Three years after the release of Tobe Hooper’s/Stephen Spielberg’s well-received Poltergeist, director Brian Gibson had the difficult task of following up with a sequel. Poltergeist II: The Other Side continues to follow the Freeling family from the first film – primarily Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) – but this time in a different location with a new series of hauntings and a more spiritual storyline involving Native American shamanic rituals. The paranormal subgenre is often difficult to revitalize, but Gibson manages to work enough different ideas into Poltergeist II – while also remaining true to the franchise – to craft a suitable sequel.
The film follows the Freelings after the events of Poltergeist, when their house got sucked into the ghost dimension. They’ve moved into Diane’s (JoBeth Williams) mother’s house, and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) has taken up vacuum cleaner sales as his profession. Unfortunately, Carol Anne is still the target of paranormal entities from beyond the grave, who are not keen on giving her up even after she’s left the previously haunted household. This time, the threat comes in the form of Reverend Kane (Julian Beck), an old cult leader who is able to corporeally manifest and also cause all kinds of bad poltergeist-level haunts thanks to the rest of the cult members trapped by him in the spirit realm.
Gibson’s follow-up to Poltergeist manages to recreate the same dynamics within the Freeling family (besides the intentional exclusion of older sister Dana), especially in the film’s opening moments. Both Diane and Steve maintain their happy-go-lucky personas despite the hardships they’ve been facing, coming together in a scene much like the opening of the original film where they joke about how they’ll explain their house’s disappearance to the insurance company. Similarly, Carol Anne continues to experience her paranormal link to the other side via phone call from her recently departed grandmother while Robbie (Oliver Robins) is again terrorized by his toys.
For the most part, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a simple copy of the first film until Kane makes his appearance. Writing from Mark Victor and Michael Grais emphasizes the familial connection, the importance of the spirit world, and the supernatural link to technology; had Poltergeist II not opted to include Kane and the shaman Taylor (Will Sampson), the film might have been a facsimile of the original, a serviceable but otherwise stale sequel.
Instead, though, the film branches out with its inclusion of Kane – as a cult leader, his background is interesting but often hidden by the film’s hesitancy to dive into flashback sequences. What Poltergeist II gives the audience is a convoluted plot about an apocalyptic cult misled by Kane, killed and then trapped in the spirit world and unable to go toward the light. One could argue that Poltergeist never had a very strong plot when it came to the actual motivation behind the spirit threat, but Poltergeist II: The Other Side becomes muddled when attempting to explain how Kane can manifest in the physical realm yet still require the help of his cult legion to trap Carol Anne in the spirit realm.
Still, that aspect of the film can be overlooked when the audience considers how well Beck portrays Kane in the scenes when he menaces the Freeling family. Beck’s visage is already disconcerting without him saying a word, but he’s even eerier when singing a Biblical psalm while slowly making his way down the sidewalk in the rain. While Kane himself doesn’t get a lot of screentime, Beck puts on a great show, and the visual effects during the infamous worm vomit scene even incorporate an outline of Beck’s face on the demon.
Speaking of effects, this is probably one of the highlights of Poltergeist II: The Other Side; the work here shines thanks to designs inspired by H.R. Giger, which at first seems like an odd choice for a paranormal film but works as an experiment. It’s also used to differentiate some of the haunting scenes from the first film, opting for a more physical presence than the ethereal representations in the first film.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side is an enjoyable sequel, and while it doesn’t necessarily have the impact of the original film’s suspense, one can’t deny its ambition. The motivation behind the spirits’ obsession with Carol Anne is muddy, and Taylor’s Native American shamanism is no replacement for Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), but fans of the first film will undoubtedly find a lot to like in Gibson’s follow-up. Physical effects and a memorable final performance from Julian Beck are the stand-out reasons to catch this flick, though it should also be praised as the last solid Poltergeist film, with the abysmal Poltergeist III to follow.