When I recently watched Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a childhood favorite that I’ve probably seen more times than the original, I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t seen it in 15 years or so, but I seemed to remember that Brian Gibson’s effort from 1986 was better than its predecessor. This impression was primarily based on Julian Beck’s outstanding performance as the nefarious Reverend Henry Kane. But my memory was wrong. While Poltergeist II is amiably ramshackle, it’s still pretty run of the mill, albeit marked by short bursts of Beck-related brilliance.
A great performance can save an otherwise mediocre movie, and that’s exactly what happens in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Although the rest of the cast is more than decent, Julian Beck almost singlehandedly salvages the movie. In only two scenes! There would have been more, I suppose, but he died during production, eight months before the finished product premiered. Oh well, lasting legacies have been built on less.
Kane is clumsily introduced. The very first time we see him, at an outdoor mall, he walks straight through somebody! It would have served the story better if there were some early doubt as to who or what he is. But no matter. Beck rescues the scene with his intense eyes, too-wide smile and oily charm. And of course, he sings that hymn: “God is in his holy temple. Earthly thoughts be silent now.” For some reason, it doesn’t take much to infuse religious music with a sense of wrongness. Beck’s delivery, however, is positively evil. You can tell that he’s enjoying himself, but there’s not a hint of ham. The menace is pure.
In his second major scene, Kane turns up on the Freeling family doorstep, intent on wheedling his way into the house. And this is great stuff, undoubtedly the greatest scene in the entire Poltergeist trilogy. Beck, gaunt from the stomach cancer that would soon end his life, runs an impressive gamut of emotions. At first, he’s friendly and chatty. Too friendly. But once he’s left alone with Steven (Craig T. Nelson), Kane begins to prey on Steven’s insecurities. With feigned concern, he undermines the other man’s role as head of the family. Simultaneously pushy, incisively cruel, and persuasive, Kane gets under Steven’s skin with ease. Only the voice of Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) manages to break the spell, at which point strained civility loses out to the Beast. Thwarted, right hand pressed to the screen door, Kane screams that everyone inside will die, his face contorted in fury. Then, in a heartbeat, he is calm once again. With weary condescension, he places his black hat over his wispy hair and takes his leave. In the driveway, with a final wave, Kane fades and is gone. A fitting exit for both character and actor.
Note: Julian Beck wasn’t just the most memorable movie ghost of the 1980s. Read his Wikipedia entry, and you’ll see that fact is stranger than fiction. Much, much stranger! If ever a life cried out for a biography …
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