My "Gorezone" (U.K.) Articles About the Original and Re-Shot Endings
Above, the original ending being filmed on the Chicago set in late June, 1987.
Below is my article that was published in the British horror film magazine "Gorezone." It appeared in their December 20th 2005 edition (Issue #4). Their web site is www.gorezone.co.uk. Below that is a follow up interview that the magazine itself did with "Poltergeist III" director Gary Sherman in Issue #5, and then my second article for "Gorezone," which was published in their February issue, #6.
NOTE: Both of the online versions of my original published articles have been updated with new and expanded quotes not found in the original published versions.
POLTERGEIST III: Mystery of the (Reshot?) Ending
On Feb. 1, 1988, child star Heather O'Rourke, best known for her role as "Carol Anne Freeling" in Steven Spielberg's classic Poltergeist (1982) and Brian Gibson's mediocre Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) passed away at the age of 12 from septic shock caused by an undetected bowel obstruction. The previous year, she had spent three months, April through June, in Chicago filming the third chapter in MGM's profitable horror saga. Poltergeist III (or We're Back-Poltergeist Continues as it was known during shooting) was directed and co-written by Gary Sherman, best known for such films as Vice Squad and Wanted: Dead or Alive. At the time of Heather's death, all press reports (and studio PR statements) said that she had completed the film prior to her death. Tabloid stories at the time ghoulishly bantered about the "Poltergeist Curse" rumor, since on each movie at least one actor had passed away sometime after filming. Poltergeist III was released June 10, 1988 to terrible reviews. Although it opened in the box office top five its first weekend, ticket sales shortly thereafter plummeted, and the film became regarded as a box office flop, earning only 14 million dollars (the budget was about 10 million). In contrast, the first film had earned 76 million domestically in 1982, and the second film had pulled in 40 million.
That June, I was 8 years old. My mom and I went to an early afternoon Saturday matinee showing at what was then the Plaza Theatre in my hometown of Warner Robins, Georgia. During the showing, there were only four of us in the auditorium-me, my mom, and two teenage guys who sat in the back and made ghost noises during much of the movie. My mother of course ended up falling asleep halfway through it. I, on the other hand, was totally enthralled, and quite unnerved by some scenes. At the end, after Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) sacrificed herself by leading the evil Reverend Kane "into the Light," two lightning bolts struck the high-rise on screen just as the credits started to go up. As Kane's laughter echoed across the Chicago skyline, I thought for sure Poltergeist IV wouldn't be far behind.
Poltergeist IV never came, although my interest in all three movies continued. During my freshman year of college, I discovered the power of the Internet search engine in finding web sites started by some of the people who had worked on Poltergeist III. This was late 1998. The first person I contacted was composer Joe Renzetti. During one of our email Q and A sessions, I discovered a fact about the film I'd never known before:
Q: Also, did you score any scenes that ultimately did not end up in the final film? For example, I've always thought the movie ended rather too quickly. At the end, Heather O'Rourke's face is not seen after she comes out of the mirror. Why is that?
The scene in question:
Renzetti: No. The ending was a re-shoot and sadly Heather had died by that time. The young girl was a "double." Very observant on your part.
This information surprised me. After all, I thought I'd known all there was to know about this movie. Upon further questioning, I learned a few more details from Mr. Renzetti:
Q: So the ending was re-shot because something was wrong with the previous footage, or because the ending was actually changed?
Renzetti: The first ending just wasn't convincing, so Gary and the studio decided to redo it.
Q: Do you recall anything more about the old ending and why it was re-shot?
Renzetti: It was a combination of elements. I don't remember the old ending but it was very "dissatisfying" as most good American endings should not be. The special FX make-up sucked, the characters were supposed to be frozen but they looked as if they just survived an egg processing plant explosion. No, by the time Gary was finished with the movie, if he heard another "Carrol-Ann" he probably would have [gone off the deep end].
Thanking Joe for his information, I then sent an email to Gary Sherman telling him what Joe had said, and asking what the original ending was (at the time Gary had his own web site; now he has a blog where he's promoting his newest film 39). On Jan. 3, 1999, Mr. Sherman responded to me with a detailed statement:
Joe's recollection of the 're-shoot' was not exactly right. It wasn't a re-shoot. The unfortunate fact is that Heather passed away before the end of the film was shot. We were waiting for the SFX make-up to be finished when we lost her. The film came very close to not being finished or released. This would have been my choice as well as that of the heads of the studio. The Board of MGM had a different idea. We were told to either finish it without Heather or they would bring someone else in to do it. I replaced the original 17 page finale with the shortened 3 page abrupt ending that you have seen. Personally, I hate the ending. Maybe if we had been allowed to take time to adjust to and accept Heather's death, we might have created an ending that could have been a tribute to a very wonderful little girl. Instead, a grief-sticken crew did what we had to do as quickly as possible. I'm sure you are going to ask if you can see the 17 pages. Sorry, I tossed my only set a long time ago. I felt it was morbid to keep the pages. As far as the final shooting script goes, it will not be posted on the website. My only copy was requested by, and donated to, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is in the permanent collection at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. It is hundreds of pages long and as thick as a telephone book. It contains not only the script but complete diagrams of how all the effects were achieved. It is available for viewing, you will have to contact the Academy for details.
In the year 2000, Gary gave some additional details in an interview with the horror website www.arrowinthehead.com:
Question: I discovered you thanks to Poltergeist 3. This has been killing me for years...was the ending re-shot? Cause we never see O'Rourke's face in the last frames. If so, what was the original ending?
Sherman: "The ending was not a re-shoot. The original ending was never shot. Heather died a week before we were scheduled to shoot the ending. There was no way we could (or even wanted to, for that matter) shoot the scenes without her. There were some 17 pages left to shoot, most of which was to be the ending, a tear jerking scene in which Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) offers herself as a sacrifice - that she would go over into the light in exchange for Scott (Kip Wentz), Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Carol Anne (Heather) and everyone else. As Carol Anne and Tangina passed from one side to the other, they were to say 'Good- bye' for the last time. It was to be not only to be the end of POLTERGEIST III, but the end of the Poltergeist Trilogy.
We weren't even going to finish the film at all, after Heather died. I was not interested, neither was Barry Bernardi or the studio heads, Alan Ladd, Jr. and Jay Kanter. None of us were. We got together and decided to shelve the project, at least for the time being. But the MGM board didn't see it that way. They basically said, 'Look, either you finish this or we'll get somebody to finish it for you.' Since we weren't about to let that happen, I half-heartedly wrote that pathetic ending where Bruce (Tom) and Patricia (Nancy) carry out a photo double, dressed as Carol Anne, at the end. People just weren't available anymore for it. We just didn't care about it. Scott (Kip Wentz) couldn't even show up. He was on the east coast, that's why he's mysteriously missing. But we just didn't care at the end of it all."
Gary would go on to tell the E! True Hollywood Story in their "Curse of Poltergeist" special (2002) much the same story, adding that the film went on a four month hiatus in October of 1987 because of a "business obligation" of Sherman's and that the ending was later shot in one day using a double. As a result, the cast and crew "ended up with a completely different film" than what they had intended to make.
[UPDATE: Gary Sherman later admitted
(http://www.killerfilm.com/features/read/late-night-classics-poltergeist-iii-35518) that he only agreed to be interviewed in the E! Special if he had "Final Cut," which possibly explains why his version of events about the ending is the only one presented]
However, actor/director Kipley Wentz, who played Lara Flynn Boyle's boyfriend Scott (who mysteriously never returns at the end of the film) eventually went on record via postings to the Internet Movie Database in 2005 as strongly differing with Gary's version of events:
Compiled from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095889/board/nest/2919809
"This is Kipley Wentz writing. I played Scott in the movie. I know Gary said that in an interview a long time ago, but it's not true. I was in Los Angeles when they reshot the ending. I was at school at USC and was a pall bearer at Heather's funeral. Nobody even told me they had reshot the ending until I saw it at the premiere. So... I don't know what the thinking was on the production's part. They may very well have told Gary that I wasn't available. I have no idea. But for the record, I would have gladly done the reshoots if anyone asked. It's a bit frustrating that almost 20 years later everyone seems to think I was cut from the new ending because I was not available or something. The 'original' ending was shot. The movie was wrapped about seven months before Heather died. After she died, they wanted to reshoot the ending because it obviously featured Heather prominently and it was all very upsetting for everyone. For the record, I was at USC in Los Angeles, not on the East Coast. Nobody even told me that they had reshot the ending until I was sitting there at the premiere. It was a very sad time for everyone involved, and obviously a great source of confusion ever since. Why Gary would say I wasn't available or we didn't shoot the ending or whatever, I don't understand, but it doesn't really matter. And whether people believe my account of the story or not, well... there's nothing I can do about that. I flew to New York to work with the special effects guys. They took a cast of my head to make the 'frozen Scott' that was seen in the original ending. We shot it. The movie wrapped. There was a big 'wrap party'. We all celebrated finishing the movie. The following summer, I was at the premiere in Chicago and saw a totally different ending that nobody had told me about. I asked the producer what happened to my character at the end, and he made a bad joke saying, 'We're leaving you out there for Poltergeist IV'. PLEASE don't read more into that than there is... we were all sad and uncomfortable that evening and he was no doubt just trying to avoid the subject. As I recall, he said that things had been really crazy and they were just trying to deal with it as quickly as possible.
At this point, it's impossible to imagine the mood at that time. Everyone loved Heather, and when she died, releasing the movie or fixing the ending was the last thing anyone wanted to deal with. It's a sad memory for everyone involved, and excepting those who are in some way profiting by keeping this 'mystery' alive, I would imagine that nobody is too anxious to talk about it. I understand that with conflicting sources it can be confusing. But 17 years later, it's easy to examine this logically. In the midst of tragedy, however, logic sometimes goes out the window."
Later, others I questioned agreed more or less with Kipley. In late May of 2005, I faxed a question about the ending to P3 producer Barry Bernardi at his office on the MGM lot, while he was working on the new Adam Sandler film "Click." On June 2, 2005, he responded with this statement in a return fax: "A long time ago. I recall that Heather died before the re-shoot and that we used a double."
Jeanne Bonansinga, who served as an assistant editor on the film to main editor Ross Albert, stated:
"I was on the editing team of 'Poltergeist III.' The original ending was shot in Chicago as was the entire film. The ending was later re-shot in LA because the studio didn't like the original ending. Heather was on her way to the set to film the ending when she suffered the obstruction that took her life. [note: Jeanne is mistaken here; Heather died Feb. 1, 1988. She was about to go to school that morning. There is no mention in any of the press reports at the time that she was about to do any re-shoots] If you watch the ending closely, you never see her face. We used a body double and shot only from the back. We tried to cut in some shots from the original ending to see her face, but very few were usable. It was quite a challenge to shoot, and edit. Her death dictated the way the [new] ending was written and created. There was a time when we thought the film would be scrapped because we couldn't shoot the ending without the main character! It certainly cast a dark shadow on the film. She was a darling girl. What a shame. We were all just shocked."
In addition, special effects makeup artist Doug Drexler even wrote an article in the September 1988 issue of now defunct "Gorezone" magazine (the one "Fangoria" used to publish) called "Poltergeist III and a half: The Reshoot." In it, he states:
"I've been wanting to clue you in on what's shaking with 'Poltergeist III.' While you were gone, MGM shot a new climax to its Spielberg instigated spook show carried on by director Gary Sherman, and we were invited. With only 12 days of prep, it was imperative that we move quickly."
So, what is the real story? Was the original ending in fact shot, or not? Was there a re-shoot? The above quotes are provided for the reader to decide. Repeated efforts to contact other people involved with the film (as well as MGM/Sony) for comment/clarification have been unsuccessful. Mr. Sherman clearly does not enjoy talking about the issue. It seems that the original ending was filmed in late June 1987 and that the re-shoot took place in March, 1988, over a month after Heather died. Apparently the initial plan for the re-shoot was to have Kane "go into the Light" by decomposing on camera after touching Tangina's necklace (in the original ending, his face simply "exploded with light" after touching the amulet, an effect that Gary Sherman was not satisfied with). The special makeup effects crew began work on this new sequence. However, after Heather died February 1, 1988, MGM temporarily put the re-shoot plans on hold. A month later, it was decided to redo the entire ending. This time, the "frozen" bodies of Bruce, Donna, Carol Anne, and Scott were replaced with "decomposed" versions of Bruce and Donna only. The "frozen" Carol Anne was likely left out because the studio understandably felt such a scene could be viewed as "tasteless" in light of Heather's death.
It's unclear why Scott was left out of the new ending altogether. Perhaps MGM execs felt the audience would be confused when he returned with the family in the original version (he had been seen coming back from the "other side" much earlier in the film, but alert viewers would have recognized him as only a "possessed reflection"). The Kane "decomposition" sequence was toned down and changed to Pat slicing off his head with a shovel, after which the head then melts on the floor. To make it more clear that Tangina actually lead him into the Light, the "Light" is visually shown on screen, as Tangina takes Kane by the hand and literally walks him into it. Her line to Pat "Tell Carol Anne I'll always love her-and that her nightmare is over" seems to be a subtle reference to the tragic passing of Heather.
One final note: in October of this year , I went to Los Angeles on vacation, and made it to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills that Gary had told me about six years ago. I was able to read through his personal copy of Poltergeist III's shooting script. It was fascinating-chock full of notes, sketches, story boards, etc. Also there were pages of the ending that now appears in the film. They were dated REVISED MARCH 14, 1988. As for the mysterious "17 pages" that were supposedly never filmed-I found no trace of them. The original ending featured in the copy of the script I purchased from Heather O'Rourke's sister Tammy ran for about 5 pages max (from the point where Pat falls into the frozen bedroom up through the point where Carol Anne tearfully waves goodbye to Tangina and the camera pulls back as the family embraces). The ending in this shooting script ran for about the same length. If there really were "17 pages" that still needed to be shot at the time of Heather's death, it's more likely that these were 17 pages of re-shoots and additional scenes.
In the January 2006 issue of "Gorezone," they did a follow-up interview with P3 director Gary Sherman. Here's the excerpted interview, followed by my second article, which appeared in the Feb. 2006 issue (and which Sherman's PR guy allegedly urged "Gorezone" not to print; to their credit, "Gorezone's" editors felt I had written a solid rebuttal, and decided to publish anyway).
Gary Sherman grants "Gorezone" a rare interview discussing the topic he least likes to talk about: "Poltergeist 3: The Final Chapter." He discusses everything from P3's ending, Heather's death, and his latest film, "39-A Film by Carroll McKane."
Q: The experience of P3 for many of the cast and crew was not a very memorable experience. Why?
A: "...not a very memorable experience"? Quite the opposite, Heather's death made it a horrid experience that we would all like to erase from our memories.
Q: How did you balance being an executive producer and creating the SFX?
A: Different jobs...different hats.
Q: What's the truth about why the original ending was left on the cutting room floor? There is a statement from Joe Renzetti that it was because "The special FX make-up sucked, the characters were supposed to be frozen but they looked as if they just survived an egg processing plant explosion."
A: First, let me tell you about Joe Renzetti, aside from being about my closet friend on the planet, he is one of the funniest, smartest and most sarcastic people you could meet. The quote you mention was from an interview he did with someone he found to be "annoying, stupid, and pedantic..." This interviewer, who had been pestering everyone, including me, looking for "dirt" was barraging Joe. To get him to stop, Joe gave him a bullshit interview filled with whatever it took to stop the harassment. The answer to the first part of your question is that there was never an original ending shot...Heather's death precluded that happening.
Q: While working on set how did you feel the film was coming along? Do you think the smoke machine FX was over used?
A: Until the tragedy that marked the end of this production, I was very happy with what we were doing...And we NEVER used a "smoke machine." The fog FX was done with liquid nitrogen. And NO...It wasn't overused.
Q: Many critics back in 1988 were very unkind about the film but looking back on it now in parts it's genuinely creepy and superbly handled, making the film feel, at times, like a modern Japanese horror like "The Ring" or "The Grudge." Do you also feel that or do you just hate the whole film?
A: There are parts I'm proud of, like many of the effects. But as a whole, it is the least favorite of my films.
Q: How was the SFX created for the scene when Heather broke her way through her bedroom door to a shocked audience of Tom and Nancy?
A: That effect, like every effect in the film, was shot live on stage. My script, the one I actually used on the set, is in the library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In it are the diagrams, schematics, blueprints, and every detail of how every effect was shot.
Q: Was the following scene below ever shot and if so why was it cut?
The scene is the tear jerking scene in which Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) offers herself as a sacrifice-that she would go over into the Light in exchange for Scott (Kip Wentz), Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Carol Anne (Heather) and everyone else. As Carol Anne and Tangina passed from one side to the other, they were to say "Goodbye" for the last time.
A: I've already half answered this question...but to put it to rest for once and for all, just quote me as saying, "The original ending was NEVER shot!" Because the bullshit ending, shot after the tragic loss of Heather, was, by necessity, so short that the overall film was too short. And because of that, the whole film had to be stretched. There was little, if any, usable footage left out of the final cut. And, unfortunately, the overall pacing of the film was destroyed by this re-balancing.
[Gorezone's research team came across a photo of Kane's face cracking. This picture is easily found on the World Wide Web search engines for "Poltergeist 3."]
Q: Was the scene where Kane's face cracks and explodes ever shot? How was this staged? And what happened before this happened?
A: I think I've already answered the "missing scenes" question...There aren't any, and that was never shot, ever.
Q: Did you attend the rough cut screening of "Poltergeist III" or the wrap party? What was the atmosphere like if you did?
A: I believe, if I remember correctly, there was some kind of a party in Chicago before we were to move the remainder of the shoot back to LA. That was before we lost Heather, so I'm sure the mood was up and happy. After Heather's funeral, I think you can imagine what things were like.
Q: What was the original ending? Can you remember it and what SFX did you make for these scenes?
A: You seem to already know something about it, as you previously mentioned. Since it will never be shot, and I personally don't want to put myself through the pain of remembering any of this, let's just drop it...OK?
[Working on "Poltergeist 3" it was plain to "Gorezone" that for Gary it was a painful experience and something best left alone and in the past for everyone involved.]
Here's my article in response, published in the Feb. 2006 issue of "Gorezone:"
From Mystery to Controversy:
The Last Word on the Poltergeist III Ending
2. Re: Scott. Look closely. The Scott who comes out of the pool is a mirror image. Look at his sweatshirt.
3. The lightning was only to punch up an ending that we all hated.”
"Yeah this is a question that comes up a lot...there wasn't really a re-shot ending...we did pick up shots but it wasn't a different ending because Heather died...it was because we really didn't get the shots when we were there...and they had to use the double because Heather was, she had passed away at that point."
Notice she says they still had "pick up shots" to do when Heather died, which even conflicts with Gary's version that they still had "17 pages of script, most of which was to be the ending," to film. Neither can be true because at the time of Heather's death the film had already been rated PG. So, by definition, anything filmed after that point had to have been either re-shoots or the filming of additional scenes.
Actor Kip Wentz: “I was in Los Angeles when they re-shot the ending.”
Editor Jeanne Bonansinga: “The ending was later re-shot in LA because the studio didn't like the original ending. We tried to cut in some shots from the original ending to see her face, but very few were usable.”
SFX designer Doug Drexler: “MGM shot a new climax to its Spielberg instigated spook show carried on by director Gary Sherman, and we were invited.” (Not to mention the title of Doug’s 1988 article: “Poltergeist III and a half: The Re-shoot”).
In fact, here's the first page of Doug's article:
So, even if Joe Renzetti was giving me a “bullshit interview” about the ending being a re-shoot (a possible, but highly unlikely and ridiculous explanation), how does Gary explain the quotes from the people above? In addition, what about his own quote (emphasis mine), from the July, 1988 issue of “Cinefantastique” magazine: (Volume 18 No 5, page 39):
However, I think Mr. Smith may have confused the Kane "lines of light" face pic (which was an on set publicity still taken of a prop head that Smith created):
with another photo of Kane with a rotting face, which WAS a makeup effects test shot that was never filmed, at least not in the way as it was originally planned. Three of those shots can be seen here:
Doug Drexler said he recalled the “frozen bodies” scene being filmed during principal photography (the bodies were created by Cal Acord’s effects crew, not Drexler’s).
I remember the family frozen (and it didn't look like an egg fest), the amulet and Kane touching it (and thinking how cheesy). I remember: Carol Anne & Tangina waving goodbye, no dialogue and it was slowed down (slow Motion), they were both crying.
I've worked in Hollywood and NY for a while. No one orders a re-shoot during production. Re-shoot means after Principle photography ends. You have to see the rough cut and try to see what's salvageable. If it involves script changes (re-writes), it takes time, money, and approval from many different sources. No one ever shelves a project that has finished photography. Get Real. I believe it came down to; do we release what we have or should we throw a little more money at it and get the focus off O'Rourke. I think a lot of these stories were concocted in order to save the reputation of a little girl with very limited acting ability who recently died not to mention their own collective asses. So I believe, principle photography ended, O'Rourke died while at the same time changes were being discussed and possibly being executed, and then a new final version was made and released. I also believe the re-write was written by a third party but that's just my opinion. Rarely, a re-shoot is written by the originals involved. Someone brought in by the studio to bring a new outlook to the project.
It was around Christmas time and probably Dec. [Actually it was more likely in early November, right before the finished film was rated PG by the MPAA] It wasn't snowing yet but that night I remarked that it wasn't far away. I had just finished a musical about Monet (I really can't remember the name) in which I had the lead and finished up with ‘Drood’ that same year. I was an Actor but I was investing in a corporation called Media Depot which distributed VHS, CD's & other media to stores in the tri-state area. We were considered a big outfit back then and were invited to a whole bunch of different events. Today I write and edit and on rare occasions perform."
Here's Doug Drexler's work calender for the March, 1988 re-shoot of the ending. He had to fly out to Los Angeles from NYC the evening of Monday, March 14th. He worked on the SFX makeups at MGM through the end of the week. Notice the "melting head shoots" notation on Friday March 18th. That was the last shot of the film (Gary Sherman was quoted in Doug's article as saying "That's a wrap!" on that day).
Here's an excerpt from a March 21, 1988 “LA Times” article titled “MGM Ponders Selling of ‘Poltergeist III‘” (the article was published a week after the re-shoot quietly took place, and it's clear that the studio's PR department either did not tell reporter Michael Cieply about the re-shoot, or did tell him "off the record," for publicity reasons that should become clear):
The second "Poltergeist" sequel was already in the can, at a cost of more than $10 million, when the 12-year-old actress died of what had seemed to be flu symptoms, but proved to be septic shock from an unsuspected bowel obstruction. Now MGM has to sell the picture without seeming to exploit Heather, and without creating ghoulish confusion between screen threats to little Carol Anne Freeling and the young actress who played her. "We're caught in a dilemma," acknowledges MGM marketing senior vice president Barry Lorie.
–Publicity is out: Promotional interviews are a favorite tool in selling horror films, and O'Rourke did some publicity for the earlier films. But MGM wants stars Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen generally to avoid interviews, which would inevitably lead to maudlin questions about Heather.
–Testing is in: Before setting up an ad campaign-which might or might not feature O'Rourke-the studio plans extensive audience-reaction screenings. The tests might help MGM calculate how viewers take to such touches as a proposed dedication to O'Rourke, whose "They're here" and "They're back" lines helped sell the first two films.
David Wardlow, Heather's agent and a close associate of her mother, says the film "will be dedicated to Heather. There's no question about that." But Wardlow says the survivors have no veto rights over marketing plans.
–Meanwhile, safe is better than sorry: Scrambling to regroup after O'Rourke's death, cautious studio executives trimmed a shot of the actress from their initial trailer. But they left in a voice-over in which she delivers the new kicker: "Guess who's back in town...?"
Producer Barry Bernardi, Lorie and Wardlow all said they didn't believe the film would need special editing to defuse any horror scenes that might seem tasteless in light of O'Rourke's death.
[Probably because the "special editing" (re-shoot) to defuse (remove) such "tasteless" horror scenes-the frozen Carol Anne-had already been done!]