ORE than any other Hollywood film maker of his generation, Steven Spielberg has preserved the wonderment of childhood while growing up to make the sort of movies he always loved as a child, but bigger and better and far more imaginative. He's a brilliant technician who still has doubts about the dark.
His "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was the last, dazzling word on sci-fi fantasies, not about the end of the world but about the beginning of a benign new one. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is every cliffhanging adventure film ever made, wrapped up into one hilarious odyssey, but with few of the anticlimaxes usual in such films.
Now, in "Poltergeist," co-produced by Mr. Spielberg, directed by Tobe Hooper and based on Mr. Spielberg's original story, he has come up with a marvelously spooky ghost story that may possibly scare the wits out of very small children and offend those parents who believe that kids should be protected from their own, sometimes savage imaginations.
I suspect, however, that there's a vast audience of teen-agers and others who'll love this film. Indeed, "Poltergeist" often sounds as if it had been dictated by an exuberant 12-year-old, someone who's sitting by a summer campfire and determined to spin a tale that will keep everyone else on the edges of their knapsacks far into the night.
"Poltergeist," which opens today at the Cinerama and other theaters, is full of creepy, crawly, slimy things that jump out from the shadows. It contains playful ghosts and mean ones. It's a film in which childhood wishes and fears are made manifest, as in the image of a gnarled, long-dead tree, something to climb during the day and play in, but which, at night, casts scary shadows on a child's bedroom wall.
"Poltergeist" is like a thoroughly enjoyable nightmare, one that you know that you can always wake up from, and one in which, at the end, no one has permanently been damaged. It's also witty in a fashion that Alfred Hitchcock might have appreciated. Offhand, I can't think of many other directors who could raise goose bumps by playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" behind a film's opening credits.
The setting is an ordinary, quintessentially middle-class, new California subdivision called Cuesta Verde, where every house looks alike and comes equipped with the same vast assortment of appliances. Every family in Cuesta Verde is more or less on the same social, economic and book-club level.
However, it's to the credit of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hooper, and to the screenplay by Mr. Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, that though the members of the Freeling family are typical, they aren't the nonentities one usually finds in such movies. This is as much a reflection of the manner of the movie as it is of the characters.
Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) are in their 30's, happily married, doing all right financially and the parents of three children, a daughter in her mid-teens (Dominique Dunne), a son several years younger (Oliver Robins) and a 10-year-old daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). Carol Anne, a small, blond beauty, becomes the innocent hostage of the occult forces that , one night, come flying out of the untended television set.
It's one of the nicer variations on the film's ghost theme that the Freelings, though baffled by this visitation, are not initially panicked. Diane Freeling is enchanted when she finds that she can play games with the unseen creatures, rather as if they were to be treated as rare pets.
Suddenly, however, for reasons that are finally explained, they turn mean. All hell breaks loose, requiring the services first of an intelligent, somewhat embarrassed psychologist (Beatrice Straight), who moonlights as a parapsychologist, and eventually those of a most eccentric exorcist, a tiny woman played by Zelda Rubinstein, whose last film assignment was in "Under the Rainbow."
Further details of the plot should not be revealed. More important are the film's extraordinary technical effects, by which we are made to see and experience the terrible assaults these angry spirits make on the Freelings, sometimes occupying their minds as well as their house. These effects are often eerie and beautiful but also occasionally vividly gruesome.
The structure of the film is not perfect. It seems to have two endings. This isn't because there are two, but because the film's exorcism rite is so spectacular that one really isn't prepared for still another confrontation, which doesn't quite measure up to the first one.
Miss Williams, still better known as a New York stage actress than as a film actress, is charming as the beleaguered Mom, a modern sort of woman who isn't above smoking a little marijuana after the kids are safely tucked into bed. Mr. Nelson is also good as the stalwart but not stolid father, and the children are excellent, especially Miss O'Rourke. The style of the film is probably best exemplified by the performances of Miss Straight and Miss Rubinstein, who play it absolutely without facetiousness, though with great good humor, and never look silly.
There's some controversy about the individual contributions to the film made by Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hooper, best known as director of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I've no way of telling who did what, though "Poltergeist" seems much closer in spirit and sensibility to Mr. Spielberg's best films than to Mr. Hooper's.
"Poltergeist," which has been rated PG ("Parental Guidance Suggested"), is a movie that parents will want to consider very carefully before sending off very young children to see it. Though it's as harmless as a nightmare, it could also prompt some.
1982 © THE NEW YORK TIMES
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