Steven Spielberg’s imaginary childhood friend brought to life, voiced by an aging actress with a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
In this boom time for space fantasies and ghost stories, Steven Spielberg has scooped his colleagues by coming into town with an example of each. He has thus won himself two full-dress salutes in the Sunday New York Times and has preempted movie houses all over the city. Poltergeist and E.T., Spielberg tells us, spring, respectively, from the dark and sunny chambers of his childhood imaginings. They spring also from innumerable fictions, print and film, of the remote and recent past. Spielberg’s is not a conspicuously inventive mind; it is, however, creatively acquisitive, and I believe that his popular appeal rests considerably on his effective reworking of familiar material. Like riders on a roller coaster, the viewers know what to expect, they whoop and clutch one another in happy expectation.
Poltergeist warns us that if we trifle with the last resting places of the dear departed, they will express their resentment in a variety of horrid ways. This suggestion, reasonable enough if you hold with the posthumous persistence of identity, is as old as Edgar Allan Poe. In this case the ghosts emerge through the screen of the Freeling family’s TV set, which is tuned to an unoccupied channel, the station having signed off for the night. (This is one of those households where the set is never turned off.) Once out of limbo, and their complaints still unattended, the wraiths progress from table-stirring and chair-stacking to creating gales, abducting a small girl, manifesting themselves in guises that recall the Jabberwock and other goggle-eyed, slavering anomalies. Their discontent reaches a climax during a torrential storm, when the earth heaves and the graves give up their dead. The noise, on screen and in the audience, was deafening.
What pleased me in Poltergeist was the vain attempt of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), a thoroughly scientific investigator of paraphysical phenomena, to cope with the rampaging spirits. They scare the wits out of her, and she has eventual recourse to a diminutive medium with a high and commanding voice (Zelda Rubinstein), who is not at all cowed by the boisterous aggressions of the restless dead. When it comes to exorcism, incantation outscores electronic scanning.
What bored me about the picture was the beleaguered Freeling family. Like other merchants of spookery, Spielberg likes to display his improbabilities in the most banal of settings, but he tends (as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to carry this sound policy too far. The Freelings are folk you meet every time you turn on the television; they will be shouting with delight over their breakfast cereal, boasting of the whiteness of their wash and the sterility of their bathrooms, and rushing to embrace Dad when he drives up in the new station wagon. Spielberg’s intent may be satirical, but I find these stereotypes even more depressing than hobgoblins, and would not have minded if they’d all been dragged off into the fourth dimension