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A note on a film: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

I have to admit, I didn't love this film. While the potential was there to take the story in a different direction, pushing the film further into the realms of the supernatural, or even the psychological, too much of the narrative falls back on trying to 'one-up' the effects-driven haunted house set-pieces that made the first film such a success.

Never quite delivering on the promise of its intriguing sub-title (where rather that emphasise or explore "the other side" as a central component of the plot, the filmmakers instead relegate it to a generic, last-minute depiction of the afterlife, necessitated to bring the story to a close), the film is simply too mired in unconvincing scenes of domestic melodrama and ridiculous special effects. For a supposed horror film, Poltergeist II does very little to generate tension, suspense or actual fear, with any semblance of the unsettling provided only by the towering performance of Julian Beck as the film's antagonist, the Reverend Kane, and a short sequence involving a more conventional movie-monster, this time provided by the surrealist artist H. R. Giger.

However, there are some elements to the film that are nonetheless quite remarkable, given the particular circumstances, and are possibly worthy of a closer inspection here.

Firstly, what I liked most about Poltergeist II was the way the development of the character Kane (as well as his personal back-story) both deepens and subverts an element from the original film that could be seen, by today's standards, as a little basic; even derivative. In the original Poltergeist (1982), the reason for the initial haunting is suggested as being the result of the family's house having been built atop the site of an ancient burial-ground; the phantoms and apparitions that take vengeance against the family are effectively the displaced spirits of the dead.

In Poltergeist II however, the spirits are revealed to be the ghosts of a religious sect condemned to death by their wandering leader: the aforementioned Reverend Kane. Eager for his clan to show their devotion, and convinced that the world is about to end, Kane has his band of followers entombed alongside him in an underground cavern; consigning each of them - men, women and children - to a slow and painful death.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]: 

By itself, this element of the plot is both harrowing and unsettling. It's an example of a horror film evoking something that is terrifying becauseit's relatable; because it presents an instance of avoidable tragedy and human genocide that is all too real. The hopelessness of the followers' situation, the claustrophobia inherent in the subterranean setting, and the way the director Brian Gibson emphasises the pain and anguish on the faces of children (as their parents forever cling to the sermons of the evermore maddening Kane), are redolent of this more plausible, more human image of terror.

However, this element of the plot gives the film an added depth that is absent from its otherwise superior predecessor. As a character, Kane could be seen as a stand-in for almost any modern leader; a self-aggrandising individual willing to take his followers into oblivion in order to prove a point. There's an element of this that speaks to the dark heart of American history; the reality of people looking to men with no answers to provide them with a direction in times of great difficulty; as well as how these acts of self-sacrifice and religious hysteria gave fuel to the rhetoric of racism (one supporting character remarks that the Native Americans were initially blamed and persecuted for the disappearance of Kane and his followers).

Kane's presence could also offer an anti-theist commentary on religion in general, as the character enters the film like an anachronism; a skeletal preacher dressed in the garb of a pilgrim; softly singling 'God is in His Holy Temple' as he stalks his way up to the family's front door. Combined with the subtle inference of paedophilic intent - as Kane immediately focuses-in on the family's "little angle"; their youngest daughter, Carol-Anne - the spectre of religious fundamentalism, death cults and the devastating reality of abuse within the church, all feed back into our subconscious interpretation of the character and his attempts to infiltrate the family unit.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

While this particular reading will always work to underline our own fears, concerns and suspicions (as triggered by the reality of daily news-coverage and what many of us learned as "stranger danger" at school), I still prefer to think of Kane as more of a general commentary on 'the banality of evil', as opposed to anything more specific. Rather than simply portray a conventional 'bogeyman' figure, or a monster in the lineage of Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the Reverend Kane is a more complex and multi-dimensional character; a supernatural entity that nonetheless feels like an embodiment of a very real trait; one that compels individuals in positions of power to act out of arrogance and self-belief (instincts that often result in the suffering of innocent people).

It's worth pausing here to once again compliment the performance of Julian Beck as the Reverend Kane. Beck was a multi-talented artist (a writer, painter, theatre director and performer) whose rare forays into the cinema also included an appearance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's extraordinary film of Oedipus Rex (1967) and a late appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's underrated The Cotton Club (1984). At the time of Poltergeist II Beck was sadly in the final months of a battle against cancer, and his incredibly frail, old-before his time appearance lends a powerful credibility to his characterisation here.

Oedipus Rex [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967]:

As a respected avant-garde performer working in the mainstream, Beck doesn't seem to have approached the role as something that was beneath him. Instead, he invests the character with a keen intelligence and elevates it to the level of something powerful; Kane is horrifying but oddly sympathetic.

One of the strongest sequences in the film, both in terms of the narrative construction and in its basic filmmaking approach, is the scene in which Kane first arrives at the house of the main protagonists. Initially engaging in polite (but oddly portentous) small-talk, the scene quickly escalates into something more threatening; as Kane's efforts to influence the family seem charged with a supernatural force. As a moment of great cinema, the scene stands out as the defining moment of the entire film, and remains - in its own right - a masterclass in screenwriting, direction and performance.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side [Brian Gibson, 1986]:

Part of me can't help suspecting that this particular scene may have had an influence on the later films of David Lynch; in particular Lost Highway (1997) - in which the protagonist Fred Madison encounters the sinister Mystery Man at a party in the Hollywood hills - or the filmmaker's as yet final feature, Inland Empire (2006) - in which a strange, initially beguiling, but soon threatening older woman arrives at the home of the film's main character.

Lost Highway [David Lynch, 1997]:

Inland Empire [David Lynch, 2006]:

In each of these films, the sense of anxiety and discomfort comes from the threat of the home invasion; the very real fear that many of us have about letting a seemingly benign stranger into our homes, only then to be confronted by the dangerous reality of their true intentions. Again, the scene works because it's relatable. We understand this situation and the fear that the family might face because it's something that could actually happen.

Scenes such as the ones mentioned above are thought-provoking and compelling, but they stand out as rare occurrences in a film that too often becomes preoccupied with empty visual excesses and scenes that feel derivative of the previous film. Sequences of inanimate objects brought to life and attacking the family are ridiculous because they're so divorced from anything that could ever really occur. While the fear of a stranger turning up on your doorstep and taking a worrying interest in your youngest child is so close to some semblance of reality that it triggers something of our natural anxieties, a chainsaw floating through the air and attacking a station wagon, by contrast, seems rather silly.

Had Poltergeist II emphasised more moments like the ones discussed above - or chosen instead to explore the "the other side" of its title as some kind of metaphysical labyrinth (a precursor to 'the black lodge' of the long-running Twin Peaks perhaps- to once again evoke Lynch) - then it may have proven to be a film worthy of Beck's incredible performance and the more interesting themes that exist only within these faint fragments of interpretation.


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