Poltergeist III (1988) Review

For all the myriad of rumours, innuendo and tragedy which dogged this franchise, it seems like “Poltergeist III” suffered the most from the burden of the alleged curse, due in large part to the sad death of star Heather O’Rourke at the age of 12 shortly after production wrapped. In content and casting, it’s an almost complete departure from the previous two films with only O’Rourke and Zelda Rubenstein achieving the distinction of appearing in all three movies.

Heather O'Rourke Poltergeist III
Heather O’Rourke’s death was a tragic loss, not least because she was shaping up to be a terrific little actress

Sent to stay with her Aunt and Uncle in Chicago while she attends a school for gifted but troubled children in the city. When one of the psychologists at the school, determined to expose Carol Anne as some kind of fraud, hypnotises her, he inadvertently attracts the attention of the demonic spirit of Kane who heads to the windy city to put the wind up the residents of the John Hancock Centre.

Although it strays from the usual “Poltergeist” template, there are a lot of good ideas in “Poltergeist III”. The idea of doing a haunted house but in a shiny, modern skyscraper is a great idea and there are many sequences which in and of themselves are terrific horror movie moments. Likewise, the use of mirrors is a wonderful conceit and used to great effect as the tower turns against the residents and Kane hunts for Carol Anne. The ingredients are all there but somehow it never quite comes together and it’s mostly because it feels the need to explain and justify its connection to the previous two movies over and over again. There’s an unmistakable self-consciousness surrounding the entire movie, probably due to the absence of the entire main cast apart from Carol Anne herself.

Mirrors, mirrors, on the wall, which creepy preacher's come to call? Poltergeist III
Mirrors, mirrors, on the wall, which creepy preacher’s come to call?

Not that the cast writer/ director Gary Sherman assembled is anything to be self-conscious about. Genre veterans Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen are a safe pair of hands and amongst the youngsters brought in to no doubt add a bit of ‘sex appeal’ there’s a young Lara Flynn Boyle making her feature debit. They all make the most of the material available to them, although there’s not one character who wouldn’t have benefited from a little more fleshing out.

Its unavoidably compromised final narrative still offers glimpses here and there of what could have been a really good threequel instead of the adequate one which we ended up with. Not only had the series lost Reverend Kane actor to cancer before “Poltergeist II” was released but even Zelda Rubenstein had to cut her participation short when her mother passed away during filming. It may not have been cursed, but it was certainly unlucky. Deprived of these elements, there are too many ideas and events which end up underdeveloped or unexplored, the main one being Dr Seaton (Richard Fire), Carol Anne’s psychologist.

Tangina tells Dr Seaton where to stick it in Poltergeist III
Tangina tells Dr Seaton just where he can stick his scientific instruments

The presence of a sceptical psychologist seeking to debunk the ethereal phenomenon is a bold and fresh idea to bring to the franchise, paralleling the open-minded and supportive parapsychologists of the first movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. Not because having a sceptic isn’t a proven horror trope, it’s just that Seaton’s alternative explanation of the events which befell the Freeling family is equally bizarre and pseudoscientifically nonsensical. In the end, it side-lines the sceptic versus true believer confrontation between Tangina Barron and Dr Seaton in favour of an underbaked story of Nancy Allen’s character having to prove her love for her ‘adopted’ family in order to save Carol Anne.

Carol Anne in the mirror Poltergeist III
? I’m starting with Carol Anne in the mirror, I’m asking Kane to change his ways…. ?

Ultimately, the problem “Poltergeist III” isn’t able to overcome is that the story was pretty much wrapped up in the previous film and it doesn’t do enough to justify digging everything up again, even if it does rally to provide a satisfyingly sacrificial ending to the whole Kane saga. That being said, although it’s a pale reflection of the two movies which came before, taken on its own merits, “Poltergeist III” is a decent haunted housing complex film in its own right and better than its undeserved reputation would have you believe.

Halloween Score 6