Today marks twenty-five years since the U.S. release of Gary Sherman’s Poltergeist III, a film that has been derided far too much over the last quarter century. It bombed at the box office before terrifying a generation of small-screen viewers (specifically, my generation), and is most infamous for being released four months after the death of its lead actress, Heather O’Rourke. An unbelievably talented child star who would have evolved into a truly great adult star, Heather O’Rourke was so synonymous with the role of "Carole Anne Freeling" that her tragic death before filming was complete seems almost like a ghastly extension of this uniquely nightmarish film. Although savaged by critics upon its initial release, I assume that it has since earned itself a place high in the ranks of 80s cult horror films. It’s as frightening a picture as Gary Sherman’s earlier 80s gems, the darkly comic voodoo masterpiece Dead and Buried and the gritty prostitution thriller Vice Squad. The cast is uniformly exceptional, especially the pitch-perfect performances by its two late stars. Heather O’Rourke was at her most controlled and impressive by the third film, and once again Zelda Rubinstein expertly walks the fine line between genius and camp as filmdom’s most famous medium: the legendary “Tangina”. Despite its stellar performances and effectiveness as a relentlessly claustrophobic and surreal horror film, it does have its fair share of unintentionally hilarious shortcomings. This is best illustrated in this priceless (negative) review of the film by the late, great Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, arguably one of the funniest segments ever broadcast on their classic TV series.
Poltergeist III was a film that I did not see until my life-changing Summer of 1991. For years I’d only been allowed to either gaze at the 80s horror movie covers at the video store or “settle” for classic movies of the 30s and 40s like Bride of Frankenstein and I Walked With A Zombie. But then one day near the end of the third grade my Dad told me he would let me see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho if I put more effort into Little League. (I was never one for sports, so movie privileges were often an incentive during my thankfully brief baseball chapter.) I can’t remember if he showed it to me or I watched it by myself, as I most remember subsequently watching it over and over that summer. I was not frightened, but I LOVED everything about it, and consider it a great blessing that the film which birthed modern horror should be my own starting point. Viewing Poltergeist and its sequels followed shortly thereafter. Like Psycho, I watched the Poltergeist movies so many times that summer that memories of the repeat viewings all absorb into one another. But unlike Psycho, the Poltergeist movies freaked me out.
Two years later, my wonderful 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Quinn, had everyone in class create our own magazines. My magazine was called Boston Entertainment, and was a mish-mash of Entertainment Weekly and Premiere Magazine—literally. I spliced ads from both into my magazine, along with a few reviews by my favorite local film critic, James Verniere of The Boston Herald, with full credit of course. In addition to the collage of cut-outs and capsule reviews, the magazine contained a number of articles which I wrote myself, including this one about the future of the American horror film. I rediscovered this “magazine” in my parents’ attic and thought I would share my favorite article in honor of Poltergeist III's 25th Anniversary and Boston Entertainment's 20th (!) anniversary. I still remember the urgency with which I wrote it: as someone who aspired to make horror films, I felt that my own future was at stake. I wanted to insure that a market would still exist when I was old enough to make my dreams come true, and my fears in those dismal days of early 90s horror were all too valid. The genre has come a long way since. But now corporate influence, economic turmoil, changing technology, and unprecedented piracy are all drowning out the voices of independent filmmakers. Indeed, there is once again reason for those of us pursuing a career in horror films to proceed with caution. And so, without further adieu, here is another blast from my past, peppered with a bit of present-day commentary .
My lone foray into magazine publishing.
The Horror of Horrors:
Will Scary Movies Be
Here For Us To Look
By Robert Jeffrey
Have you ever heard of “Jaws”? You probably have, because it IS a classic. Still, have you ever heard of the movie “Leprechaun”? In my opinion, it is a true horror, blending comedy and scary special effects to make it perfect, but just the title probably sounds strange to you, although some people are familiar with it. “Jaws” was a box office smash, but “Leprechaun” was out for less than a week in Peabody.
Alas, I would never again rave on about Leprechaun
as much as I did at the age of eleven.
These are just two examples of what people may realize is happening in theaters, or may not care to notice. What is it that makes a horror movie popular? Is it special effects, suspense, black humor, or a hip, cool style? The reason I don’t mention a “foundation” such as a bestselling novel is because many Stephen King movies, such as “The Dark Half”, are movies that are not only bombs at the movies, but I don’t even consider most of them to be real horrors.
Sorry, I don't know why I was so mean to Stephen King adaptations! Worse yet, I hadn't even seen The Dark Half when I wrote this--and it's a GREAT movie.
Maybe special-effects is the way to go. In the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, part three made forty-seven million (1987), and part four made forty-nine million (1988). Both of these movies were the most popular of the “Nightmare” movies, and these were both crammed with mind-boggling special effects. Still, other movies like “Dr. Giggles” also had fairy gory special effects, but it didn’t quite pack ‘em in the aisles.
I haven't seen Dr. Giggles since childhood, and it MIGHT be a terrible movie...
but, to this day, I still LOVE the ad campaign!
Maybe it is a campy style. In the movie “Fright Night” which starred Fox 25 regulars William Ragsdale of “Herman’s Head” and Amanda Bearse of “Married…With Children”. I found this 1985 movie which was supposedly a hit at the ticket booths to have real wit, suspense, comedy, some great FX, and camp. Yes, I found this movie to have really cool style that most Stephen King horrors miss by a mile, which made this one of my favorite, if not my very favorite, horror movies. Still, some hated this movie, so don’t rely on modern gimmicks.
My #1 favorite scene in my #1 favorite vampire movie of all time.
(I think it's safe to say I still love Fright Night as much as I did at eleven.)
Maybe it is suspense. Lots of suspense movies get better reviews by critics and make more money at the box office than some horrors. Still, that doesn’t mean horrors don’t have suspense. The classic “Jaws” was not only one of the biggest (meaning made the most money) movies of all time, but it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Another horror noted for its superb suspense was the terrifying “Halloween”. Not only was the music in this just as bad as “Jaws”, but its great acting by Jamie Lee Curtis (“My Girl”) and Donald Pleasance (The 1979 version of “Dracula”) and its plot that WAS creative at this time, the movie is excellent.
The night I saw Halloween deserves its own blog post,
because it's been one of my biggest cinematic/life influences ever since.
As we see, there are lots of good reasons to see a horror, but if you see a bad one, the rest you’ll see will be bad too. With that in mind, here are the horrors that I consider to be the best (although some have the gore that I don’t usually like):
It would not be until the 6th grade that I saw most of the great American horror films--hence that pitiful list. But with the exception of Dr. Giggles and Leprechaun, I still LOVE those movies, and Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street remains my favorite horror movie of all.