MGM Ponders Selling of ‘Poltergeist III’

Times Staff Writer

The sudden death last month of “Poltergeist III” child-star Heather O’Rourke brings MGM face to face with one of the toughest dilemmas any studio’s movie marketers can expect to encounter.

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.

As Lorie sees it, “normal adults, and obviously fathers with daughters, like myself, might be very offended” by almost any reference to Carol Anne/Heather in a studio marketing campaign.

O’Rourke was featured on poster ads for the first two “Poltergeist” films and is among the top name stars in the third. But Lorie can already imagine angry letters to MGM/UA Communications Co. chairman Lee Rich if the MGM division appears in any way to trade on O’Rourke’s death in handling “Poltergeist III.”

Yet, says Lorie, the likely letter-writers “are people who might never see the movie anyway.” The “Poltergeist” audience is young and male--the same people who love such grisly fare as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” By Lorie’s reckoning, those viewers probably won’t be disturbed by O’Rourke’s death.

So how will MGM catch the eye of teen terror-fiends without deeply offending their parents? The studio hasn’t firmed up marketing plans for the June 10 release yet. But some things are clear:

-- 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.


MGM is particularly worried that the tabloids might try to conjure some spooky mumbo jumbo from the fact that an actor has died shortly after finishing each of the “Poltergeist” films. Dominique Dunne, Carol Anne’s older sister in the first movie, was strangled to death by an ex-boyfriend in 1982. Julian Beck, who played the evil Rev. Kane in “Poltergeist II, the Other Side” died of cancer at age 60 shortly after finishing that film in 1985.

-- 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, s afe 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. . . ?”

In the movie, Carol Anne, still dogged by ghostly visitors, is sent to a school for gifted children and lives in Chicago with an uncle played by Skerritt and an aunt played by Allen. 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.

Still, MGM hasn’t always been as tactful in handling a death among its roster of stars.

For instance, when 26-year-old Jean Harlow died just weeks before finishing “Saratoga” in 1937, studio chief Louis B. Mayer initially promised to discard all the footage and start from scratch rather than put out an incomplete Harlow film.

But some film historians have speculated that it was only a publicity ploy. At any rate, Mayer quickly changed course, finishing the movie with a dubbed voice and a double who was photographed mostly from behind. The result was a big hit.

Things worked out less well in 1981, when Natalie Wood drowned before the studio, by then known as MGM/UA, had finished “Brainstorm,” a $25-million science-fiction thriller. MGM/UA quickly shut down production and filed a $15-million insurance claim with Lloyd’s of London. Lloyd’s gave director Douglas Trumbull $3 million to finish the movie instead, but MGM/UA decided it didn’t like the result and sent Wood’s last film from studio to studio in search of a new home. Finding no takers, MGM finally released “Brainstorm” in 1983, to poor audience response.

Then there was the case of David Niven.

When Niven died in 1983 before finishing the “Curse of the Pink Panther,” the studio forged ahead, bringing in impressionist Rich Little to dub the actor’s final scenes. The result was what one reviewer called an “unethical and unfunny picture.” It, too, flopped.