Ghost stories have been popular since long before there were movies. Usually they are told in such a way as to make the ghost an object of fear, but now and then we are encouraged to see things from the ghost's point of view. Having shuffled off this mortal coil, and being therefore cut off from earthly pleasures, it must be pretty tiresome to also be prevented from moving on to the afterlife.
We were considering last week the tradition of "transit state" films, in which a character is hamstrung between life and death, the most recent example being "Down To Earth," starring Chris Rock. As we saw last time, there was a flurry of these transit state movies during the Forties. Some forty years later, another bumper crop appeared on American screens. For a sampling of the second wave of transit state pictures, look for these titles on home video.
"All of Me" (1984). One of the most ancient literary themes, going all the way back to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is that you just can't beat death. Here it is a terminally ill millionairess (Lily Tomlin) who thinks she knows how to cheat the Reaper. With the assistance of a mystic guru (Richard Libertini) she has arranged for her soul to occupy the body of a young, healthy woman. Naturally, the plan goes awry. Her transmigrated soul misses its mark and ends up instead in the body of attorney Roger Cobb (Steve Martin). Roger, however, is by no means prepared to vacate, so the two begin struggling for control of Roger's body.
"Heart Condition" (1990). When detective Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins), a boozing junk food junkie, receives an emergency heart transplant, he gets more from the donor than he had bargained for. The heart's original owner, a dapper, successful attorney named Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington), lingers on in spirit form to pester Jack. It seems that Napoleon was murdered, and he wants to assist Jack in bringing the killer to justice. The advice he offers to Jack is not limited to police work, however. He is also more than willing to offer nutritional and sartorial advice to the slovenly detective, much to Jack's displeasure. This conflict is further intensified by the fact that Jack is a racial bigot, and therefore is not kindly disposed toward taking advice from an African American, even if that man's heart is keeping him alive.
"Ghost" (1990). The premise of a soul in limbo trying to engineer his murderer's capture is also used in "Ghost," but only as a launching pad. Director Jerry Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin blended in a generous helping of romance and a dash of comic relief to come up with the year's most successful box office recipe. Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze star as Molly and Sam, a pair of lovers separated by death when Sam is killed by a mugger. Sam doesn't go to his reward just yet, however. He has some unfinished business to attend to, because it seems that his murder wasn't just random street crime after all. It was part of a plot engineered by his no-good business associate, who is now after Molly. Desperate to get word to Molly, Sam starts sending messages through a medium played by Whoopi Goldberg.
"Defending Your Life" (1991). You can always count on Albert Brooks to put a new spin on an old premise. Brooks wrote, directed, and stars in this offbeat comedy that presents the afterlife as a place where each person must prove to a heavenly tribunal that he or she is ready to move on to the next stage of existence. It isn't strictly a matter of being virtuous, apparently. You just have to prove that you've learned from your mistakes. Otherwise, you have to go back to Earth and try again.
The usual explanation for the popularity of transit state films during the Forties is the massive loss of life resulting from World War II. Audiences of the time may well have had a deep need for reassurance that their deceased loved ones would move on to another existence. As for the similar cycle in the Eighties and Nineties, I can't help wondering if it might have been connected to a need to cope with the plague of AIDS. Just a thought.