The Magazine

Spirits of the Age

The ghosts and ghoulies and mummies of the cinema.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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There’s a much-talked-about cable series called Torchwood: Miracle Day, in which people suddenly stop dying. Not that it’s heaven: Victims of severe gunshot wounds, stabbings, and other massive trauma suffer excruciating pain but simply cannot die. A convicted killer and pedophile (played by Bill Pullman) survives multiple lethal injections. In short, it’s a catastrophe. But as Richard Striner reminds us, this problem isn’t new.

Film Still

Rex Harrison, Gene Tierney in ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ (1947)

20th Century Fox / Album / Newscom

In On Borrowed Time (1939), a grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) has tricked Death into climbing up a tree that’s been cast with a spell: He is unable to climb back down without the old man’s permission. The plan is to keep Death at bay until he can win a custody battle over his orphaned grandson, allowing the boy to collect a sizable inheritance upon the grandfather’s death. In the meantime, Striner explains, “No one can die. .  .  . For the plot twists that follow make the point that such indefinite extensions of life (in its mortal version) are a curse without the blessing of youth. Gramps ponders the prospect that he and countless others will suffer and sicken as their bodies wear out unless [Death] is allowed to go free.”

But rest assured, the ending is a happy one—for Death.

From the earliest days of motion pictures, supernatural elements have found their way into film plots—and cosmic romances have had particular resonance with audiences. Striner describes this genre as using “supernatural devices to express the theme that love can transcend our mortality.” And although this theme dates back to antiquity (Orpheus and Euridice) it hasn’t been fully and comprehensively assessed until now: “This study .  .  . will show that these various productions—some of which are all too easily dismissed as inconsequential pulp—are linked to serious issues of philosophy and even theology,” writes Striner. And so 22 films are systematically broken down, from The Mummy (1932) to What Dreams May Come (1998), providing a plot summary, analysis of the supernatural element and its classical roots, and even a section on the production itself and how it fared critically and commercially.

The Mummy, for instance, in which the high priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff) returns to life thousands of years later in search of his lover, can be traced back to the Egyptian myth of Isis. “The god Osiris,” explains Striner, “was murdered by his evil brother Set, but then his sister-wife Isis, with the aid of other friendly deities .  .  . brought him back to life. Osiris, resurrected through love, became the lord of the underworld. His wife Isis became the universal mother who could overcome the power of death.”

The amount of text devoted to each film is understandably inconsistent: Not all supernatural romances are alike, and some (at least based on my reading of them) seem more compelling than others. Although I’ve never seen Solaris (the Soviet version from 1972, not the 2002 George Clooney remake), the plot description is haunting: An oceanic life form on an alien planet is reading the minds of orbiting cosmonauts, creating realistic illusions based on their dreams, with dangerous consequences. For one cosmonaut, a manifestation of his dead wife appears.

In a few cases, I’ve seen the remakes of the films examined here: Heaven Can Wait (1978) starring Warren Beatty, which I enjoyed immensely as a 10-year-old (thank you, HBO), was originally Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) with Robert Montgomery. I didn’t much enjoy the Brad Pitt remake Meet Joe Black (1998), and probably will pass on the original, Death Takes a Holiday (1934). I have yet to see The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison), but I did watch the television series (probably not the same). Most time is spent with supernatural heavies like The Red Shoes (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and Somewhere in Time (1980), which introduced a maddening time-loop problem that, according to the author, is “akin to the perennial theme of eternal recurrence, yet another intellectual tradition in the West from Pythagoras to Nietzsche.” If this sounds confusing, Striner’s plot summary is helpful—as is watching the movie.

(A similar dilemma is created in The Terminator (1984). A man is sent back through time to prevent the murder of a woman whose son will one day lead the fight against evil machines. But the time traveler ends up falling in love with the woman he is protecting and impregnates her. So her son’s father is from the future—in fact, he was sent back in time by the son. For the sake of your mental equilibrium, please stop thinking about this now.)