Darkness and light; profound tests of courage and honour; the eternal bonds of love; commitment to a Holy cause: all are themes that exist in these extraordinary films about the afterlife. Whether comedy or drama, thriller or romance, filmmakers from around the world delve into religious, philosophical and deeply intimate and personal interpretations of the Great Unknown beyond our human physical lives, to explore the meaning of existence, of life and love.
These films illuminate what it means to be human, and how some things – commitment to a cause and to the love of another soul – implores us to confront and enjoy what it means to truly be alive.
10. O’God (Dir: Carl Reiner, 1977)
This sweet-natured comedy has a terrific concept of the afterlife. Comedian George Burns, 82 years old at the time of filming, is cast as God the almighty; a bespectacled, plaid wearing old man sent down from heaven to speak with Jerry (singer/actor John Denver), an assistant manager of a grocery store. God’s presence in his life causes calamity, jeopardising his job and causing his patient wife (Terri Garr) and family to question his sanity.
O’God’s message is, of course, sentimental but Burns’ performance as God is the whole show; He’s delightful, warm and funny. The decision to represent God as a kindly old man gives the film a genial quality; after all, how much trouble can he really be? We happily go along with God’s constant meddling in Larry’s life, as he cajoles and harangues him to speak The Good News to the world and explain that He is alive.
O’God’s success spawned two sequels – the less amusing O’God, Book Two and O’God, You Devil, which has the novelty of Burns playing both God and Satan.
9. The Lovely Bones (Dir: Peter Jackson, 2010)
Peter Jackson’s melancholy fantasy about the death of a young girl in 1970s Middle America is a departure from the Orcs, Elves and Wizards of Jackson’s hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is far more akin to Jackson’s haunting 1993 drama Heavenly Creatures.
The Lovely Bones is an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s sad and lyrical novel, narrated by thirteen year old, Suzie Salmon (a spellbinding Saorise Ronan, Oscar nominated for Atonement) looking down on her parents (played in the film by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) as they struggle to cope with her murder.
A vivid and detailed depiction of the era is juxtaposed against Suzie’s purgatory – a cornucopia of colourful Special Effects that bring to mind Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. Suzie is caught between the beauty that awaits her in Heaven and the decay still left behind, manifested in two distinctly opposing colour palettes.
Set against this fantastical materialisation of the afterlife is a traditional hard-edged thriller, as Suzie’s father is determined to track down his daughter’s killer (a creepy, Oscar nominated Stanley Tucci) despite Detective Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) warning him not to act without proper evidence. If justice finally prevails, Suzie’s soul will be free to make the transition from her bleak purgatory towards her magnificent heaven.
8. What Dreams May Come (Dir: Vincent Ward, 1998)
Critically derided upon release in 1998, and a box-office flop, this fantasy drama is now acclaimed for its stunning visuals. New Zealand director, Vincent Ward, creates a vision of the afterlife that’s steeped in religion. Adapted by Ron Bass from Richard Matheson’s novel, the film depicts a traditionalist view of the afterlife – a Christian allegory of Heaven and Hell.
The late, great Robin Williams plays surgeon, Dr. Chris Nielsen. When he dies in a car crash, Neilsen goes to heaven. His heaven is a stunning landscape that recalls history’s great impressionist and romantic painters, replete with stunning sunsets, lush green forests and blooming flowers in an array of colours; an afterlife of immense beauty designed from Neilsen’s most intimate dreams.
With Cuba Gooding Jr as his celestial guide, Albert, Neilsen must make a choice: stay in his heaven or search for his wife – who suicided after his death – and risk eternity in the fires of Hades.
What Dreams May Come marked a period of sentimental dramas for Williams that failed to connect with audiences more accustomed to his typically zany comedies. Few people wished to see Williams in grief mode and his wonderous expressions during his fantastical journey through the afterlife were mocked.
However, the film is unashamedly open-hearted and beautiful, and Ward’s spectacular vision scored an Oscar for Visual Effects. In light of William’s tragic death, What Dreams May Come is an especially poignant experience.
7. Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990)
Ghost was a US summer smash hit in 1990 with its blend of sentiment, romance and the supernatural intoxicating audiences and most critics. Twenty-five years later, the film has earned its place in popular culture. Speak of the “pottery scene” and people remember stars Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, their fingers entwined, turning the wet clay as Swayze kisses Moore’s neck to the strains of The Righteous Brother’s romantic 50s ballad, Unchained Melody.
Molly (Moore) and Sam (Swayze) are a couple deeply in love. Out walking late one night, they are mugged, Sam is shot dead, and his soul drifts from his body. But rather than ascending to heaven, Sam’s love for Molly locks him in a ghostly state on Earth. His desperate efforts to communicate with Molly remain unheard, so Sam turns to a fake psychic medium, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg).
Oda Mae is shocked when she realises she’s truly communing with Sam’s ghost. Reluctantly she resolves to help Sam find a way to talk to Molly and save her from his corrupt business partner, who is also linked to his murder.
Ghost was nominated for five Oscars in 1990 including Best Picture, and won two, for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Goldberg. The key to the film’s phenomenal legacy is that the screenplay cleverly links the afterlife to the film’s romance. Sam is tethered to Molly by love, enabling audiences to follow him and connect with his emotional plight to communicate with her; investing in their romance we wish that, somehow, these lost souls will find their way back to each other.
6. Beetlejuice (Dir: Tim Burton, 1988)
Beetlejuice remains the best example of Burton’s artistry; blending Gothic sensibilities steeped in German Expressionism with his background in animation. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis delightfully nail the wacky tone that Burton’s supernatural comedy targets. They are newly deceased ghosts, Adam and Barbara, with no clue how to rid their home of unwelcome tenants, the Deets, led by parents Delia and Charles (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones).
Only the Deets’ teenage daughter, death-obsessed, Lydia (a perfectly cast Winona Ryder) can see them, and agrees to help sabotage her family’s peace of mind.
When their efforts fail, only one option remains – summoning the human exorcist himself, Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton). Keaton brings the titular ghost to manic life; he’s a force to be reckoned with; decked out in a black and white striped jumpsuit, ghost-white face with grim black circles around the eyes and bouncing around like a mischievous jack-in-the-box; relishing every chance to unleash his tricks to unsettle the Deets family and make them run for the hills.
No other filmmaker captures outsiders and misfits quite like Burton. A creative and artistic child, Burton felt like a misfit, and his films are populated with skewed characters and themes of death and the supernatural. In Beetlejuice, Burton unleashes a ghoulish box of tricks, including stop-motion animated monsters, visually wild design by Production Designer Rick Heinrichs, and a baroque, yet slyly comic music score by Danny Elfman.
Mordantly witty and inventively macabre, Beetlejuice is a delightfully demented horror comedy that the shows the afterlife is one hell of a wild ride.