Poltergeist III (1988, Gary Sherman)

Poltergeist III is about as thrilling as watching someone wash a window. Literally. Outside ostensible protagonist Heather O’Rourke and special guest star Zelda Rubinstein, no one from the previous films returns. The film opens with O’Rourke living in Chicago with aunt Nancy Allen, a yuppie recently married to Tom Skerritt, presumably a widower with a teenage daughter (Lara Flynn Boyle). There’s a lot of setup with the family, and it goes absolutely nowhere. It’s probably better it doesn’t, as the writing’s so bad. Allen’s whole arc for the movie—which takes place over a single day—involves her not loving her family enough. Except the first act shows the opposite. She, Boyle, and O’Rourke are downright pals, turning getting to the morning carpool into a veritable action set piece.

The family lives in a combination skyscraper shopping mall; the exteriors are the John Hancock Building, some interiors there, some interiors elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea for a setting (it’s a Judge Dredd tower block), except every time the characters go somewhere interesting, the scenes are either super-short or off-screen. Skeritt works for the building, so he’s got passkeys, which will be necessary for teenage shenanigans, and Allen’s got an unlikely art gallery in the high-class shopping mall.

Except Allen makes her assistant, E.J. Murray, do all her work, which is where Allen starts getting unlikable. She never gets much more unlikable because her performance becomes weird about halfway through, as she seems incredibly resentful she’s appearing in Poltergeist III. It should work with the plot as her character eventually wants to run away from the haunted skyscraper. Still, neither Allen nor director Sherman can make Allen’s disgust in the project carry through into the performance.

However, Allen is a trooper. She gets through Poltergeist III and all its absurdities and inanities. Just when the movie seems like it’s going to focus on O’Rourke and surrogate big sister Boyle (who low-key resents having a tween charge), it instead becomes Skerritt and Allen running around the skyscraper. Sometimes they’re on their own; sometimes, they’ve got asshole child psychologist Richard Fire with them. Fire is O’Rourke’s doctor, and he hates her and hates her ghost stories. Like much of Poltergeist III it ought to be campy bad; instead, it’s boring, inept bad.

The best thing in the movie, objectively, is Alex Nepomniaschy’s photography. He shoots the building interiors beautifully. And doesn’t do too bad with the competently executed but terribly designed supernatural sequences, which are sometimes too silly to work and sometimes just too poorly directed. Even though director Sherman designed all the physical effects himself, he didn’t know how to shoot them. Bummer.

But the most amusing thing about Poltergeist III is Skerritt’s performance. Allen, Boyle, and some other cast members survive the film and never let it defeat them, but Skerritt is enthusiastic and eager in this terrible movie. Allen occasionally looks mad he’s putting so much effort into it. It never ever pays off, but it’s an exceptionally professional turn from Skerritt. The movie doesn’t deserve most of its cast members—I mean, only Fire is so godawful he deserves it—but Skerritt’s a champ for getting through it.

Poltergeist III is one of those “must be seen to be believed” pictures, but it’s also one of those “there’s truly no reason to see this movie” movies. It’s insufferably dull too. Editor Ross Albert holds shots too long (presumably because otherwise, the film wouldn’t run more than ninety minutes), and there are numerous action sequences where Sherman confuses tension and boredom.

Don’t see Poltergeist III. Watch paint dry or window washing instead.

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