POLTERGEIST III is a film that had a lot going against it from the get-go. It had half the budget of POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams weren’t returning as Carol Anne’s parents, and Julian Beck passed away before he could reprise his memorable role as the evil preacher Kane.
That said, while it’s clearly the weakest of the original POLTERGEIST trilogy, I’ve still always enjoyed the film. It had some creative trick camera shots, nice special effects work, and a handful of memorable sequences.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the reasons I think POLTERGEIST III, after all these years, is worth another look.
REASON #1: DR. SEATON!
If there’s one thing we all love in horror movies, it’s a character we can collectively hate. Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire) fills that role perfectly in POLTERGEIST III. He’s a shrink who is trying to figure out what’s wrong with Carol Anne, but he dismisses any problems she has as mental tricks she’s playing on everyone. Indeed, he stubbornly attributes every phenomenon he and other people in the film witness to being mere “powers of suggestion” by a crafty Carol Anne, rather than actual ghosts. Sure, Doc… entire swimming pools freezing over in an instant and someone getting killed right before your eyes were just forms of mass hysteria caused by a terrified little girl. Nice theory.
He also comes off as completely pompous: imagine the voice of Data (Brent Spiner) from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, only he’s now a total dick, and you have Dr. Seaton in a nutshell. Thankfully, as with most assholish characters in horror films, he meets his untimely demise when one of the mirror-reflection spirits shoves him down an elevator shaft.
Don’t worry, Dr. Seaton; you’re not dead. Your death is just a figment of your imagination caused by Carol Anne… right?
REASON #2: TANGINA, TANGINA, TANGINA!
I’ll never understand why some people didn’t like the psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) in the POLTERGEIST series. In the third installment, she gets a lot of dialogue, so if you are a fan of hers, that’s a big reason to appreciate this unsung flick.
“Youth is a strong life force. Innocence is pure life force. We lose strength as we lose our innocence. You see, innocence is the only gift we’re given in life; all else must be fought for. In that gift is purity. In that purity lies strength.” Damn right, Tangina! I mean, come on! Tangina is basically the Yoda of the POLTERGEIST films, and you cannot help but give her hypnotic speeches your absolute undivided attention. The way she delivers every word with passion and caution makes you scared to take your eyes off of her for even a second.
FUN FACT: For her role as Tangina, Zelda Rubinstein was nominated for both a Saturn Award and a Razzie Award. I guess her character was divisive among moviegoers, but I’m definitely on the side of “Best Supporting Actress” for ol’ Zelda.
REASON #3: A TEXAS INSTRUMENTS SPEAK & SPELL CAMEO!
Look, I’ll always be a sucker for the corny speech synthesis that this toy featured, so I was happy to see it make an appearance in the movie. After being introduced at the very start of POLTERGEIST III, the Speak & Spell is used to lure Tangina into a false sense of security as Carol Anne’s sinister reflection plays with it. Would’ve been nice if she typed something like “D-I-E” into it right before attacking Tangina (I’ve always thought that was a missed opportunity), but it still does what it needs to.
Sure, it’s not used hilariously like when we all laughed at Leatherface playing with a Speak & Spell and identifying a clown as “food” in LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, but few things are.
REASON #4: BAD KANE MAKEUP!
Whether or not you liked POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE, there’s no denying that Kane (Julian Beck) was creepy as hell. Sadly, Beck passed away before he could reprise his role as Kane in the third film. Rather than not feature Kane in the story and come up with a new entity to terrorize Carol Anne, the filmmakers recast the role with Nathan Davis playing him on screen and Corey Burton providing his voice. This Kane just doesn’t look right; while they did their best to recreate the original, the makeup team made him look like somebody wearing an obvious geriatric mask.
What the filmmakers failed to realize is that part of what made Julian Beck so perfect for the role of Kane was that he looked like a walking, talking human skeleton. His emaciated appearance, coupled with his singing of old hymns, made him insanely creepy, and he’s just not achieving that here.
Still, I’ve always found it fascinating that they cast two people to replace Beck, and it still wasn’t up to snuff, so that alone makes it for a fun watch.
REASON #5: THE PUDDLE!
I’m pretty sure this scene needs no introduction, as it’s easily one of the standouts in POLTERGEIST III: Carol Anne finds herself alone in the parking garage, running away from the chilling spirit of Kane that’s been stalking her. She walks backward and ends up standing in a puddle that suddenly opens up and begins to glow brightly, as some hands that look like they belong to SWAMP THING try to pull her underwater.
It’s an effective scene, and every time I’ve been in a parking garage that has some pipes leaking onto the ground, I’m immediately taken back to Carol Anne being dragged under, and make a point to avoid them. I’m sure they’re merely shallow puddles… but why risk tempting Kane?
REASON #6: TANGINA’S SURPRISE DEMISE!
I mentioned how the Speak & Spell was used to lure in Tangina, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss her death scene that came completely out of nowhere.
If there’s one thing in the movie that caught me off guard, it had to be Tangina suddenly being killed by Carol Anne’s reflection. And she wasn’t just killed in simple fashion… no, with a simple tap on the shoulder, Tangina was instantly turned into what I can only describe as a mummy corpse. Then, when Tangina’s body collapses to the ground, a hand suddenly bursts through her face and begins ripping her crusty and slimy body apart, only to reveal that it’s Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle). It was one of those scenes that just left you thinking, “Where the hell did that come from!?”
REASON #7: BREAKING MIRRORS!
Unlike the previous two films, POLTERGEIST III takes place inside a large luxury apartment building, which appears to be filled with mirrors on virtually every surface. Well, I’m here to tell you that if you want to play a drinking game that ensures you’ll get alcohol poisoning, look no further than tossing one back every time a mirror is broken in this film. Yes, we know that Kane is on the other side of the mirror and screwing around with everyone, but the filmmakers really wanted to drive this point home by breaking mirrors at any given opportunity.
Of all the mirrors that are broken in the movie, the most laughable is seeing Donna open up her compact and realizing that the mirror is broken. The ominous music that plays during this scene suggests that this is supposed to be scary, but it makes me laugh every single time I see it.
Also, for a series of films known for being cursed, maybe writing a script in which countless mirrors would be broken wasn’t the best of ideas? Please tell me that I’m not the only one who sees the irony here? I’m sure if they filmed a fourth movie, it would’ve featured characters constantly walking under ladders and having black cats cross their paths. Incredible.
REASON #8: THE MEAT FREEZER!
At one point in the film, Patricia and Bruce find themselves locked inside a meat freezer, and it actually turns out to be a pretty great scene. For starters, there are several frozen animals just hanging in there, and they suddenly start moaning and writhing on their meat hooks while the couple panics and tries to open the door. Then, in a nice display of trick photography, a hose begins filling up the freezer vertically with water along the back wall. So rather than rising up from the ground below them, the water approaches Patricia and Bruce from the side. To cap it off, Tangina emerges from the water to give them some hope in the form of her powerful amulet necklace.
It’s a great scene, and I’ve always felt like most people don’t even remember it after having blocked the movie from their memory. Definitely worth revisiting.
REASON #9: SHOVEL SEVERING!
Come on now, what horror fan doesn’t love a good decapitation? While Kane’s makeup certainly wasn’t the best, the scene in which Patricia chops off his head with a shovel was plenty o’ fun. Using practical effects, we see cuts between Patricia’s terrified expression and the flesh melting right off of Kane’s face, revealing the rotted skull beneath it. Good stuff!
REASON #10: MUSTACHE SKELETON!
I’ve always felt like Tom Skerritt landed a lot of his roles because the filmmakers just needed a guy with an awesome mustache. While he wasn’t nearly as interesting to watch as Craig “Coach” Nelson in the previous POLTERGEIST movies, his mighty mustache still fought the good fight against Kane.
Late in the film, Bruce takes Tangina’s advice and makes his way into Carol Anne’s room — where Kane is holding her captive — by breaking through the outside window. When he jumps into the light and smoke-filled room, his fate is unknown… but when his wife follows, she finds his skeleton on the ground. And the best thing about it? THE MUSTACHE REMAINS INTACT! Indeed, not even the evil powers of Kane could destroy that ‘stache. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that filmmakers need to up their game when it comes to featuring skeletons with excellent mustaches. Get on it, Hollywood!
I’m not sure it falls under “so bad it’s good,” but POLTERGEIST III still has plenty of fun moments that I think many horror fans may have overlooked since its initial release. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, and even though POLTERGEIST III is the weakest of the first three films, it still deserves our attention — if for no other reason than it would ultimately and tragically be Heather O’Rourke’s final role.