a better director. Showing all the hands on the TV is effective once and after that it just becomes silly. I really liked the quick bit where the girl existed only as silhouette and I’m also really quite fond of the visual of the mirror world but showing it reduces the impact. It’s the kind of thing that belongs more in a Tarsem movie (though he would have used far more colors than this film was capable of), not anything trying to scare. And trying too hard to scare is what the film is overly guilty of. Jump scares complete with scare chords fill the film and they aren’t even good ones. “Hey look this clown is one place, not it’s over here, are you scared yet?”. Using real skeletons in the original is really questionable ethically but the CGI one that pops up, well it looks like ass and is about as scary as the haunted mansion ride as Disney.

In the end, the problem is solved by SPOILER Jared Harris getting sucked in and that’s it. He’s supposed to be leading them to the light but he sure as shit doesn’t seem to be leading anyone anywhere. Then it turns out he’s okay after all and clearly the writers wrote themselves into and just said fück it, bored now, and ended the film. Then they tacked on a couple comedic Marvel style credits scenes surrounded by “creepy” end credits music and I literally flipped off the television. END OF SPOILER Don’t let stupid tonally inappropriate endings be this year’s lousy theme (again The Shallows).

Bonus Episode #11 – Supernatural: The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)
Directed by Katt Shea

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Moving on to another type of supernatural film and it is for lack of a better descriptor, the existence of supernatural powers. While once again far from something that exists only in horror (variable Marvel characters, Starship Troopers, etc.), it’s also something lends itself well to horror in terms of films such as ScannersFirestarter, and The Ring. The problem is, depicting said psychic powers is really hard to do without making it laughable. Too often it’s just people staring really intensely as crap flies around the room.

The original Carrie was a classic film and despite all the poorly aged elements (such as DePalma’s love of split screen, the variable in quality supporting acting, etc.) it’s still a great film and one of the best (and the first) Stephen King adaptations. In an uncharacteristic display of restraint, it took 23 years for a sequel to be shat out. Hiring the director of Poison Ivy to make a sequel to a film that was wrapped up pretty damn definitely is just about the definition of shat out.

“From the director of Poison Ivy” is really apparent with its cheesy 90’s look and a scene involving killing a dog to music out of a softcore porn film (a scene that seems to exist just to make our protagonist more miserable) and a love scene that is very much of the shitty 90’s movie variety. I’ve criticized two films already of being given to the wrong director (The Shallows and Poltergeist) but frankly, he is what this stupid project deserves. A film named with Carrie’s name in the title (they are apparently half-sisters because I guess supernatural powers are genetic) but who only appears thanks to the wonders of reused footage).

This time our protagonist is only a slight social outcast because then the film might have something to say besides football players are beloved asshole rapists which we already knew. She gets a genuine love interest, has actual friends, and social skills. She doesn’t seem intentionally ostracized so much as just comfortable where she is (well until she makes enemies by outing a statutory rapist and “stealing” a boy) and looks only vaguely like one as if the film was afraid of making her look too goth (which considering the media’s handling of goths is probably for the best to be honest) whose only wears a lighter color shirt and puts up her hair to clear. We get another lousy home life but in more of a trashy family way (and institutionalized mother which our protagonist doesn’t seem to concerned with) instead of any actual abuse (okay there’s a single slap after she sneaks away for a night but compared to the original it’s a loving relationship). It’s as if there was a unrelated script about the attempts of a woman to uncover a sex game amongst football players that was dug out of the trash when someone realized they had forgotten to exploit the Carrie property more and needed something quick.

It’s nice of someone to let Zachery Ty Bryan (Home Improvement), Jason London (Dazed and Confused) be in a movie so they can pretend they are going to make something out of her careers but the film also gave us performances from pre-American Pie Mena Suvari and Eddie Kay Thomas. It’s as if the film was merging the past and future in terms of actors who never lived up to their potential after their breakout role(s). Okay no one was likely expecting Bryan or Thomas to break out since they were probably the weakest part of both their most famous roles but stop ruining my theory. Amy Irving is the only returning actor and character from the original film SPOILER (For good reason) END OF SPOILER and serves as the Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Of course her attempts to fit into the story are ham handed and less to do with extending the story and passing the torch and more to do with crowbarring in some connection to the original film.

The prom scene and original use of “they’re all gonna laugh at you” scene is one of the greatest film scenes of all time, not just horror. The way the film slowly builds towards a moment, filling you with dread, before we get to probably the happiest moment in Carrie’s life and it all comes crashing down (no I’m not tearing up, you are). It clearly portrays all of the laughter as being something in Carrie’s head as only one actual person laughs while everyone else stands around horrified, with her psychotic break being the culmination of all the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her mother. The corresponding scene here is a massive middle finger to that one. Why yes, having a secretly filmed sex tape shown is probably worse than pigs blood dropped on your head, but there’s no build to it. The beautiful blood soaked Carrie surrounded by and walking through fire is replaced with some silly spreading tattoos, quick cuts with literal “whoosh” sound effects that I’m pretty sure came with the editing suite and had me begging for the return of the stupid split screen, dutch angles, bad slo-mo, less palpable fear from everyone, SPOILER and bro-Ethan Hawke shooting her with a flare gun. But at least she gets to offer a dying declaration of love after she murders dozens of people. END OF SPOILER True fücking romance.

I thought the 2002 version of Carrie was rock bottom, but it’s always nice to know things can sink lower in quality (or at least in respect towards the original). I guess I should complement the film for its gratuitous rear male nudity in a high school setting serving as a small counterpoint to all the gratuitous female nudity in a high school setting of the original so congrats film for a tiny step towards gender equality, you truly earned it.

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