It’s heeeere. And by “It,” I mean the Halloween season. For those keeping count, there are four, count ‘em, four Poltergeist movies, with three movies being from the ‘80s, and one being a remake from 2015. Now, the Poltergeist series was notably absent from my list of the 10 best horror movie franchises, and for good reason. Similar to the Exorcist movies, which I also ranked, there are more – if I’m being charitable – fairly lacking films in the series than great ones. But, unlike The Exorcist films, which arguably has at least two truly excellent movies in its series, Poltergeist may only have one.
Now, that’s not to say that the Poltergeist movies can’t be fun, as they are, in a spooky kind of way. In fact, I would say that all four films on this list have at least some enjoyable moments to them that will definitely put you in the Halloween spirit. So, without further ado, here is every Poltergeist movie, ranked.
Oh, and some spoilers up ahead.
4. Poltergeist III (1988)
Directed by Gary Sherman, in this third, and final, entry in the original series, the only returning member of the Freeling family, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a high rise apartment in Chicago. The insidious spirit of Rev. Henry Kane haunts her in mirrors, though, prompting the medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) to come to the rescue.
Poltergeist III is not good for a number of reasons. The plot feels stitched together and sloppy, the apartment setting, which takes place in Chicago’s John Hancock Center, somehow makes this movie feel even more dated today than the rest of the movies, and, as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel hilariously commented on in their review, some of the character’s names get repeated ad nauseam to the point where it becomes annoyingly comical after a while.
And yet, I still can’t completely hate on this film, despite generally feeling like it doesn’t even need to exist. For one thing, if mirrors scare you, then Poltergeist III has a few genuinely creepy scenes (I actually think the surprisingly good horror film, Mirrors, owes some of its credit to this film). And, the practical effects are also quite unique, especially with the parking lot moments. But, well, everything else is kind of awful, landing this movie at the bottom of the list. At least they tried something new, though. Can’t fault them for that.
3. Poltergeist (2015)
Directed by Gil Kenan, and starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris, the Poltergeist remake is about a family who moves into a house built over a burial ground, and the spirits kidnap the youngest daughter. This spurs the family to seek help from a team of parapsychologists, and yeah, it’s pretty much just the first movie with more jump scares and CGI. Hope you bought some popcorn!
Honestly, I’ve seen way worse horror remakes than Poltergeist 2015. The Nightmare on Elm Street remake comes to mind. As does the 2009 Friday the 13th remake. That said, I’ve also seen some pretty great horror remakes, such as The Blob, The Fly, and, a tad more recently, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, which is one of my favorite Zack Snyder films ever. The Poltergeist remake falls somewhere in the middle.
It’s mostly because the film doesn’t really take any risks, and is instead just an enjoyable, albeit not-very-scary, horror remake. As mentioned earlier, the jump scares are a little overdone, and the CGI is a tad overbearing, but Sam Rockwell is pretty good as the patriarch, and the story at least moves at a pretty brisk pace. That said, Jared Harris, as good an actor as he is, is no Zelda Rubinstein, so honestly, the remake just feels like a lesser version of the original. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing, either.
2. Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Directed by Brian Gibson, the first Poltergeist sequel is a direct follow up to the original and features most of the Freeling family, who are being haunted by “the Beast” from the first movie, who is now played by the thoroughly creepy Julian Beck when he’s in his Reverend form. A Native American shaman helps the family out as The Beast takes many forms and tries to take their daughter. Creepiness ensues.
And honestly, Poltergeist II, despite its weaknesses, is the scariest movie in the series for me. It might be because of the creatures, as H.R. Giger designed them. And even though Poltergeist II: The Other Side is not a kids’ movie, which is why I didn’t include it in my list of 5 surprisingly scary scenes from ‘80s kids movies, I can tell you wholeheartedly that I saw Poltergeist II when I was way too young, and the worm scene from this movie seriously messed me up as a child. Even more so than Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, and that’s saying something, since that movie scarred me as a child.
In the end, though, Poltergeist II has its fair share of faults that I’m somewhat glossing over, such as the Native American elements feeling shoved into the film and overlong, and the story feeling vastly inferior to the original. That said, the second movie still holds a special place in my heart for scaring the crap out of me as a child, so there. It ends up at number two on this list.
Directed by Tobe Hooper off of a Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor script, this horror classic starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and Beatrice Straight, as well as many others, is about a family who move into a house over a burial ground, and are haunted by malevolent spirits. This is the O.G., baby.
And, it mostly holds up. Now, here’s the thing about the original Poltergeist: It’s great, but there have arguably been better haunted house stories in subsequent years. For example, I find Insidious or Sinister to be superior when it comes to the haunted house genre. Even so, the first movie still holds up surprisingly well, given that it created a lot of the tropes that other haunted house films would later adopt and use over and over again.
For instance, the scientific aspects behind the haunting are still fascinating to this day. Zelda Rubinstein is still a stand-out as the medium, Tangina, and the visuals of the television, the tree, the clown, and the pool of skeletons doesn’t get more iconic than this. And, it’s for that reason that the original Poltergeist is the best film in the series and a still-worthy watch to this very day.
But, what’s your favorite Poltergeist film? For more news on all things horror, make sure to swing by here often.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.