Ticket to Heaven (Ralph L Thomas, 1981)
A depressed twenty-something school teacher (Nick Mancuso) living in San Francisco is swept up into a ‘love’ cult before being kidnapped by his loved ones, including his friend from Toronto (hence, the Hollywood North connection), and deprogrammed.
It was the early 80’s, so it makes complete sense that the wildly prolific period of film output known as the Canadian tax shelter years would intersect with a tale of terrifying Moonie cults and those somber deprogrammers that was all the rage of the time, with the mainstream media constantly imploring suburban families to remain vigilant, as their rebellious children’s impressionable minds were in clear and present danger of being gone forever in a fervour of chanting and hippie love (interesting how neither this film or Ted Kotcheff’s superior — yet still flawed attempt at this very specific subgenre, Split Image (1982), even with that memorably manic performance by James Woods as the deprogrammer— never question the legitimacy or intentions of those wacky deprogrammers themselves). After all, next thing you know, heaven forbid, it would be a return to the anti-establishment youth-empowerment of the late 60’s and 70’s, with the kids actually believing, through their voice and protest, that they could influence the status quo and things like their government’s illegal occupations and bombardments of other countries!
The film is decently effective within its by-the-numbers approach, as we watch the cult do its thing on the Mancuso character (an actor who looks and acts creepy long before he gets anywhere near the isolated farm of the cultists) — with the low-calorie starvation diet and sleep deprivation training followed with constant positive reinforcement and relentless slogan chanting — and then, after he’s recruited (which happens a bit too quickly), follow him as he struggles with ridding himself of his previous life’s urges and on to his kidnapping by desperate family and friends in order to go through the violently intense deprogramming.
As intriguing as the subject matter is, however, it’s all presented, told, shot and lit in this flat, made for TV style (well, in the standard un-creative style common to that time, not the much more multi-varied and often dynamic way of television of the last decade) and there are also these terribly misguided scenes of the friend character played by Saul Rubinek performing absurdly bad stand-up comedy. I guess the intention with the character was to make him a comedian desperate to be appreciated, making him that much more vulnerable to the initial welcoming presentation of the cultists, but – man – did they need to make him the very worst comedian on the circuit?