Stay, illusion! If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me: If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me …

—Horatio to the Ghost in Hamlet

For almost as long as people have built campfires, ghost stories have teased us with ideas about life after death. The greatest artists have wrestled with their fear and curiosity by giving shape to their afterlife imaginings, whether inspiring or terrible.

Shakespeare's famous ghost, Hamlet's murdered father, is one of the most haunting phantoms in all of literature, with his tales of hellish torment and his appeal to Hamlet for justice and vengeance. Movies frequently echo this episode—in The Devil's Backbone, a murdered child appeared to some orphans, leading them to avenge a horrible wrong. I found the film to be one of those rare ghost stories that rises above simple tricks and surprises to become a profound work of art. The ghost became a symbol of war's innocent casualties, those who are ignored by powerful clashing armies and then left behind, forgotten, devastated, with no one to avenge them.

But finding a meaningful ghost story is a challenge. Most cinematic spook-stories recall another Shakespeare line—"A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Most are so sloppily told that some Christian film critics go so far as to ignore or condemn any movie in which heroes come into contact with ghosts.

I'd like to hear from you: Has a movie about ghosts or the afterlife ever been a rewarding experience for you? If so, which one, and why? Do you think any of these supernatural expeditions offer real insight, encouragement or comfort? Or is this subject a dead-end? Are ghost stories off-limits for Christians? Write me here.

This week, three new releases offer stories dealing with death, the desire to overcome it, and the suffering of those left behind.

Hot from the Oven

In Message in a Bottle, Kevin Costner mailed letters to his dead wife by tossing them into the ocean. This week, in Dragonfly, Costner plays Joe, whose dead wife takes the initiative in maintaining contact. To cope with unexplainable signs and events, Joe seeks the help of a nun (Linda Hunt) and receives some counsel. The movie has critics scoffing. And the counsel Joe receives has given religious press critics a collective furrowed brow.

Nevertheless, the movie opened successfully. Clearly, film buffs are still eager for stories about contact with the dead, perhaps seeking assurance that death will reveal design and meaning in life. Perhaps September 11 still has enough hold on our minds and hearts that many are still seeking answers and insight. Beliefnet's interview with Dragonfly's director Tom Shadyac contains more interesting and provocative ideas than the film itself. Shadyac, a professing Christian, discusses how he believes movies offer promising possibilities for exploring tough spiritual questions.

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Dragonfly has won a few fans, including Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Trinity Church Wall Street's Spirituality and Health. They argue, "Although there have been a handful of afterlife dramas proclaiming that love is stronger than death, this is one of the best. Dragonfly beautifully conveys how great gifts can be hidden in death and how they can bear fruit in our lives if we only have the patience and the faith to let them unfold."

Similarly, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) affirms "the inspiring and miraculous message of hope and faith represented within the story. Dragonfly is the kind of movie that will stimulate discussion, leaving audiences asking questions and searching for their own answers."

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic calls Dragonfly "inane" and claims "Shadyac's clunky thriller offers some garbled spiritual bunkum about the 'next world' with overripe dialogue and a derivative script that grows increasingly ridiculous."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) writes, "This supernatural romance/adventure, one supposedly to make us think about the hereafter, failed on every level. I understand Shadyac is a Christian … [but] I found his attempt here at guiding an audience to questioning spiritual matters less than effective. I wasn't moved. I wasn't interested. I just wanted the howling nonsense to be over."

A critic at Movieguide writes, "The movie's worldview problems and occult content make it totally unacceptable."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The journey to the final payoff is a tedious one and afterwards we recognize how manipulative the whole experience was." Elliott was troubled by the idea that Joe's dead wife is trying to communicate with him. "After all, she's dead. The Scriptures tell us plainly that the dead cannot speak."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) objects to this plot point as well: "Jesus declared in Luke 16 the biblical reality that there 'is between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'"

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Some of these critics seem to object to the whole literary device of ghosts in storytelling. Like the magic in Harry Potter, the ghosts in these stories are not presented as an argument for how things really work, but as a way of talking about things we cannot know, to communicate a message of hope or, sometimes, horror. And while Christ certainly had good reason for exhorting us not to seek out contact with the dead, he did not forbid exploration of the idea in storytelling. Scripture itself offers such tales: Saul consults the spirit of Samuel, Jesus talks with Elijah and Moses. Both stories suggest these things are indeed possible, and that tales about such events are valuable.

Jesus himself used characters from beyond the grave in his own storytelling. Downs mentioned Luke 16:17-31 for a profound and even amusing story about tormented souls in Hell shout pleas for help to Abraham, who they can see walking around in Heaven. Sounding a little annoyed, Abraham shouts right back at them. Granted, there is some debate about whether Jesus was telling a parable or a literal happening. Sounds like a parable to me, but either way, Christ offered inhabitants of the afterlife as relevant characters in a good story.

What truly is disturbing about Dragonfly is the counsel that the nun offers Joe—and the audience. She is portrayed as the voice of wisdom and reason. And yet she encourages him to try to contact his wife's ghost, claiming that such a thing is possible if only Joe believes it is possible. "If we can create this world with what we imagine, then why not the next?" she argues. "Belief gets us there."

Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) objects to this flimsy philosophy: "In an attempt to make a heartwarming statement about the power of faith, Dragonfly forgets that faith has to be a belief in what is true, not just belief for its own sake. This film gets credit for asking all the right questions, but deserves a swat for … failing to produce the right answers."

Douglas LeBlanc (Christianity Today) writes, "Joe's changed belief comes entirely through esoteric experiences. The film clearly rejects Enlightenment notions of reality, and thank God for that, but Dragonfly is too concerned with receiving messages from the other side. As a reflection on heaven, life on Earth, and how the two interact, it's no more nutritious than the popcorn."

Mainstream critics rejected the film almost unanimously. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) groans, "I'd like to think that this silly humbuggery, this preposterous-for-no-good-reason supernatural tale, is throwaway comfort for a plague year. But I fear there's more junk like this about to come our way, whether we repent or not."

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"There are deeply religious and spiritual people in this world who would argue that entering a church, synagogue, or temple doesn't mean you have to check your brain at the door," says Stephanie Zacharek (Salon). "The same should go for movie theatres."

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People in Michael Rymer's new movie aren't in touch with the dead, exactly. No, these supernatural beings never made it as far as the grave. They're the "undead," and they're hardly benevolent. They just want to party hard, drink the blood of the living, and enjoy eternal life as tormented souls in Goth attire. Queen of the Damned is about vampires, and it made Robert Elder (Chicago Tribune) "puzzled as to why the term 'damned' applies at all, when vampirism is depicts as so cool, fashion-savvy, and glamorous."

Elements of Damned are drawn from Anne Rice's novel of the same title, but fans of her books point out the movie is quite a different thing. We are re-introduced to the Vampire LeStat, who was a devilish meddler in the impressive horror/thriller Interview with the Vampire. This time, LeStat returns to the spotlight as a rock star—the better to seduce sexy, intellectual college girls. But when LeStat gains fame and fortune, the world's most powerful vampire comes out of hiding to challenge LeStat's chosen girl for his heart. Blood and bad music flow freely and fast.

Most critics emphasize just how far the sequel falls short of its predecessor. Interview had the advantages of Director Neil Jordan (The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game) and stars Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kristen Dunst, Steven Rea, and Antonio Banderas. The biggest selling point of Damned is that it features the first and last movie appearance of pop star Aaliyah as the bloodthirsty Queen. Aaliyah died in a plane crash soon after the film was shot. (Surveys showed one third of the film's opening-weekend audience was made up of females under the age of 25.) Sadly, the movie gives us little chance to see if Aaliyah had any acting talent at all. Most critics felt drained by its gross indulgences, empty melodrama, and laughable performances.

(Tolkien fans, note: the actor vamping it up as LeStat is Stuart Townsend. Townsend was on-camera playing the part of Aragorn in Fellowship of the Ring until director Peter Jackson changed his mind, kicked Townsend out, and cast Viggo Mortensen instead. Thank you, Mr. Jackson.)

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Steven Issac (Focus on the Family) sees an allegory in the drama, as the corrupt Lestat wrestles his own wicked compulsions in a desire for redemption. And yet, this doesn't save the movie from its weaknesses. "Graphic visual images of blood, gore and death are what will leave the theater with you, not an indirect examination of philosophic nuance."

Charles Phipps (Christian Spotlight) calls it "practically incoherent" and concludes," Damned fails to convey what the original Interview with a Vampire was mercifully blessed with—the fact was never less than apparent that Lestat was a monster." He predicts the film will succeed because of the popularity of Aaliyah, instead of for any artistry. "Still," he admits, "the movie's ambition does deserve some credit: a few set designs were quite inspired, some of the acting moves above the subpar to enjoyable, and there is occasional amusement felt at the film's attempt to be profound."

The USCCB's critic writes, "With special effects tricks running from corny to cheesy and a story line that makes little sense … Rymer's dismissible horror musical has no bite."

John Adair (Preview) says, "excessive, graphic violence dethrones the Queen."

Phil Boatwright's review of the film is simply, "Oh, please."

Side Dishes

Director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation) is back after a long absence with an adaptation of Graham Swift's Last Orders. The story follows a community of aging Britons (featuring Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, and the great Helen Mirren) who are grieving the loss of a friend (Michael Caine) and journeying to spread his ashes. As they mourn, they reminisce about their younger days with their lost friend, savor memories, and share anecdotes.

A critic at the USCCB says, "The sentimental script has many flaws but the superb ensemble cast picks up the slack, giving the deliberately paced film about death, painful memories and new beginnings some vitality."

Movieguide sums it up as "unsatisfying humanist nostalgia with pagan lusts and conflicts."

Mainstream critics are divided as well. Michael Atkinson (The Village Voice) calls it a film about a "carload of codgers … [who] merely bellyache, philosophize, crack unfunny jokes, and ruminate simplemindedly about Death."

A.O. Scott (New York Times) is impressed by Schepisi's achievement: "The principal challenge must have been how to translate the specific gravity of Mr. Swift's prose, with its multiple narrators and its stripped-down cockney lyricism, into the light and shadow of cinema. The further difficulty … is how to show all of this without being too obvious or schematic. Mr. Schepisi … has succeeded beyond all expectation." Scott compliments the film for having "a quiet, amused wonder at the complexities of human character, and a reluctance to shoehorn them into narrative conventions or deduce obvious morals."

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Charles Taylor (Salon) says the film "is funny in the way that makes you ache with sadness (the way Chekhov is funny), profound without ever being self-important, warm without ever succumbing to sentimentality." He calls it "an unassuming masterpiece. It's one of those miracles of filmmaking where every element … is in sync with every other element, and work together to serve the material."

* * *

Okay, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog isn't really about death or killing. It's about a wisecracking cynic (Kenneth Branagh) whose writerly imagination entertains a fantasy about killing the pooch next door, a dog that barks incessantly. But slowly an 8-year-old neighbor girl draws him to become a better person.

Mary Draughon (Preview) described the movie as "a lesson in how a casual remark can have serious consequences." But she gives it a thumbs-down, saying it "self-destructs with gratuitous, graphic sexual conversations and filthy language."

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Health) call it "an acerbic comedy that cleverly depicts the spiritual turnaround of this jaded and temperamental playwright. Neighbor's Dog turns out to be a surprising drama about the emptiness of cynicism when stacked up against the bounties of compassion."

Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic) finds it inexcusably empty: "To say that the story reaches no conclusion, never explains why it exists, is to compliment its nullity. Branagh is flavorless in a script for which he was to supply the flavors."

Flick Filosopher MaryAnn Johanson says the film is occasionally too absurd, but decides that "Branagh redeems it, keeping the film grounded in the wonderful, schizophrenic reality of a man desperately scrambling to maintain his cynicism only to find that letting it go isn't so bad after all."

Stephen Holden (The New York Times) says the film "reminds us that when it comes to comedy, it's all in the writing. Mr. Kalesniko's satirically barbed screenplay … stirs up an insistent verbal energy that rarely flags. The jokes are attached to a story that throws in several original screwball twists." But he predicts that its stand-out qualities may be too un-sentimental for viewers: "Audiences conditioned to getting weepy over saucer-eyed, downy-cheeked moppets and their empathetic caretakers will probably feel emotionally cheated by the film's tart, sugar-free wit."

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American critics are celebrating the arrival of an Italian film called The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. The plot sounds suspiciously like that of In the Bedroom, as it focuses on a family grieving the tragic and abrupt death of their teenage son. But instead of revenge, this family works at healing and moving on. Director Nanni Morretti has gained an Oscar nomination for his film, in which he plays a character similar to himself. Some critics feel his exploration of grief is more rewarding and profound than the much-lauded Bedroom, which had bigger stars and a wider release.

While In the Bedroom "shifts dramatic gears and goes off the rails a bit in its final act, The Son's Room is more consistent in tone and more satisfying," writes Peter Chattaway (The Vancouver Courier). "One of the reasons the film works so well is that it keeps introducing little surprises that push the film in subtly different directions than we might have expected it to go." Chattaway praises the fiim as "gentle, patient … uncharacteristically straightforward … [and unwilling] to settle for easy hope or easy despair."

The USCCB's critic calls it "poignant" and says, "the character-driven, gentle drama is emotionally resonant and finely edited, expressing an aching parental grief that derives comfort from an odd situation."

Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic) says, "Moretti seems to be savoring the film, learning as much about it as we do while it goes along."

* * *

Okay, enough talk about death and dying. Let's wrap things up on a brighter note and turn from news about films to news about a film critic: America's most beloved film reviewer, Roger Ebert, successfully underwent cancer surgery this week. Doctors removed a malignant tumor from his thyroid gland.

The Ebert family posted this statement: "Our family is grateful that the surgery was a complete success and we appreciate the outpouring of support we have received. In response to all the questions asking how anyone can help, Roger's wife, Chaz, suggests that you gather together a small group of friends or family, go out to a movie—preferably one recommended by Roger—and then discuss it over dinner. At some point during the evening, give a big 'thumbs up' and send out good thoughts and prayers for Roger."

You can find the full story at Media News.

Next week: Ghost stories that'll get to you.Plus, We Were Soldiers: Mel Gibson continues in his quest to appear in every war history has to offer.

Related Elsewhere

Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.