JAWS 2; HALLOWEEN II; THE RAGE: CARRIE 2—all of them horror film sequels that I can only label as "curiously frustrating", in that there's enough in them to like, but just as much to be skittish about. This is also true of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, the 1986 sequel to the highly acclaimed and highly successful 1982 Steven Spielberg co-produced/co-written horror film classic that Tobe Hooper (of THE Texas CHAINSAW MASSACRE fame) directed, and which ranks with THE SHINING as one of the few true horror classics of the 1980s.
The film picks up one year after the events of the original, as the Frelengs, led by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, have now moved off to a desert suburb of Phoenix, Arizona while trying to get a new start, living with Williams' mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Nelson is having a rough go of it trying to be a vacuum salesman; he had been in real estate, but the Cuesta Verde incident left him out in the cold. When Fitzgerald passes on, however, it lets open the door for some literal ghosts of the Frelengs' past to haunt them. They become terrorized all over again; and this time, getting in contact with both the famous medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) and an Indian (Will Sampson) well versed in the supernatural, they figure out why. Back in the 19th century, a group of White settlers were confronted by Indian warriors in what was to become the Cuesta Verde Estates, resulting in a horrific Sand Creek-type massacre that resulted in a mass graveyard that Nelson's former employers had built Cuesta Verde over. The spirits of those survivors, including especially a deranged preacher named Kane (Julian Beck), have come back to snatch O'Rourke and to lead them to the Light because they are still not at rest, but they seem to have no intention of bringing her back. Rubinstein and Sampson insist that the Frelengs must return to Cuesta Verde to confront Kane and his minions by entering the Other Side, that netherworld between life and death that Williams and O'Rourke crossed in the original. In between, though, they are confronted with a whole host of horrific things, including a "Vomit Creature", and a supernatural chainsaw that threatens to tear Nelson's station wagon apart as they head out for Cuesta Verde.
Unlike a lot of horror films, POLTERGEIST II maintains a good solid position of having five of the principals from the original film (Dominique Dunne, however, had been killed in real life shortly after the original film had been released), plus the solid special effects work of Richard Edlund, who had worked on the original. What POLTERGEIST II lacks, however, is the effective and incisive direction of Hooper and both his and Spielberg's understanding of the genre and of family. Mark Victor and Michael Grais, though they co-wrote the original's screenplay with Spielberg, somehow fail to grasp those concepts of the original; and Gibson, who directed the 1980 film BREAKING GLASS and later did 1993's WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, is not really in Hooper's, let alone Spielberg's, league. The mayhem may very well have been accelerated from the original, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's better.
Two additions, however, do work quite well. Sampson, a real-life Native American who starred in films like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, is extremely good as the Indian shaman who, along with Rubinstein, assists the Frelengs in their confrontation with the ghosts. And Beck is incredibly grisly and frightening as the deranged preacher out to permanently possess O'Rourke; he comes off as a supernatural version of Robert Mitchum's role in the 1955 classic NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
The most welcome return on POLTERGEIST II, besides Edlund's special effects, is Jerry Goldsmith's intense orchestral score. These things do keep this film from being just another Hollywood exploitational sequel. But what is there is still strangely empty; and that, in the end, is due to the absence of both Spielberg and Hooper in the basic involvement of things.