Although it’s not showered with the same plaudits as its perfect predecessor, “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” is a far better sequel than its generally given credit for. It honours the events of the first film while expanding the mythology in satisfying and occasionally unexpected ways, It carves out a complementary yet distinct identity for itself thanks to the introduction of the one thing the first movie didn’t really have (or need): a manifest villain in the frankly terrifying form of Julian Beck’s Reverend Kane.
A year after their house imploded, the Freeling family are staying with Diane’s grandmother and arguing with the insurance company who are refusing to pay out. When Diane’s mother dies peacefully in her sleep, the family think their money worries are over. But the site of their previous home has become an archaeological dig and its unearthed a malevolent spirit who’s intent on claiming Carol Anne for his own.
Creating a sequel to a hit Spielberg film is no small task, but like that other underrated Spielberg-coattail-riding sequel “Jaws 2”, “Poltergeist II” starts strongly by bringing back the original cast (with one sad exception, due to the tragic murder of Dominique Dunne). Unlike the shark sequel, though, it sets out not to reprise the story from the first film but instead build upon and continue the story.
This time, the story focussed more intently on Carol Anne, not just as the youngest child abducted by malign spirits but as a special, gifted child whom the malevolent spirit of Reverend Kane seeks for a specific purpose. It gives the film a sense of creeping dread even during the daytime scenes that’s really effective.
It’s a bit more eager to get to the sharp end of things this time too, and less coy with showing the ‘monsters’ in all their glory. The effects work is a little more technically ambitious and hasn’t aged quite as well as before but there are still more than enough memorable sequences to sate horror fans’ appetites, with the tequila worm and Robbie’s braces lingering long in the memory. There’s some design work from 1980’s go-to-guy H R Giger but it’s different enough not to seem derivative of his more famous work on “Alien”.
The performances from the cast, new and old, are great and taken together, “Poltergeist” and “Poltergeist II” form a near-perfect two-part tale of a haunted house and family. Although there’s a disappointingly reduced role for Tangina in this sequel, she’s accompanied by Native American shaman Taylor (Will Sampson) who establishes a prickly rapport with long-suffering Freeling father Steve. There’s humour amidst the horror too. While it’s a little more overtly gruesome than its predecessor it replicates the first movie’s tone thanks to a more jocular tone as scepticism is replaced by weary incredulity.
Director Brian Gibson does a creditable job in keeping the tone and aesthetic aligned and manages to draw an incredibly creepy and sinister performance from Julian Beck as Reverend Kane, the human manifestation of ‘The Beast’ only glimpsed in the first movie. Beck’s earnestly folksy southern drawl adds immeasurably to Kane’s sense of menace, especially in the flashes of obsession and anger which occasionally fracture his carapace of civility.
All in all, “Poltergeist II” is stronger when it stays on this side of the astral plane, and some will find the hamfisted intertwining of Native American mysticism to be a little tasteless but there’s no denying it manages to find a way to add context to the first film’s events while also providing a satisfying – and eminently eighties movie – way to wrap things up.