Monday, May 16, 2011

Poltergeist II : LET KANE IN to your movie collection!

If anybody's family has ever been impacted by cancer, then they know what true horror is all about. Watching a loved one waste away to a shell of their former self can be heart wrenching. My Grandmother passed away from it, my mother in law is currently fighting it, and we have a family friend whose prognosis is dire. For those who can relate, Poltergeist II might be too much to handle. The cinephiles brave enough to watch will glimpse a real beast captured on film. Now.....let me in.....and lets talk about it.

There are two reasons that this film has recently made my list as an all time horror movie favorite. Of course it is a flawed film, but no movie is perfect. I'm not here to debate plot, outdated special effects, or rehash the so called "Poltergeist curse." A simple Google search will tell you all you need to know about those things. The time for movie snobbery is past. Don't be skeptical. Open your hearts and your mind and let me in so we can talk about it.

First and foremost, this movie is remarkable due to the performance of Julian Beck (1925-1985). A veteran stage actor and anarchist, Beck was suffering from stomach cancer at the time of filming and passed away before completion. He doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, but when he shows up he dominates. In my opinion, Reverend Kane is one of the most sinister film monsters since Max Schreck donned the vampire guise in "Nosferatu" (1922).

Julian Beck as Kane. Let him in!

The greatest moment of the film arrives when Kane shows up at the Freeling family doorstep. A rainstorm suddenly appears as he makes his approach. He's singing an extremely creepy Morman hymn and his gaze is firmly fixed on young Carol Anne. The good reverend's prize radiates with a life force that paranormal entities desperately covet, and he has come to place her in his collection plate. The brief moments when Kane locks wits with Craig T. Nelson represent horror at its best. Beck is playing a spirit that has refused to move on. At the same time, you can see an actor whose time on Earth will soon be ending. He was a sickly man who looked like he was in tremendous pain when he filmed his scenes. When I watch him perform, I can literally see the skeletal remains of a person who has passionately given everything he has to his life's work. The majority of this scene is done in close up where you can really appreciate those giant teeth clicking together as he casts his influential spell. With tissue thin skin and sunken eyes, Beck terrifies me here. He is death and I don't want to be anywhere near him. The fact that he is right up in Craig T's face invading his space gives off this terribly uncomfortable vibe. His background in theater convincingly sells this scene, and I try to imagine what I would do if I was pressed by one of his swaying sermons. He's not in the film much after this amazing exchange with Nelson, but those brief moments onscreen are powerful enough to warrant a look.

The second reason to go back and enjoy this film is the incredibly charismatic presence of Will Sampson (1933-1987). Sampson plays Taylor, a Native American spiritual warrior who is destined to do battle with the evil forces that haunt the Freelings. Sampson's body of work is relatively small, but memorable. He was best known for his performance as the Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975). Boston Celtic great Robert Parish "The Chief" was given this nickname in honor of Sampson's performance. As Ten Bears in "The Outlaw Josey Whales" (1976), Sampson was the only opponent who was able to humble Josey and end a conflict on a peaceful note. He sadly passed away not long after Poltergeist II, but he nonetheless leaves a powerful footprint on the film for us to enjoy years later. Taylor is the polar opposite of Kane. He represents all that is good in life and is constantly optimistic. I really enjoy the fact that they made Native American spirituality represent the forces of good while evil was embodied by a fear mongering Christian cult. A bold narrative move that works well for me.

Taylor the spirit warrior protecting Carol Anne

The powers that be could have easily just found another house to haunt and recycled the plot from the first film. Instead, they chose to expand on the established universe and let the film rest on the performances of two remarkable actors. "Poltergeist III" (1988) would see a new actor try to walk in the shoes of Reverend Kane with dismal results. Beck's presence was one of a kind and a solid reason to watch Poltergeist II. He was able to represent life and death on the silver screen for all of us to admire and be horrified by. You may come in sir.

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