One of the best movies I’ve seen has only occasionally become available for home viewing. Ticket to Heaven, a 1981 film based on the book Moonwebs: Journey into the mind of a cult, presented a chilling look into a social problem that hit its peak just prior to its release — religious cults. Now a DVD release of the film gives a new generation of viewers a look at that era:

At $7, movie buffs might consider this a bargain-basement release, and the DVD proves them right in many regards. The DVD has no extras at all; indeed, the menu system looks so amateurish that many people will conclude that they could do better themselves with Windows Movie Maker, and they might be right. The transfer is grainy, with a few moments of color fluctuation, and the source looks as though it was a tired 16mm theatrical copy that saw service on the film’s initial release.

And that’s unfortunate, because Ticket to Heaven is truly a lost gem, an early independent film that succeeds on almost every level and takes its subject matter seriously.  Nick Mancuso portrays David, a lost and somewhat dissolute soul, who stumbles into a Young Pioneers commune project of a self-proclaimed Jakartan Messiah.  The film shows how the commune breaks David down, brainwashing him into the cult, with the help of Kim Catrall’s Ruthie, one of the true believers.  They turn him into a fanatic who can no longer think for himself, trained to attempt suicide if apprehended or kidnapped.  His friends and family, led by his closest friend Larry (Saul Rubinek), scheme to kidnap him and “deprogram” him from the cult.

That may seem strange to those who did not live through the 70s and 80s, but cults and deprogramming were headline material for years.  Moonies are the obvious parallel for this fictional story, but they were hardly the only cult that preached messianic visions and surrender of all personal property to their religious organizations.  Some parents went to jail for kidnapping their adult children and attempting to reverse the brainwashing.  The nadir of the cult movement came in 1978, when over 800 people committed suicide or were murdered in Jonestown.

The performances are outstanding in Ticket to Heaven.  Catrall and Foster shine as creepy true believers of the cult; if all you’ve seen of Catrall is Sex and the City and Porky’s, you owe yourself a viewing of this movie.  Rubinek does a great job as Larry, and R. H. Thompson does a brilliant but brief turn as the deprogrammer.  However, the real revelation here is Mancuso himself, who has made a career out of bad movies and two-dimensional roles.  In this film, we see a different Mancuso, sometimes subtle, sometimes frighteningly energetic, but completely convincing as a victim of brainwashing despite his sophistication and initial apathetic world view.

If you’ve never seen it. seven dollars is a bargain price for a Ticket to Heaven.