One of the advantages of growing up before the internet was the discovery of hidden gems among video rentals and on cable tv.
Ticket to Heaven is one of those movies.
In the 1980s there was a run of projects about cults. In the wake of the devastating tragedy of the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1979, society couldn’t get enough of cult culture. They seemed to need answers about how people, even those from good and stable families, could abandon their former lives completely. After all, how could people give away all their worldly possessions (signing them over to their respective cults), renounce their former lives in every way, then willfully commit ritual suicide – or – in the case of the Manson Family, murder?
Ticket to Heaven, 1981, is small film that answers a lot of those disturbing questions, and I was lucky enough to get insights into the film from none other than its star, Nick Mancuso.
Nick was kind enough to speak with me about his experiences making Ticket to Heaven all the way from his home in Paris.
Nick’s take on the movie?
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, I loved it, and I’ll never fuckin’ do it again!”
But, more on that later.
Ticket to Heaven follows the journey of David, a Canadian twenty-something played masterfully by Nick Mancuso, who has recently gone through a difficult breakup. David accepts an offer from an old friend down in California who’s become involved with some sort of collective community he can’t wait to introduce him to.
So begins the story of David’s seduction into madness.
Or, as Nick describes it, “David, this poor bastard… gets sucked down into the whirlpool…”
Ticket to Heaven gives an extremely realistic take on the cult’s indoctrination process.
It also shows the great lengths his family goes in their noble attempt to deprogram him. The accurate portrayal of recruitment in Ticket to Heaven lies in the complex process of exactly what’s involved in breaking down a recruit. They preach love and family over all. Of course, they have their hooks deep into you before you realize the “love and family” only applies to them.
What is so fascinating about this indoctrination process is how subtle it all is. The cult itself does not come off as overtly cruel, ominous, or scary, in fact quite the opposite. Their ideals are attractive at first. Their members seem peaceful, supportive, and overly affectionate.
Upon arrival, David is immediately subjected to a typical starvation process. Underfeeding, or providing diets with little to no protein, shocks the system.
Nick explained his method process when it came to this extremely convincing portrayal of David’s physique: “I put myself on the same kind of diet of 800 calories a day…I gained twenty pounds before the job, then dropped thirty-five pounds in a period of four weeks.” If that sounds insane, it is. Compared with Robert DeNiro, who had an entire year to gain the weight for the end of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Nick’s physical dedication took a serious toll. “It was stupid, I screwed up my metabolism… I was dedicated but I was an idiot actor, …it affected me, … it altered my nervous system in many ways.”
Nick’s total physical and mental transformation into the role of David has very little comparison in cinema. Only the aforementioned DeNiro in Raging Bull, Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Academy Award-winning performance as Joker even come close. Nick expressed great admiration for Phoenix’s recent Joker performance, as well as the talents of Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis. Nick saved some of his greatest praise for the work of the late Sir Alec Guinness: “One of the great actors, I studied him, I unfortunately never met him…guys like Guinness and the Brits…there was a solidity to these guys…come on, these guys were the real thing, they were the REAL thing.”
In addition to David’s starvation, he is subjected to constant chanting and zero privacy. There is never time for private thought or contemplation. Throw in smothering affection and an overdose of positive reinforcement, and the physical exhaustion leads to a breaking point. The break leads to complete indoctrination. No other film has ever portrayed these things more effectively than Ticket to Heaven.
One of the reasons the indoctrination process in Ticket to Heaven is portrayed with such shocking reality is because it’s based on actual events. The book Moonwebs: Journey Into a Mind of a Cult by Josh Freed is the basis for the movie script. Although the cult in the film is never named, it is an obvious stand-in for the infamous Unification Church led by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Freed’s book, which reads like a novel, tells the tale of extricating a friend from the clutches of Rev. Moon, and the efforts they went through to deprogram him. Freed was a direct witness to the madness the “Moonies” put a family through.
Nick was lucky enough to have Freed, as well as a former cult member, walk him through exactly what goes into the predatory process of recruitment. “I hung out with him for several weeks before the film started,” Nick said, referring to the former cult member, “… and he showed me how he went about recruiting people for the Moonies, and what to look for. We went to downtown Toronto, and hung around that area and you’d see people in transition, people with suitcases, people of a certain age…distraught or whatever, and you’d kind of cycle up to them and say ‘Hey, how you doing, I’m going to a party, do you want to come?’”
Although this is a relatively small sleeper, Ticket to Heaven does have many familiar faces.
Besides Nick as David, veteran actor Saul Rubinek really shines as David’s good friend Larry. It’s Larry who raises alarm bells when David goes AWOL. Rubinek’s Larry is not only a great performance, but a great example of a true friend, especially as he leads the charge to bring David home. Rubinek and Nick had known each other for decades in Canada prior to shooting the film, and their real relationship shines through. Rubinek, currently on Amazon’s Hunters with Al Pacino, is probably best known for some of his flashier character roles in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Tony Scott’s True Romance.
Other familiar faces in Ticket to Heaven include Kim Cattrall, later of Sex And The City fame, and Meg Foster (They Live), who play cult members struggling to keep David firmly within their grasp. Look for the great Michael Wincott (The Crow) in an extremely early performance as David’s younger brother Gerry.
If you’ve never heard of Ticket to Heaven, you’re not alone. Nick said it best: “Unfortunately, the film fell in between the cracks.” Many people who discovered this film often confuse it with another movie dealing with cults, Split Image (1982), that came out around the same time. Both films seemed to be on the same cable TV cycle. Split Image isn’t a bad film, but it lacks the emotional impact of Ticket to Heaven. It also shows the cult’s leader, played by Peter Fonda, making him far less powerful than the unseen “Father” character in Ticket to Heaven. Never seeing “Father” in the flesh gives him far more power over us than the demystification of Fonda’s leader in Split Image. Split Image had a much higher profile with a more famous cast that included Brian Dennehy, Elizabeth Ashely, Michael O’ Keefe, James Woods, and a post-Raiders of the Lost Ark performance from Karen Allen.
Speaking of Raiders, Nick’s brilliant performance as David, while not getting deserved recognition at the time, was not lost on Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was so impressed by Nick he immediately put him on the shortlist to play Indiana Jones. “I met Spielberg four times… He was seriously considering me for the role.” Mancuso laughed as he remembered, “I went to his office one day…and there was a check for eighty million dollars, a big blow up check… I said, ‘What’s this?’ He said George Lucas and him had made a deal…to share in each other’s success, and that was his cut of Star Wars. The next thing I know Harrison Ford was cast in the role…but I was told…he had a pile of names, and I was at the very top.” Although they never ended up working together, he and Spielberg remained friendly. “He invited me a few times to his place, we would do readings of screenplays… but nothing ever came of it.”
Another reason Ticket to Heaven may have gotten lost in cinema history is the nature of the ending. Many viewers found the end unsettling, and to this day it remains controversial. (SPOILER ALERT) Unlike the upbeat ending of the inferior Split Image, Ticket to Heaven leaves the viewer wondering whether or not David is really back to who he once was. Nick sarcastically pointed out how the U.S. would have handled the ending, “If this had been an American movie it would have hit the nail on the head.” He’s right, the American-made Split Image ends with lovers hand in hand to happy music, no ambiguity whatsoever.
But with Ticket to Heaven we truly wonder, will David stay with his family and friends who risked imprisonment to free him, or will he go back to his cult family and be lost forever? It’s up to you as the credits roll to determine that. Very few films leave such an important question up to the viewer, but this one seems to get away with it.
Nick explained how Ticket to Heaven begins with a wide shot and essentially pushes in over the length of the film to the last iconic image of David’s eyes, pushing the viewers slowly into madness over the course of the two-hour film. Coincidentally, the haunting image of David’s eyes is used in a lot of the promotional material for the film, including the poster. It is chilling. When walking though the video store it was easy to confuse this movie at first glance with a horror film, which in many ways, I guess it was.
When the Manson Family was first exposed to the world people immediately saw them as vagabond drug addicts and runaways. Upon closer examination it was discovered many of them actually came from stable, even loving, homes. What always struck me watching Ticket to Heaven is the realistic question of “what would I do?” I like to think I’d be smart and strong enough to stop it, but then again, David wasn’t, and he seemed much stronger and more stable than me. This is what makes Ticket to Heaven a brilliant film. If David were a doormat or a screwup, the audience simply wouldn’t care, or worse, they’d judge him. But David was smart and had a great support system around him. It’s terrifying to think someone like that could fall for such craziness.
The recent success of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has renewed interest in cults once again. Hopefully people will use this interest to find Ticket to Heaven.
As far as Nick Mancuso’s career, he’s never stopped working. In addition to Ticket to Heaven he has played leading roles in everything from Shakespeare to Segal, and was the star of the cult hit ‘80s TV series Stingray. Other highlights to seek out include Heartbreakers, The House on Garibaldi Street, and a particularly dark episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater anthology series called “The Crowd.” Of course, he will forever have a place in modern horror history as the voice of the demented Billy living in the attic of the sorority house in Black Christmas (1974), a job Nick took when he was only nineteen. Nick readily admits he struggles with the popularity of Black Christmas and even questioned convention goers by asking, “Why are you here?” to which a horror fan replied “Black Christmas is the greatest horror movie of the 20th century!” Get it or not, it remains Nick’s longest running hit film which isn’t bad for a movie he did as a teenager. Nick has two movies currently in the works, and can act in three languages.
Nick Mancuso is also a genuinely warm, funny, and kind person, and it was my great pleasure to speak with him about such a transformative role.
* * * * *
Fred Shahadi is a filmmaker/writer/producer living in Los Angeles.
He is the author of the JFK conspiracy cult sci-fi novel, Shoot the Moon.