When "Poltergeist III" reached the big screen in June 1988, it was shrouded in a dismaying tragedy that could not be denied or ignored: the death of its star and the arguable face of the entire "Poltergeist" franchise, 12-year-old Heather O'Rourke. Even nearly three decades later, it is impossible to watch the film without thinking of this talented young actress' fate and the bright future taken from her. While "Poltergeist III" flopped at the box office and has been widely mocked for the sheer number of times the name "Carol Anne" is called out over the span of 98 minutes, a growing audience of fierce defenders have now risen. Take away the stigma surrounding it, and this is an exceedingly crafty, stylish, innovative sequel (easily superior to 1986's "Poltergeist II: The Other Side
"), injected by writer-director Gary Sherman and co-writer Brian Taggert with a newfound freshness in its radical change in location from a suburban neighborhood to a big-city luxury skyscraper. Chicago's real-life, 100-story John Hancock Center houses apartments, businesses, shopping, restaurants, and indoor swimming, and it instantly becomes a prominent, deliciously unsettling character itself.
11-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) has been sent to Chicago to temporarily stay with her mother's gallery-owning sister, Aunt Pat (Nancy Allen), and Pat's husband, Bruce (Tom Skerritt), while attending a school for gifted children. Moving across the country has not stopped the maniacal, deceased preacher Kane (Nathan Davis, replacing the late Julian Beck) from finding Carol Anne. Looking to be brought back to the realm of the living, he begins to haunt the property while setting his sights on reaching the young girl through the wall-to-wall mirrors and reflections found throughout the John Hancock Building.
"Poltergeist III" is elegant filmmaking, an expert juggling of supernatural horror, suspense, surrealism, slice-of-life character drama, and technical trickery. Using precious few opticals outside of screen titles and a closing lightning strike, director Gary Sherman has crafted a veritable funhouse of ingenious "in-camera" effects (many of them involving mirrors) the likes of which have never been attempted before or since on such a heightened level. The degree of complexity involved in pulling off scene after scene is rather staggering, and what is even more astonishing is that so much of it is accomplished without attention being called to it.
Sherman's observational eye and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy's meticulous lensing work in tandem, keeping focus on Carol Anne and her surrogate home-away-from-home familyPat, Bruce, and Bruce's teenage daughter Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle, eye-catching in her pre-"Twin Peaks" screen debut)as well as the freaky goings-on invading their lives. Heather O'Rourke is wonderful as Carol Anne, her natural presence and intuitive talent as an actor very clear; that a light as shining as hers was extinguished so prematurely continues to hurt. Nancy Allen (1980's "Dressed to Kill
") is terrific in her own right as Pat Gardner, struggling to care for Carol Anne while warring with her own parental skills and inadvertent selfishness. There has always been something particular uncompromising about Pat, and the reflective journey she takes throughout as a person and in her relationship with her niece rings emotionally true.
Equipped with snappy, rat-a-tat writing, a lovely music score of chills and sentimentality by Joe Renzetti, and working as a sort of enticing travelogue of the John Hancock Center on top of everything else, "Poltergeist III" revels in the purity of eerie surprise and Jabberwocky-esque, through-the-looking-glass logic. Evil reflections that pounce. Puddles used as portals to an alternate realm. Icy boiler rooms. Snowswept underground parking garages. Fog-drenched stairwells. Spindly-armed, head-turning gallery sculptures. A window-washing unit sending Pat and Bruce a thousand feet above street level. 1982's "Poltergeist
" will always be a singular achievement in the haunted-house subgenre, but this final chapter in the original trilogy mixes in the mysterious, abstract flair of David Lynch, opting to go in a new, eye-openingly exciting direction. True, "Carol Anne" is uttered enough times that no viewers will dare ever forget our heroine's name, but "Poltergeist III" is an otherwise thoroughly hypnotic thriller, unique and uniquely independent as additional layers reveal themselves with each viewing.