Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line have released on Blu-ray POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, a collector’s edition of the 1986 sequel to the 1982 Toby Hooper/Steven Spielberg original. Directed by Brian Gibson, scripted by the original POLTERGEIST’s co-writers Mark Victor and Michael Grais, and starring original cast members JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, along with newcomers Will Sampson, Julian Beck, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE didn’t blow anybody away in ’86, when it did just okay business while critics sat on the sidelines and wrote, “Whatever.” However, lots of kids saw this over the years on cable and VHS, and that nostalgic pull—along with that phony verkakte “curse”—have kept it saleable long past its shelf life. Shout!’s restored 2k interpositive 1080p HD 2.35:1 widescreen transfer here is a big selling point for double dippers, along with a copious amount of new extras, including new commentary tracks and documentaries on the movie’s production, along with some vintage promotional extras.
It’s been a year now since the Freeling family escaped from their Cuesta Verde housing development in California, chased out of their upper middle-class suburban home by a marauding band of ghosts who threatened to pull their angelic daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke, POLTERGEIST, POLTERGEIST III) over into the “other side.” Now living with Diane’s (JoBeth Williams, THE DOGS OF WAR, STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT) psychic mother, Jessica (Geraldine Fitzgerald, O.S.S., THE OBSESSED) in her big Craftsman in Phoenix, Arizona, Diane watches over Carol Anne and son Robbie (Oliver Robins, POLTERGEIST, AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL), while her husband Steven (Craig T. Nelson, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, ACTION JACKSON), a former real estate whiz-turned-door-to-door vacuum salesman, struggles to find work. Back at the Freeling’s empty Cuesta Verde lot—their home “missing” after collapsing into a cosmic vortex—psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein, POLTERGEIST, POLTERGEIST III) continues her work for the Freeling family, leading an archeological expedition beneath the Freeling property. What she finds there terrifies her enough (“Too much power,” in that stupid voice) to call in Taylor (Will Sampson, ORCA, THE WHITE BUFFALO), an Indian shaman who, after noting the skeletons found in the watery caverns, understands that the Freelings will not be safe in their new home. The ghosts will pursue them there, led by the “Beast,” Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck, 9 ½ WEEKS, TV’s MIAMI VICE), a frightening figure with a murderous past, who wishes to possess the pure, divine spirit of Carol Anne.
I was in high school when the original POLTERGEIST came out; it was one of those fun, slam-bang summer “must see” popcorn movies that showed up with regularity back in the early 1980s, the kind of movie you didn’t mind lining up to see in a big theater. By the time POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE debuted in 1986, however, I don’t remember any of my friends in college—nor myself—demanding a return trip to the Freeling family. Perhaps it was the prolonged four-year gap in-between the two entries that dissipated that “must see” feeling. Maybe it was a lack of “stars” (unknowns Nelson and Williams kind of stayed that way after their big Spielberg break, at least in terms of becoming A-listers). Maybe it was the “cashing in” vibe that inevitably rises up whenever a big popular movie spawns a belated retread: a delayed copy naturally isn’t going to be as compelling as the original (the first POLTERGEIST was so perfectly contained storywise—what else were you going to do with that family...except the same thing?). All of those factors probably registered with me back then, but more than likely, the underwhelming box office reports and the slew of iffy-to-bad reviews were the main reasons keeping me away from POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE until it showed up on cable...where it played cheap and contrived on that little 24-inch square tube.
Watching POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE now, it hasn't really improved...although it looks a hell of a lot better with Shout!’s new 2k restoration. Apparently it’s common knowledge among dedicated fans of the POLTERGEIST series that the sequels were extensively fiddled with by the studio after initial shooting; that’s certainly evident here in POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, where continuity errors, obviously tacked-on fright scenes, and dead-end plotlines are unfortunately revealed in the sometimes choppy editing. What’s curious is that no one seemed to have understood back then that with a movie like POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, the moviemakers just needed to get on with it. The first POLTERGEIST was iconic. Everyone saw it. So you didn’t need a prolonged set up for the sequel. Just get the characters in place and crank up the scare machine but quick. Nobody was looking for subtlety or art here.
Unfortunately, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE takes far, far too long in reestablishing the Freeling family in their new unfamiliar surroundings, with lots and lots of talk and feel-good scenes and goofy spiritualism and spousal bantering (no doubt included to satisfy Williams and Nelson), all of which is totally unnecessary to what this movie’s primary function should have been: scare the customer. There’s a lot of noodling speechifying from these characters, but if the intention was to “grow” and expand them for the viewer, it failed (I already liked them from the first movie—now I have to like them more?). The loss of the empathetic Dr. Lesh character from the first movie (I couldn’t find why Beatrice Straight passed on the sequel) is clumsily filled by Will Sampson’s stereotypical wiser-than-wise, braver-than-brave, enigmatic-sounding one-liners at the ready Indian shaman Taylor, whose inexplicable involvement with the Freeling family is justified with nothing more than a frankly ridiculous, “It’s my kind of job.” (with that kind of story logic, it’s a good thing Carol Ann didn’t speak to the dryer, or the Maytag Repairman might have shown up). We’re never told what previous connection he has with Reverend Kane (we assume it goes way back, implying Sampson’s character is immortal or something), nor does it make any sense that Sampson’s main purpose in the story is to re-teach the Freelings what they already learned the hard way in the first movie: family love conquerors all. As for POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE’s central Kane storyline, boring dialogue exposition reveals it too quickly (gee, I love radio...but couldn’t you have shown us some of that backstory?), with the subliminal contrast between Sampson’s cosmic Indian/hippie spirituality and Kane’s insano Christian doomsday cultism making a facile juxtaposition that delivers zero food for thought (can Hollywood please retire the cliched Indian-as-a-combination Superman, All-Knowing God-Head, and Star Child from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSY once and for all?).
So if POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE’s story and characters are wanting, hows about them spookums? Decidedly tame, unfortunately. Importantly, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE’s milieu—Grandma Jess’ spacious, spread out Craftsman—just doesn’t lend itself to being believably besieged...or they just shot it wrong (the original’s bland, cookie-cutter Reagan-era mini Mc-Split Level was wonderfully evocative against the wild, evil spirits below it). TVs are out for the Freelings this go around, so Carol Ann’s little plastic toy phone is the new dopey gimmick for her communication with the spirit world (visually, the phone’s not frightening at all, compared to those creepy shots in the original, with Carol Ann bathed in snowy TV interference). So where are the scares in POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE? Even though the sequel cost twice as much to make as the original (while ironically delivering not even half the amount of frights), most of the special effects look pretty chintzy, and not primarily because of the limitations of the practical and optical effects of that pre-CGI era. A prime example of this is that smoke demon in the opening scene; apparently visual consultant H.R. Giger’s original concept was far more elaborate than the wispy little nothing that fades across the screen for a second or two. The effect itself is fine (looks like smoke to me); it’s the design of the effect that’s lame.
Giger’s other two major concepts here—“The Great Beast” and the “Vomit Creature” are more successful...which isn’t saying a lot. Everyone remembers Nelson ralphing up that big wormy thing (it’s POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE’s best gag—sorry), but why didn’t they keep the camera on it just a little bit longer? Would it have killed director Brian Gibson (DRUG WARS: THE CAMARENA STORY, THE JUROR) to center in on that thing spinning around on the floor, or show that legless creature squirming around a bit more? As for the “Great Beast,” it’s too dark in that hallway to properly see it (the scale seems off, too), while the reverse happens on “the other side”—the Beast looks all too cut-rate (like one of the talking trees in H.R. PUFNSTUF) with the green screen lines around it. And I can’t think of a less scary wrap-up for this story: the cast unconvincingly strung up on wires—your legs still obey gravity out there, huh?—floating around in a chirpy-bright, colorful miasma that looks like one of those Filmation backgrounds for an ARCHIE SHOW musical interlude. Too bad more of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE couldn’t have been like the movie’s best scene, when a quietly menacing Kane visits the Freeling house, ultimately screaming through the screen door that they’re all going to die. It’s a pretty cool, unsettling scene, nicely shot and scored and perfectly enacted by genuine weirdo Julian Beck (and without an expensive special effect in sight). But unhappily, it’s an isolated island in POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE’s sea of relatively mundane, cheap tricks, a sea perfectly described, reportedly, by its star, Heather O’Rourke: “I just thought [POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE] was too boring. You could fall asleep. It didn't excite me, it didn't even scare me. I don't think it would scare anyone.” You got it, Heather.
The newly restored 2k interpositive MPEG-4 AVC 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE looks quite dishy. Colors are subtly varied and realistic, blacks inky, and depth and fine image detail is quite impressive (maybe too impressive for those molds and models). Absolutely no compression issues. There are two English audio track options: DTS-MA 5.1 and 2.0 (one assumes the later is the original theatrical release?). I listened to the 5.1, naturally, and it’s a wow: booming bases and some impressive separation effects, with a wide, hairy aural soundscape. Dialogue is crystal clear. English subtitles are available.
New extras are plentiful here. First up is a commentary track with writer/producer Michael Grais, moderated by Michael Felsher. I can’t say Felsher is the most scintillating moderator out there, but Grais does come up with some interesting tidbits about the production, including acknowledging that the leads were allowed “script input” to guarantee their participation...before he admits the studio would have shot the movie with or without Williams and Nelson—they really only demanded O’Rourke’s participation (classic Hollywood move). Grais is also candid about other aspects of the production (he suspects composer Jerry Goldsmith was high during their first meet), before declaring the final sequence “nonsense.” The second commentary track features POLTERGEIST blogger David Furtney. He’s low-key and on-point with his thoughtful, laid-back detailing of the movie’s production; he’s particularly helpful in outlining where the studio reshuffled the movie’s narrative, while also comparing what was cut from the script (quite frankly, I would have preferred Furtney moderating Grais’ commentary).
Next, a new interview, "Robbie’s Return: An Interview with Oliver Robbins" (14:24), where the well-spoken Robbins discusses the director (no ad-libs allowed), Nelson (keep the set laughing), Williams (taught him how to act) and O’Rourke (Robbins is quite touching, speaking about her). Next, "The Spirit World: An Interview with Special Effects Designers Richard Edlund, Steve Johnson, and Screaming Mad George" (22:08) has the three wizs speaking (mostly Johnson) about all the major effects sequences in POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE. Quite detailed production info. Next, "Ghosts of Giger: A Look at the Contributions of Artist H.R. Giger" (20:56) is a really fascinating look at the artist and the challenges faced by his working (sort of) on POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE. Johnson, George, and Edlund are back (is it me, or is it clear that cranky Edlund does not like Giger?), along with Giger’s agent Les Barany, who offers up a wealth of interesting asides about the cult artist, including that he didn’t want to work in Hollywood for fear of leaving his cat alone too long back in Switzerland...and that he wasn’t happy with how his concepts were executed in the final movie. Next, three vintage promotional featurettes for 1986 are available (each with some repeating footage). "They’re Back: The Making of Poltergeist II" (6:14) has cast and crew discussing the production (Giger speaks, and is listed as “Special Effects Designer,” which is not how he’s credited onscreen). "Monster Shop and Ghostmakers: The Magic of Poltergeist II" (2:45) is a quick look at some of the effects works, and behind-the-scenes production. "Ghostmakers: The Magic of Poltergeist II" (6:28) is also similarly themed (yeah...Edlund definitively doesn’t like Giger). Next, an original trailer (1:20), three TV spots (2:04), and a still gallery (6:12) with promotional material are included, rounded out by selected script pages (zoom in), and new reversible cover art for the disc’s slipcase. (Paul Mavis)
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