Add to those things that go bump in the 'burbs, the Sony. In Steven Spielberg's spectacular new spook show "Poltergeist," television becomes a high-tech Ouija board, a channel to the outer limits. The medium is the medium.
When the "Star-Spangled Banner" dies away and the screen goes fuzzy, there's a show only some can see. It's a stunning showcase, a spectral special that would shake even the cocksure Rod Serling. Only a child, naive, trusting, unopinionated, would trust a talking Trinitron.
In "Poltergeist," the child is Carole Anne Freeling, a flaxen-haired Alice, who follows the TV people through the looking-glass darkly. Carole Anne, the spit and image of her counterpart in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," is played by a talented tot named Heather O'Rourke, whom Spielberg discovered in the MGM commissary. She and her brother Robbie (Oliver Robins) are the focus of the psychic freak show that takes over the Freelings' tract home, a sanitized dwelling in the suburban never-never land of southern California.
The Freeling family is headed by Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (Jobeth Williams), who recall the Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon characters in Spielberg's "Close Encounters." Again Spielberg, who wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced "Poltergeist," devises an alien kidnapping; this one takes place in inner space, where an epically strong mother battles evil to win back her child.
Though the film is directed by Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"), it bears Spielberg stigmata -- the roiling gray clouds, the eerie lightning, the suburban setting, and the supernatural effects. The latter, produced by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic division, produce state-of-the-art optical illusions that visit wraiths of wispy nebulosity on the Freelings. A rubbery oak tree and ectoplasm that seems made of strawberry preserves do little to raise goosebumps. But one sick scene, pointlessly grotesque, gratuitously serves the screamers. A youthful parapsychologist pulls his face off in gory chunks while watching himself in a mirror. Don't look.
The faceless ghost-chaser is an associate of one of the film's small wonders, an elf-size clairvoyant called Tangina (Selda Rubinstein). She battles the Freelings' friends with the flair of John Wayne and the voice of Scarlett O'Hara.
"Poltergeist" proves closets are full of skeletons and scurrying ids. Hooper and company arouse childhood fears, teasing away adult defenses, making us hunker in our seats as the kids dive under the "Star Wars" sheets. It gives us the jeebies, third stage, without letting up, but spiritually, it's uplifting.
POLTERGEIST Opens Friday at 14 area theaters.