“Carol Anne! Carol Anne! Bruce! Bruce! Patricia! Patricia! Carol Anne! Bruce!”
One of the funniest episodes of Siskel & Ebert features their dialogue-mocking review of Poltergeist III, which is one of my all-time biggest guilty pleasures. I love the way Gene chimes in when Roger says he hopes the residents of the John Hancock Center got free tickets (“I hope they didn’t.”). It’s a silly take on a ridiculous movie, the second sequel to what I believe to be one of the greatest horror films ever made.
My esteem for the first Poltergeist is not why I’ve always had a soft spot for Poltergeist III. I hated Poltergeist II: The Other Side as a kid, yet I latched onto the next installment with immense fascination and fear. Partly it was the state-of-the-art skyscraper setting, which my 11-year-old self believed to be an inspired choice (the 13-year-old me would go on to accept Gremlins 2: The New Batch as a better use of such a location). Mostly, though, it’s always been the creepy mirror tricks that make me an unapologetic fan.
The magic of the looking glass and reflections in general have been of interest to storytellers for millennia, especially for the way they provoke an idea of another, near-identical universe visible and approachable through a kind of window or portal. Sometimes there’s wonder to the idea, as in Lewis Carroll’s stories of Alice, but more often it seems to be the stuff of horror, especially on the big screen. Yet another scary movie involving a mirror, Oculus, opens this weekend, so I figured it’s a good time to look back on my favorite example.
26 years ago, I didn’t even have an awareness let alone an appreciation for the way the mirror effects in Poltergeist III were achieved. I still don’t completely know how many of them were done to this day (if anyone can find a better look behind the scenes than this video, which doesn’t even really feature a single mirror trick, please bring it to my attention). Whether it was always the plan to go practical and live with the special effects or if the budget tightening led to the choice, the illusions conceived by director Gary Sherman and executed by Cal Acord wound up being really impressive, almost enough to make up for all the film’s flaws, and I wish that was recognized by more critics, including Siskel and Ebert — at least Siskel’s colleague Dave Kehr, who took on the print review for the Chicago Tribune, is one of the few to have spotlighted what little good there was here, comparing the effects it to “a clever stage magic act.”
While the original Poltergeist had the one memorably gross mirror moment, Poltergeist III was filled with almost nothing but delusions where what’s happening in a reflection (in a mirror, a window or water) is not matched with what’s going on in front of (or above) it. One of the earliest instances, when Patricia (Nancy Allen) sees Bruce (Tom Skerritt) walk away from her in person and then sees the delayed version in the mirror, stuck with me immediately and has remained ever since. Usually it’s only after a re-watch of the movie that I keep a close eye on the bathroom mirror, though for most of my life the worry that reflections are not entirely reflecting everything they should be has been in the back of my mind. I’ll never live somewhere as mirror-ific as the building in the movie, that’s for sure. Nor will I ever take a dance class. Yes, I am prone to senseless paranoia, and I’m fine with it.
I wouldn’t say Poltergeist III ever scared me. Gave me the willies, maybe, but it sure isn’t the frightener that the initial movie is (let’s see, I had nightmares about clowns, trees, meat, muddy pits filled with skeletons, closets filled with vertical Sarlacc mouths, that giant spider-like ghost and more). Sherman, on this film, was like a magician with a lot of neat tricks but not a comprehensive routine, which is really too bad because modern cinema could have used more of that kind of practical creativity.
Now it’s probably too late for it. Poltergeist is currently on the remake/reboot belt, and due to how bad they are I’d like to see parts II and III get a second chance, as well. There’s potential in the latter, for sure. But visuals like its mirror illusions are too easily done today with computers, and it’s hard to argue why the on-set crafting of such effects would be necessary.
Chances are most of you have either not revisited Poltergeist III since it came out or never bothered to see it in the first place due to its across-the-board negative reviews (even horror-review king Scott Weinberg, who can intelligently defend a lot of junk out there, labeled it “one of the worst movies ever made”). At least give the effects another look, especially if you’re disappointed in how few actual mirror tricks Oculus has (it’s still good, though, mostly for the editing, go see it). You can even skip the stupid story and watch the following clips: