When movies bite off more than they can chew . . .

More than one current movie latches onto a good idea, then doesn't quite know how to handle it. ''Ticket to Heaven,'' for example, takes the absorbing and complex subject of brainwashing by religious cults and treats it in simplistic terms. 'Taps'

The more ambitious Taps takes on the military system, the educational system, and the whole idea of ''honor'' in the post-Vietnam era and tries to explore them through an implausible and increasingly garish melodrama. The result (rated PG for locker-room language and some violence) is sadly disappointing.

It's a pity, because ''Taps'' begins with much promise. In a series of richly detailed scenes, we discover the inner workings of a military school, the kind of place movies rarely visit. We look in on the cadets, discover the look and feel of their habitat, and visit the old general who is in charge. Seeing all this through the eyes of an exceptionally gifted student, we feel convincingly immersed in unusual and potentially fascinating surroundings.

The movie begins to fail when it starts to get dramatic. We learn that the directors of the school have decided to shut it down, raze it, and put up condominiums. That's a believable sign of the times, all right, and it sets up an interesting conflict when the old general - George C. Scott in a grandfatherly mood -- vows to preserve the place. But he is removed from the action by a contrived incident, and his prize pupils decide to carry on the fight in his stead. Chanting the platitudes about ''honor'' and ''duty'' that have been drilled into their heads, they forcibly take over the school, fight off the authorities with military weapons, and pave the way to a nasty climax and a dour denouement.

This could have been the vehicle for a thorough investigation of military mores, mandates, and mentalities in the modern-day United States. But the main action -- the seizing of the school and the struggle to hold onto it -- is very low in credibility, and large amounts of energy are drained off by the plot's dubious construction. Since the rebellious cadets are fanatical about military life, surely a direct order by a high-ranking officer would be enough to end their insurrection, or at least weaken it fatally. And surely the US government would think of something clever to do, beyond just sending an emissary or two for parleys with the youngsters -- parleys that end as inconclusively as they begin.

Where are the grownups during all this? Hanging around the sidelines, behaving so ineffectually you start to sympathize with the conniving kids more than they deserve.

Other implausibilities pile up on top of this basic plot-hole until the movie's edifice becomes too rickety to stand. The metaphor is simply too extravagant and too forced to serve its purpose, and the provocative themes of the picture get swamped. Timothy Hutton, the troubled high-schooler of ''Ordinary People,'' grapples valiantly with the material, (under Harold Becker's direction) to little avail. ''Taps'' is one of the dimmer dramas of the current season, a pale reflection of such earlier films as ''If . . . '' and the perennial ''Zero Pour Conduit,'' which pitted youth against the system with much more memorable and thought-provoking results. 'Ghost Story'

Another pale reflection of bygone days is Ghost Story, which contains hardly a twinge of fright or fun, despite its classical title and distinguished cast. The scariest thing is how ordinary it dares to be, falling back on old cliches, yawning lapses of logic, and lurid sexual intervals.

The promotion is misleading, too, suggesting that all its fine actors have major parts in the movie. In fact, the codger played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is killed off practically before the credits are over, and the character played by the late Melvyn Douglas doesn't last much longer. Only the sturdy Fred Astaire and John Houseman -- both seeming rather uninterested -- are left to hold the fort against the spook who's the real star of the show, along with Craig Wasson, playing a pair of twin brothers. The gifted and resilient Patricia Neal is also on hand, which may console Fairbanks and Douglas fans for the speedy fates dished out to their favorites.

For the rest, it's ordinary stuff. Fairbanks, Douglas, Astaire, and Houseman play the elders of a sleepy town. When two of them meet mysterious ends, the remaining duo must face the secret they've been hiding for decades: that all four were once involved in the death-by-misadventure of a young woman. Now she has come back to haunt them, using a couple of younger men as unwitting accessories to her scheme.The scare scenes are remarkably dull -- she looks normal in one shot, then suddenly her face is covered with icky makeup, and there is a burst of music on the soundtrack, and that's about it. In a lame try at sophistication, the sex scenes are much more graphic than they would have been in the days when movies knew how to give people the creeps with more economy and less explicit trickery. When it comes to real inventiveness, ''Ghost Story'' (directed by John Irvin) has no more substance than its ectoplasmic protagonist. 'Ticket to Heaven'

Ticket to Heaven deals with an enormously important subject: the enticement of young people into religious cults that use them as ideological and financial drones. The main character is a bright young man who is trying to piece his life together after an unhappy love affair. Lured by a friend, he comes under the sway of a totalitarian church that uses psychological and physical manipulation to snap him into submission. It's a useful film as a primer on this sadly topical material, and it has some effective moments. But the issue is treated in surprisingly black-and-white terms, with little insight into just what happens to the bright young hero during his indoctrination. We see the results without understanding the processes, and not much is conveyed of what he must be feeling during his nightmare of mind-control. Also, the ''deprogrammer'' who comes to his aid (after his family rescues him via kidnaping) is treated as a straight-out good guy, as if this aspect of the cult controversy were a simple and easily resolved matter.

The filmmaker, a Canadian director named R. L. Thomas, cares a great deal about the issue of cultism. During a recent Monitor interview, he maintained that cults are pervasive throughout North America; that their influence extends to well-balanced and educated youths as well as those with empty and unhappy lives; and that businesses are starting to use cult techniques in ''motivating'' their employees. All good reasons for making and seeing a responsible film like ''Ticket to Heaven.'' But it would be salutary for other filmmakers to take a shot at the subject as well, offering further and deeper insights into the phenomenen.

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