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Hollywood & the Hereafter: Movie Visions of Heaven, Hell and Limbo

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One of the riskiest things a film can do is offer a vision of the hereafter. There’s no rulebook, no old photos or video footage to guide the director or set designer. All you can hope for is to create the proper mood for that particular story. These films did a much better job than most.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946)

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Stunning visuals mark this story of a British airman (David Niven) fighting to return to Earth from the afterlife. There is a wonderful, extended court sequence involving historical figures and a great turn by Raymond Massey as an American prosecutor who has a grudge against the British because of the Revolutionary War. The film also plays around with color and black and white to great effect. And just look at that staircase!

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)

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This one shines every time we encounter the Devil, played by a cagey and charismatic Walter Huston. As things progress, he presides over a trial in which legendary orator Daniel Webster tries to free a man who sold his immortal soul for a few years of prosperity. Despite its age, this film has several moments of biting commentary about American history.

BEETLEJUICE (1988)

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How can you not love a movie that casts limbo as the craziest, slowest waiting room ever? Even witch doctors and people who have been sawed in half can’t keep it interesting, which is hilarious.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

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This movie actually revels in its rich, expansive visions of both heaven and hell. The overly sentimental plot has Robin Williams opting to give up his pastel painting heaven in order to retrieve his beloved wife from hell. The journey is breathtaking. This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)

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Like so much of Albert Brooks’ work, “Defending Your Life” is a real gem. So clever and adroit. Brooks envisions the afterlife as an American resort city, not unlike Las Vegas. The deceased prepare legal arguments to prove they’re ready to move on to the next sphere of existence. Everyone wears white robes, eats delicious food without gaining weight and takes in a couple of shows. Nice. Also, excellent work by the great Meryl Streep and Rip Torn, who set the tone here for his “Larry Sanders” and “Men in Black” roles.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943)

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Don’t be fooled by the title. “Heaven Can Wait” actually starts in hell, which apparently looks like a swanky gentlemen’s club. An old man (Don Ameche) has come to explain to the Devil why his worthless life merits admittance. From here, we flash back to the story of this man’s years as a rich playboy and philandering husband. Check it out and see if you come to the same conclusion as the Master of Hades.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)

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Warren Beatty had a big hit with this smart, nostalgic, beautifully filmed romantic comedy. Beatty plays a pro quarterback who finds himself taken from Earth up to heaven by mistake, due to a clerical error by a guardian angel (co-director Buck Henry). It is left to the angel’s supervisor, Mr. Jordan (a perfectly cast James Mason), to find a new body for Beatty to inhabit and resume his life. Heaven is pictured as a vast expanse of fluffy clouds. Or fog. Your call. The movie is filled with excellent supporting performances, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie and the great Jack Warden. This plot doesn’t sound much like 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait,” does it? That’s because it’s not. In reality, it’s a remake of …

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941)

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You know the drill. Only this time, it’s Robert Montgomery in the starring role, and he’s a boxer looking for a new body with which to win a title bout. Claude Rains is very good as Mr. Jordan, and the film has a nice, breezy vibe. Like Beatty’s version, this one has a fluffy, limitless heaven. But because it’s in black and white with some interesting lighting choices, it looks particularly otherworldly.

CONSTANTINE (2005)

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“Constantine” goes all-out in its depiction of a frantic hell full of demons and devourers. Keanu Reeves plays a chain smoking detective who has been to hell and back already. It’s quite jarring when the movie shifts to hell, but I guess that was the intention.

LILIOM (1934)

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Here is a long forgotten film that modern audiences have been able to see only thanks to video and DVD. It’s in French and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. The subject matter is bracing and complex. A violent man with a criminal past (Charles Boyer) kills himself rather than go to jail. He is taken to Judgement in heaven, which is amazingly similar to a police precinct house. He spends the next 16 years in limbo, then gets the chance to visit his daughter back on Earth, who now is a teenager. His actions during the visit will determine whether he goes to heaven or hell. The special effects are glorious for their era, and the ending is more complicated than you’d think.

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)

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Woody Allen goes for a standard issue hell in “Deconstructing Harry” – fire, brimstone, darkness. What makes it funny is that the Devil is the guy who stole Woody’s girl. Billy Crystal plays him in a very casual, cocktail party sort of way. It’s a Woody Allen movie that doesn’t get a lot of love, but should.

OUR TOWN (1940)

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“Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s stage play about rural life in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is an American masterpiece. It has been filmed several times, including a 1940 version with William Holden and Martha Scott. In “Our Town,” the hereafter isn’t a place; it’s a perspective. It’s the idea that none of us has the capacity to fully understand our own mortality and hold in our heads the heartbreaking, transient nature of the world around us.

That makes a dozen, which is probably enough heaven and hell for one sitting. But by all means, feel free to add your own favorites.