Ticket To Heaven

Director: Ralph L. Thomas  
Nick Mancuso, Saul Rubinek, Meg Foster

I think it's pretty clear by now that I tend not to go where most people choose to go to. My choosing to watch and subsequently review obscure movies instead of more popular ones is the obvious example. But I also take an unconventional path when I am away from my computer or my home entertainment system. For example, if two roads diverged in a yellow wood I was walking in, I would take the road less traveled by - to me, it would make all the difference. No doubt about it, I am a true lone wolf. Enough of a lone wolf that I don't practice one of the habits that most people practice, gathering with other people in certain kinds of groups. Certainly I would never join such an extreme group as a street gang. Even as a teenager I saw that the gang lifestyle would inevitably lead to jail or an early death. (Do you ever see any older people in a street gang?) But more socially acceptable groups aren't to my liking as well. Sports teams are kinds of groups I would never join, mainly because I am so lousy at sports and I think that most sports are really silly in nature and don't require you to use that much brain power. There are also political groups, but I would never join one of them as well, because it seems to me that no matter who is in power always screws up enough that the general population sooner or later wishes someone else was in power. And when election time comes around and someone new does come into power, no matter what the new politician believes or says to the public, the entire process is inevitably repeated.

Groucho Marx once said something to the effect of that he would never be in a club that would have him as a member, and that happens to be how I feel about groups nowadays. I am sure that at this point, there are some certain people who would disagree with me, and want me to see the light. Those people, as you may have guessed, are religious and belong to some kind of religious faith that they feel guides and nurtures them. But I don't want anything to do with any kind of religious faith. I will admit that to some degree a number of religions get a bad rap. A few weeks ago I watched the Anthony Quinn movie Mohammad: Messenger Of God, about the birth of Islam, and I was surprised when the movie claimed (among other things) that Mohammad's messages promoted equality of both sexes and all races, and also commanded that Muslims respect Christians and Jews. On the other hand, there are definitely some radical Muslims who seem to think differently. Anyway, I will admit that it seems that with all religions you can find some values that you are comfortable with. But all the same, I don't feel comfortable joining a religion because I have seen many examples of bad things religions have done to people. No doubt you know about wars that have sprung from religious beliefs (like the Crusades), and terrorism. One negative thing I have seen more often than not coming from religion is how religious people use religion to exploit people, or using it to gain some sort of power over others. The reason these kinds of things keep happening seems simple: We are human, and deep down we are weak and also selfish. Some of us crave power and strength, and often that can lead to people using religion to get this - either as a leader, or being one of a pack of hundreds or thousands of followers and feeling strength by numbers.

Seeing many times over the years how religion has corrupted people and has generated a number of problems, I refuse to join any organized religion. Alone, I have asked the heavens that if there is a God (or gods), to let me know in a way without giving me any doubt what way I should worship - if any way at all. So far I haven't heard a peep, so I remain cautious about Ticket To Heavenjoining any kind of religious organization. This feeling of mine was reinforced recently when I got hands of a copy of Ticket To Heaven. It tackles a segment of religion that is understandably regarded with mistrust by most outsiders (including myself), religious cults. The events of this Canadian movie begin in Toronto - yes, this is the rare Canadian movie to be set (partially) in Canada. We are introduced to David (Mancuso, Death Ship), a young teacher who is down in the dumps because his girlfriend broke up with him. He decides to visit his old friend Karl in San Francisco. When David meets with his friend, he quickly discovers Karl has gotten with religion, specifically a cult by the name of Heavenly Children. But Karl is still friendly and upbeat, so when Karl invites David to "Liberty City" - the cult's compound in the countryside - David goes along willingly. Once at the compound, David is kind of bewildered by the activities of the many members of the Heavenly Children cult - constant singing, praying, and soul-exposing exercises - but reluctantly goes along with the activities. What he doesn't know is that those activities have been carefully constructed to reinforce the cult members' devotion to the Heavenly Children's cause - and to also brainwash newcomers into joining the cult. Incredibly, in just a few days David is pretty much completely brainwashed, and he's quickly put to use to raise money for the cult. A few months later, David's Toronto friend Larry (Rubinek, Barney's Version) comes to San Francisco after getting the feeling that things are not quite right with David. Visiting the cult and seeing David, Larry is understandably horrified, but is unable to break through David's brainwashing and make him see sense. Larry subsequently gathers David's family and friends, and they decide that they must save David from the cult - even if it means breaking the law in order to do so.

Watching Ticket To Heaven, it quickly becomes obvious that the Heavenly Children cult was inspired by the Unification Church organization, whose members are more commonly known as the Moonies. It was around the time this film was made when newspapers were filled with stories about this real-life cult with alleged ties to disreputable activities ranging from brainwashing to raising money supposedly for charitable activities but subsequently spending the money on other things (such as the notorious bomb of a movie Inchon.) But while Ticket To Heaven may have been inspired by the Moonies, the message that I got from the movie was that one has to be careful about any cult in general. There is no room for a free-thinking individual in a cult; indeed, when David reaches Liberty City, the cult members do not leave him alone at any moment, even in one scene when he has to go to the bathroom. Obviously, if David had time to think for himself, it would increase his resistance to the brainwashing. Speaking of the brainwashing, the depiction of it in this movie is extremely creepy, partially because it is so convincing.  At the beginning, the various group encounters and spiritual practices seem harmless. David is even seen to laugh at them and express his doubts. But when we see that David is in a situation he can't get out of (his friend claims he can't drive David back to the city for several days), that's when things get scary. With no way out of the situation, we see David start to pay attention and get involved more with the activities because there's nothing else he can do. And with each new activity David gets involved with, it quickly becomes horrifying to see that the people in this cult only live and breath for the cult, with nothing left over for them.

"But," you might be saying, "I don't believe in any of that religious hocus pocus. And besides, I am too smart to be brainwashed like David is in the movie." While you might believe that, you might be surprised to find out that Ticket To Heaven gives a good argument that even you, under the right circumstances, might be manipulated. During the course of the movie, we learn that David was an atheist back in Toronto, and has a high intelligence. And when Larry comes to the Liberty City compound with his number one priority being to drag David away from the cult, we subsequently see Larry go through the group activities and almost gets brainwashed himself before being saved by another character. Although all that may sound hard to believe in print, seeing how it was presented in the movie was utterly - and terrifyingly - believable. Obviously, a lot of the credit for this has to go to Ralph L. Thomas, who both directed and co-wrote Ticket To Heaven's screenplay. It's clear he not only did his homework, but he executes scene after scene to ring true to the audience so that his condemnations of cults never come across as spiteful or contrived.  Thomas also never falls in the trap of making his characters cartoon or cliched characters; the cult leaders may be devious manipulators, but we still see that they are human beings, though ones that need to be stopped. Thomas also is careful to add a few subtle details here and there. Soon after David has been brainwashed, for example, his shaggy hair is cut so he looks like a new man - or reborn, to be more accurate. One other welcome thing that Thomas places in the movie is a sense of humor. The movie never becomes a laughfest - and it shouldn't be - but the occasional injection of silliness in the narrative makes for some welcome temporary relief from the realistic horror we're watching and prevents the movie from becoming too grim.

Most of the movie's humor comes from actor Saul Rubinek, one of my favorite Canadian actors. Like in many of his other movies, Rubinek here shows he has a good sense of comic skill when it's needed, though also proving more than capable when the situation calls for being serious and compelling. From this performance, you may share my bewilderment that Rubinek never quite managed to land on the "A" list of actors. Mancuso didn't manage to do much better with his career, despite showing here and elsewhere he is more than a capable actor. In Ticket To Heaven, he has to give two radically different performances, a "normal" guy before encountering the cult, and subsequently a person who can't think for himself - both are expertly acted. Special mention should also go to actor R. H. Thomson (An American Christmas Carol) playing the cult deprogrammer David's family and friends eventually hire. His scenes with his character attempting to break down David's convictions make for some compelling moments. However, I have to admit that this last part of the movie was somewhat unsatisfying, mainly because we don't get to see enough of the deprogramming effort. Because the deprogramming is somewhat brief, it doesn't seem as if David is that particularly brainwashed. More scenes of the two radically different minds clashing would make for some pretty good drama. Also, earlier in the movie it would have helped if we had seen more of David before undergoing the brainwashing. As it is, we know so little about this character before that we don't get as big a sense of the radical change to him as the movie would like. I know as it is the movie runs 108 minutes, but I wouldn't have minded the extra length that would come from expanding these two sections of the movie - the extra drama would be compelling enough to distract me from a long running time. But Ticket To Heaven, despite those flaws, is still a mesmerizing experience. It's a movie that - dare I say it - deserves a cult following.

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See also: Blood Freak, Eternity, If Footmen Tire You...