At the start of 1980’s Ticket To Heaven, we’re introduced to David (Nick Mancuso), a normal young man from an upper middle class background. David is likable enough but, when we first meet him, is still feeling depressed after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. He handles his loneliness by meeting up with Karl, a friend from college. Karl, who is accompanied by an almost unbelievably positive young woman (played by a very young Kim Cattrall), invites David to come spend the weekend at a religious “retreat.” For reasons that have more to do with Cattrall than with any interest in religion, David agrees.
The retreat turn out to be a camp where everyone is extremely friendly and extremely positive. From the minute David arrives, everyone is smiling at him and telling him how thrilled they are to meet him. It’s such a positive experience that David doesn’t even complain when he’s given little to eat, allowed very little sleep, and forced to endure hours of talk about the great spiritual leader who set up the camp. When David does eventually decide that he’d like to leave, all of his friendly campmates are so wounded by his rejection that he changes his mind. Who wouldn’t? After all, they’re so nice and idealistic and positive.
Needless to say, David never leaves the camp. When his best friend (played by Saul Rubinek) happens to run into David on the street, he’s shocked to discover that David has become a blank-eyed zombie whose life now revolves around selling flowers in the street and making money for his new friends. However, David’s old friends aren’t quite ready to give him up and the rest of the film details the battle between the two groups for David’s mind and soul.
Ticket to Heaven is a genuinely unsettling film. As directed by Ralph Thomas, the entire film seem to ooze a very real creepiness that stays with you even after the end credits have rolled. The film is at its best when it shows, in painfully believable detail, just how easy it is for someone to become brainwashed and to set aside everything that makes them unique in the name of a “greater good.”
The film’s cast is made up of a talented group of mostly Canadian character actors and, down to the smallest role, they’re all disturbingly believable. Kim Cattrall is probably the most recognizable face in the cast, though Michael Wincott (he of the sexy, gravelly voice) also shows up in a tiny role. Nick Mancuso and Saul Rubinek are believable as best friends and Mancuso is such a likeable presence that it makes his transformation into soulless zombie all the more disturbing. Meg Foster — who looks like a thin, somewhat stable version of Kirstie Alley — gives an excellent and chilling performance as one of the cult’s leaders.
However, for me, the film’s best performance was given by an actor named R.H. Thomson. Playing a cult deprogrammer named Linc Strunc (what a great name), Thomson is only in a handful of scenes but he dominates every one of them. Speaking through clenched teeth and giving off an attitude of weary cynicism, Thomson takes a role that could have been a stereotype and makes it instead very compelling. If I choose to believe Wikipedia, Thomson is still active as an actor and, after seeing his work in Ticket to Heaven, I may have to track down his other films.
Despite having won a Genie (the Canadian version of the Oscar), Ticket to Heaven is something of an obscure film. I have to admit that I bought the DVD on something of a whim and that was mostly because I was intrigued by the words “In 1979, David joined a cult…” on the DVD’s cover. I’ve long been fascinated by cults and just how easily some people can surrender everything the makes them a unique and individual human being.
During my first semester away at college, there used to be a small handful of students who, every night, would gather together outside the student union. Since I’ve always been a night person, I’d often find myself walking by their little group and I always felt a little bit anxious whenever I saw them. They all looked perfectly normal but there was still something off about them. As my roommate Kim put it, they all looked like they had wandered out of a toothpaste commercial. There was also the fact that they obviously considered themselves to be a part of an exclusive club that the rest of us had not been invited to join.
One night, Kim and I went down to the student union to check our mail. As we were heading back to our dorm, we passed this little group and I noticed that one of them appeared to be holding a microphone. I guess he saw me looking because he held the microphone up to his lips and said, his voice booming, “HEY YOU, DO YOU KNOW THE LORD!?” At the time, Kim and I both considered ourselves to be decadent Pagans so we answered by sharing a long kiss in front of them and then laughing at the dead glares that greeted our response before we then ran, hand-in-hand, back to the dorms. In retrospect, I guess that was my invitation to join the club and I’m glad I was too busy trying to be worldly to accept it.
A few nights later, I found myself suffering from the insomnia that’s plagued me for as long as I can remember. Around 3:00 a.m., I was sitting down in the dorm’s lobby, trying to write angsty poetry. On the other side of the lobby was this guy that we’ll call “Rich.” You’ve probably known someone like Rich. He’s one of those guys who was always smiling a little bit too much, who was always almost desperately friendly. Rich was someone who, for whatever reason, was obviously lost and looking at him, you got the sense that he’d never been truly happy a day in his life. I always felt sorry for Rich but I was also a little scared of him.
That night, I was happy that he wasn’t trying to talk to me. Instead, he was just quietly sitting in a corner with a blank stare. Suddenly, he was approached by three men who greeted him by name and, visibly shaking, Rich stood up to greet them. It took me a few minutes but then I recognized that two of the guys were from that same group that always gathered outside the union. Standing in between them was a balding, bearded man who I’d never seen before or since.
The four of them sat down and they were soon leaning forward in huddled conversation. I found myself straining to hear what they were saying but I could only pick up a few words. I could see that Rich was still shaking and that he had started to cry.
Suddenly, the bearded man spoke in a voice that snapped through the entire lobby. “You little shit,” he said, “You pathetic motherfucker!”
As the two others sat there impassively, the bearded man leaned forward until his face was inches in front of Rich’s. From where I was sitting, it looked almost as if Rich’s face was being eclipsed by the back of the man’s head. The man continued to speak but now his voice was low and I couldn’t make out the exact words. But I could tell from his body language and his gestures that he was giving Rich more of the same.
After about an hour of this, Rich started nodding and, tears flowing down his face, he started to say, “Praise God! Praise God! Thank you! Praise God!”
The four of them stood up and, as I watched in disbelief, they stood there hugging each other as Rich continued with his “Praise God!” The three guys then headed out and Rich, smiling even though his face was still slick with tears, skipped out of the lobby.
Rich graduated at the end of that semester. A few years later, when I was about to graduate, I heard someone say that Rich had recently committed suicide. I don’t know if that’s true and it’s almost too obvious an ending to his story.
I thought a good deal about Rich and that night after I finished watching Ticket to Heaven.
Admittedly, Ticket to Heaven is not a “perfect film.” Strong as Mancuso’s performance is, David is still something of a sketchy character. The film does a good job showing the techniques that the cult uses to brainwash David but it’s never quite clear why David was so susceptible to those techniques to begin with. There are hints, of course. David is shown to be upset over breaking up with his girlfriend and there are hints that his safely middle class existence has left with him with little sense of having an individual existence of his own. That doesn’t change the fact that David ultimately comes across as less of a real person and more as a way for the film to preach its anti-cult message.
Indeed, the film’s biggest flaw is that it is essentially a message film. As well-acted and intelligently scripted as it often is, the movie exists to deliver a message. Fortunately, it’s a good message but that doesn’t stop the film from sometimes rather heavy-handed. This is most obvious in the movie’s final scene in which things are tied up just a little bit too neatly.
Still, flaws aside and despite having been made 30 years ago, Ticket to Heaven remains a relevent film. We live in a world that, for the most part, is made up of brainwashed people and, watching the movie, I had to wonder how much difference there really was between the overbearingly positive cultist played by Kim Cattrall and the grim-faced jihadists that currently haunt our nightmares. When you consider just how much evil is justified, on a daily basis, in the name of the greater good, its becomes obvious that the movie’s warning against becoming a living zombie is just as important today as when the film was made.
The film’s cult is based on an actual, real-life group that was apparently very active in the late 70s and who are still around today, the Unification Church. I vaguely remember them being in the news back in 2004 when the head of the church was declared to be “the prince of peace” at a ceremony that was attended by a few congressmen. Type “Unification Church” into google and you’ll end up with links to a lot of stories that would seem to suggest that the real cult is even more creepy than the fictionalized version in Ticket to Heaven.