This multi-Genie nominated film won Best Picture, Lead Actor (Nick Mancuso), Supporting Actor (Saul Rubinek), and Editing (Ron Wisman) in 1981, and was very well received by critics for its harrowing portrayal of a young man’s inculcation into a cult similar to the Moonies before his family attempts a kidnapping and deprogramming session.
Based on the non-fiction book “Moonwebs: Journey into the Mind of a Cult” by Josh Freed, Ticket to Heaven never references the Moonies, its leader nor the Unification Church, but it’s plainly obvious they are the central villains in this true tale of Freed’s best friend who was similarly deprogrammed after losing his identity and willpower to the dangerous cult.
Genie winner Mancuso (Death Ship, Mother Lode, Marie Chapdelaine, Heartbreakers) plays David, an atheist who’s heartbroken over a troubled relationship with girlfriend Sarah (Dixie Seatle). He tells his parents and best friend Larry (Saul Rubinek) that he’s taking a trip down to San Francisco to visit Karl (Stephen Markle), an old friend, presumably an invite to clear his head, and is neatly coerced into tagging along with his buddy to an isolated country retreat named Liberty City, where he’s subjected to emotionally intense group sessions that seem to go on for days without any respite.
David’s told by Karl it’s just a two day retreat, but Karl has clearly lured his friend to a series of brainwashing sessions designed to weaken the newcomers. The film’s first third is devoted to the inculcation sequences, and they’re filmed in a picturesque docu-drama style, with jump cuts that similarly disorient the viewer’s own perception of how long David’s been trapped at the camp. Nights smash cut to daytime and back, and little by little we see David losing his willpower from a combination of protein-deficient diet and ruthless sleep deprivation, round circle campfire sessions designed to create a comfort zone for the newbies to share their deepest weaknesses, and high-energy group activities involving singing, incantation, and prayers by rote.
It takes a while for David to become human putty, but eventually the non-believer is broken down and parrots whatever religious gibberish the camp’s philosophical leader sermonizes in daily sessions, and he no longer has the impulse to run away – the latter almost impossible due to the camp’s isolation, and a cult member always being present with a newbie.
Once he’s one of the group, he’s taken back to San Francisco, where he joins other members loyal to ‘Father,’ a smiley, suited Indonesian man, seen in a picture to which everyone prays with open palms. The church leader, Ingrid (Meg Foster), manages the group carefully, always pitting a veteran member with a newcomer, making sure any weak moments are purged, even if it’s on a busy city street.
In one scene, David feels he may not be to sell flowers to passersby under the phony pretense of raising cash for a drug rehab centre, but his partner tells him they’re merely taking money Satan took from God, so it’s all good. As the two kneel and pray inside a building’s nook, strangers pass on the sidewalk, some glancing, some ignoring the peculiar intimate moment that symbolizes one man losing his final battle to think independently.
David’s family and best friend become worried, and initial queries find he’s part of some hippy organization, but he’s always away and incommunicado. Larry decides to head to San Francisco, and although he finally meets his friend, he realizes David’s been horribly brainwashed, so Larry decides to pretend he’s interested in a retreat and gets a brainwashing sampling at Liberty City. There he also meets Eric (Guy Boyd), man also pretending to be a potential devotee in order to find his missing sister, and the two dream up a plan to rescue David from the cult.
Whereas the film’s first third deals with David’s brainwashing, the midsection brings back Larry, a businessman (we’re not sure of his profession) and amateur comedian at Yuk Yuks (!). Larry’s bad jokes bring some lightness and absurdity to the film’s first scenes, but by bringing him back into the narrative, it also adds humour where it’s sometimes really unwanted.
Larry is very jokey at Liberty City, and it mostly works as the character trying to test the cult for its weak spots by seeing what they find amusing, what is verboten, and what types of behaviour are inappropriate, but the kidnapping sequence which follows is very uneven due to David’s parents and brothers (one played by a young Michael Wincott) who are portrayed as clumsy and cartoonish, but the film’s gravitas somewhat recovers in the final third when a deprogrammer named Linc Strunc (R.H. Thomson) – a character based on Ford Greene – arrives to emotionally shock David, and find the right order of steps to break down the illogic that makes David believe his friends and family are all evil.
There’s a lot to admire in Ticket to Heaven, and in spite of the dramatic wonkiness during the kidnapping sequence, it’s a beautifully crafted drama with several unforgettable scenes of manic madness, particularly the scenes and shots of David in desperate states & experiencing a cultish high – all of which were ideal fodder for the film’s brilliantly affecting trailer.
Richard Leiterman’s cinematography is a perfect blend of grainy documentary and compositional classicism, and Ron Wisman’s Genie-winning editing compacts inculcation scenes that could easily have dragged on and become monotonous into something eerily impressionistic.
Director Ralph L. Thomas extracted strong performances from the largely Canadian cast, including creepy Patrick Brymer (The Kidnapping of the President, Spasms) as Liberty City’s pretentious priest, and Robert Joy (Amityville 3-D, Land of the Dead) as David’s wiley handler. While it takes some acclimatization to Kim Cattrall’s bipolar interpretation of Liberty City’s lead indoctrinator, Ruthie, her manic energy makes sense in the end because newcomers can only be swayed by a leader who’s tender at campfires, a screaming banshee during morning exercises, and studiously silent during the daily sermons, waiting to run after anyone who bolts from the room.
Most of the film seems to have been film on location in San Francisco and Toronto (with the latter sometimes doubling for the U.S.), and the film score is mostly vocal pieces, with the rare odd instrumental score cut appearing over scenic shots of San Francisco.
Ticket to Heaven was among the first films to be shown on Canada’s early pay TV stations, and the film was released on VHS via MGM/UA, but it’s largely disappeared from local distribution, except for a pair of U.S. DVD releases. Simitar’s 1998 DVD is long out of print, but Echo Bridge’s 2007 DVD is still available.
The source materials for the 2007 release seems to be an older PAL master that’s been converted to NTSC – the speed is slightly off, and there’s serious sync drif in the scene where David runs away from Ruthie and her goons and has a brief exchange with Karl before heading back to the camp’s main buildings. The white levels are also a bit hot, but the print is relatively clean and has good detail. Echo Bridge’s DVD at least doesn’t resemble a poor VHS dub; it’s just an older master.
For a film that won top awards in Canada and received high praise from leading Canadian and U.S. critics, it’s absurd no one’s bothered to make a special edition DVD or Blu-ray release, particularly since many of the participants are still around. It’s even more absurd it took an American company to release a Canadian film on home video – but that’s become the norm for many native films produced during the tax shelter years.
One of the film’s co-financers was Famous Players, a leading (foreign) film distributor that was able to stave off government Cancon regulations in exchange for setting up a token fund for the production, in whole or part, of about 1-2 films a year. In most cases their films hit pay-dirt – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Meatballs (1979), Heavy Metal (1981), Les Plouffe (1981), and Videodrome (1984) – but 25 films over 14 years is pretty paltry.
The film’s producer, Vivienne Leebosh, also produced Rubinek’s directorial debut, Jerry and Tom (1998).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan