Between heaven and hell: 12 films featuring unusual afterlives

Between heaven and hell: 12 films featuring unusual afterlives

1. Between Two Worlds (1944)

What becomes of us when we die? Are we bound for paradise or torment? Leisure or toil? Comfy robes or itchy wool suits? Whatever the outcome, Between Two Worlds tells us where our afterlives will begin: aboard a slow-moving cruise ship adrift in foggy seas. Updating the 1930 film Outward Bound for the death anxieties of World War II, Between Two Worlds is one of many movies that considers the politics of passing on, as passengers on a shrouded luxury liner visit with The Examiner, who hears their cases and tickets them for their next destination, depending on who they were and how they died. (Suicides, for example, stay on board the boat and become stewards.) Between Two Worlds is an absorbing, at times spooky little film about what defines our characters, and whether our true natures can only be revealed after a fortnight of shuffleboard and overly sweet piña coladas.

2. A Matter Of Life And Death, a.k.a. Stairway To Heaven (1946)

Heaven is part airport terminal, part celestial City Hall in A Matter Of Life And Death, a fanciful World War II romance from director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. David Niven plays an RAF bomber pilot whose plane crashes, leaving him in need of a brain operation. While under anesthetic, Niven finds himself in a massive courtroom, arguing that he should be allowed to live so he can pursue his true love, American ground controller Kim Hunter. A lot of Life And Death is about the differences between Brits and Yanks—when the latter arrive in heaven, they stampede straight to the Coke machine—but it's also about the similarities between the world beyond and our world. In a sly bit of blasphemy, Powell shoots heaven in hazy black and white and the real world in lush color, subtly favoring the earthly over the divine.

3. Black Orpheus (1959)

In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a mourning lyrist is offered the chance to retrieve his dead lover from the underworld, but only if he can avoid looking over his shoulder to see if she's behind him. In Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus, a Rio de Janeiro guitar player falls in love with a provincial girl during Carnival, and when she goes missing, he braves the bureaucracy of the Missing Persons' Bureau, which leads him to a voodoo ritual intended to bring his Eurydice back, under conditions relating to his faith in the process. Black Orpheus is populated by dancing sirens and skeleton-masked villains, following the rhythm of Carnival and the belief that the barrier between life and death can be easily, almost playfully circumnavigated, for those with the right attitude and the right paperwork.

4. Defending Your Life (1991)

Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life has a truly brilliant premise: After dying, mortals go to a big, bland city full of big, bland courtrooms, where their lives are examined to see whether they've conquered fear enough to be ready for the next stage of existence. (The upside: the lawyers repeatedly emphasize that residents of Judgement City can eat whatever they want and not gain weight, much to the delight of Brooks' co-star Meryl Streep.) Still, the execution would be a lot more interesting if the case against Brooks wasn't so open-and-shut, and if he wasn't so listless and unemotional about his defense. Every flashback the court reviews shows him exhibiting indefensible, embarrassing levels of cowardice and pettiness, but instead of being properly contrite, humiliated, or angry, he seems half-asleep. Failing To Defend Your Life, Like You Failed At Everything Else might have been a more appropriate title.

5. Afterlife (1998)

The courtroom counselors in Defending Your Life seem to have a much bigger metaphysical budget than Afterlife's similar government workers, who operate out of a run-down rural facility where the newly dead spend a week among peeling paint and bargain-basement furniture, selecting the memory from life that means the most to them. Then the facility staff recreates those memories on film for the dearly departed, who take nothing but that memory when they move on to whatever comes next. It's an odd, sweet little movie that invites viewers to contemplate whether they've ever had a moment of happiness so perfect that it could sustain them for an eternity of bliss. But in a much less removed, rarified way, it doubles as a portrait of a bunch of low-paid public servants, shepherding the dead to their eternal rest as though it was any other Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job.

6. Corpse Bride (2005)

Life after death gets more than a little weird in Tim Burton's stop-motion extravaganza Corpse Bride; there's a greater hereafter somewhere, since one of the characters "moves on" at the end, but mostly, the dead seem to hang out in skeletal or zombie form in a big Burtony goth-tinged paradise full of aggressively animated "inanimate" objects and spontaneous song-and-dance routines. Even the maggots infesting the inhabitants of the land of the dead have silly voices and comedy routines. Deep-seated morbidity mixed with light-hearted goofiness: maybe this is just Tim Burton's idea of heaven.

7. Beetlejuice (1988)

Then again, Burton really seems to prefer his afterlives creepy and hellish, just like his characters' actual lives. The afterlife seen in Corpse Bride is more elaborate than the one in Burton's earlier Beetlejuice, but in a lot of ways, Beetlejuice is weirder. Not because recently dead couple Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis wind up haunting their old house —ghost films are a dime a dozen. It's more because outside that house is a Seussian nightmare desert full of vivid Day-Glo plant life and giant claymation sandworms, because Davis and Baldwin have to acclimate via a handbook titled Handbook For The Recently Deceased, and because they're held in place by an apathetic, overworked, hostile bureaucracy full of people whose bodies clearly and comically display the marks of their ugly deaths. Also, if they get exorcised from the home they've been fated to haunt, they'll wind up in wraith form in a spare closet somewhere. At least the dead in Corpse Bride get to hang out in bars and do spontaneous musical numbers.

8. The Rapture (1991)

The great beyond appears briefly at the end of Michael Tolkin's oddball meditation on apocalypticism. After Mimi Rogers, suffering in the desert waiting for the second coming, performs a mercy killing on her daughter, she winds up on a featureless, vaguely otherworldly plain. No golden city, no pearly gates, no St. Peter; just her little girl, on the other side, welcoming her to eternity—if Mom repents and acknowledges God's goodness. But Rogers, who endured the tribulation for a God who failed to come to her rescue, just can't. The movie ends with her stranded on the near side of Paradise, separated from God and her daughter for all eternity. Maybe there's bliss off in the distance, but there's definitely desolation where Rogers gets stuck.

9. Carousel (1956)

The movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical starts off with Gordon MacRae already dead and reaping his eternal reward, as part of a crew hanging up glittering stars in a space that might represent the sky, but which more resembles the auditorium in a particularly well-funded high school during a "Starlight Express"-themed prom. It also kind of looks like it might be a fairly practical, labor-oriented heaven, but given the womanizing, self-centered, criminal life MacRae lived, that's certainly not where he belongs. Alternately, judging from his pugnacious yet resigned attitude, he could just be on a work-release program from hell, with just a few more millennia left to serve on his chain-gang sentence. Either way, it's a pretty striking way to open a film.

10. Flatliners (1990)

If Joel Schumacher's Brat Pack style-fest Flatliners is to be believed, the afterlife is a terrific place, full of Elysian fields or giant naked boobs, depending on the proclivities of the people who go there. Problem is, people aren't meant to go there before their time. So when a group of med students start stopping each other's hearts temporarily so they can experience the afterlife, they come back with pleasant enough memories, but immediately thereafter, their sins start to follow them back into the world of the living, aggressively haunting them, or in Kiefer Sutherland's case, beating the crap out of them. Clearly the afterlife doesn't like being teased.

11. What Dreams May Come (1998)

The heaven in the Richard Matheson film adaptation What Dreams May Come is significantly friendlier. Where Flatliners has its avengers and Beetlejuice has its bureaucrats, the heaven of What Dreams has kindly guides to help newcomers adapt and understand the next phase of their existences, and it even adapts itself to its inhabitants' personal interests and tastes. The film's hell, by contrast, is a gothic nightmare, but it's a place people choose to go and imprison themselves, not a punishment for wrongdoing, much like the afterlives in C.S. Lewis' classic The Great Divorce. Critics and audiences were divided on What Dreams, which is painfully schmaltzy and hinges on one of those overly sincere Robin Williams performances that rots teeth and induces sugar-shock, but the then-innovative use of CGI still looks fairly terrific. Surely it was filmmaker heaven for the people who made it look so good.

12. Don't Tempt Me (2001)

The lively multi-country co-production Don't Tempt Me offers a fully formed, multi-level peculiar version of the afterlife. Heaven is a deserted, black-and-white version of vintage Paris where everyone speaks French, and a deserving soul like Victoria Abril gets her own private '30s nightclub where hundreds of illusory patrons hang on every note she sings and beg for more. (They have to be illusory; few people make it to heaven any more, and the place is about to shut down due to excessive operating costs.) Meanwhile, hell is a packed, dingy place of perverse punishments like "Become an illegal immigrant" and "Act as waitress to a crowd of violent creeps in a run-down cafeteria." But in both cases, the dead are pressed into service and sent back to earth to help redeem or condemn human souls. When Abril and hellion Penélope Cruz are assigned to the same case, and both shack up with Spanish boxer Demián Bichir and try to influence his moral decisions, it's no particular wonder that Abril's in a hurry to get back to heaven, while Cruz is willing to stall indefinitely.