An object lesson in how to breathe new life into moribund material. Unlike Hollywood’s traditional breed of earthbound spirit, whether prankish or do-goodish, Sam Wheat’s ghost finds himself stranded not in the usual cosy circumstances but in a world of strange terrors and unfathomable dimensions.
His first experience of the other world is a nightmarish vision of death in which it is Molly’s corpse rather than his own that he sees. Subsequently holding out his arms in a futile attempt to enfold Molly in a comforting embrace, he finds her walking obliviously right through him, an experience all the more nerve-shattering in that the sensation is literally gut-wrenching for him. He has to solve the problem of getting out of a room when the doors are closed (thrusting an arm straight through the wall works all right, but at first try the effect is a bit like tangling with a buzz-saw); and attempting to steal a ride on a subway, he discovers that other lingering ghosts hardly form a fraternity, one in particular coming on like a paranoid schizo in his murderous determination to eliminate intruders on his train.
Sparingly used, the vivid special effects contribute enormously to this alarming sense of a world governed by entirely alien rules; but more to the point, the tone of torment – not so very far removed from the horror ethos – is established from the outset in a superb credit sequence. Glimpsed through a murky darkness, sinisterly shrouded figures prowl in mysteriously cavernous depths, resolving themselves – as a cacophony of thunderous bangs and crashes gives way to romantic theme music – into the two lovers and their best friend doing exploratory demolition work for the conversion of their loft. The first of a series of premonitory signs – the discovery in the rubble of “a good omen”, an 1898 Indian head penny – heralds the transition from these infernal regions to paradise as the young couple christen their ideal home with a night of fulsome romantic ecstasy.
Something is nevertheless incomplete between them. “I love you,” Molly roundly declares, but the moulded clay she is working on collapses in an ominous heap on the wheel as Sam distracts her by demonstrating his reciprocation of the feeling; because Sam, assailed by intimations of mortality prodded by a TV newsflash about an air disaster (“Seems like when anything good happens, I’m afraid I’m going to lose it”), finds himself reluctant to tempt fate by echoing her affirmation. Shortly after, taken unawares by Molly’s declaration that, having thought it over, she now wants to marry him, Sam hesitates when faced with the direct question (“Do you love me, Sam?”), and has no time to commit himself one way or the other before he is killed.
The reasons for Molly’s change of heart are not revealed (the implication is that he proposed marriage earlier, she demurred), but are perhaps explained by another premonitory scene in which, as the final furnishing touches are added to the apartment, a plaster cast of an angel (shades of Buñuel and Fellini, but it’s just one of Molly’s art works) appears outside the high window dangling from a crane. As Molly leans out to guide it in, Sam suddenly thrusts her out of the way, swings Tarzan-style out from the window frame, kicks the statue away, and catches it as its momentum swings it back through the window. The harebrained thoughtlessness of Sam’s action – he not only endangers himself and risks damage to both statue and apartment, but frightens Molly half out of her wits – suggests why she should have thought long and hard before committing her life to a man of such reckless impulse.
All these little signs and portents, almost imperceptibly woven into the texture of Bruce Joel Rubin’s beautifully constructed script, are really neither here nor there, except that they provide a firm, totally persuasive foundation for the despairing undertow of helpless frustration left when the young couple’s tidal wave of passion is cruelly snuffed out before it peaks. At which point the film achieves its masterstroke by introducing Whoopi Goldberg (for once perfectly cast in a character role) as the very human, very fallible agency through which a mere amour achieves the status of amour fou. She is not only very funny in her own right; she also, in her beautifully graduated transition from impatient scepticism to tender complicity with the lovers, lends emotional depth and balance to something that might otherwise have spiralled into lofty pretension.
There are flaws here and there. The last sight of a golden-haloed Sam disappearing into a horizon of mistily blinding light is too Disneyish by half; and ‘best friend’ Carl is fingered as the villain all too obviously and much too melodramatically when he starts making unlikely advances to Molly with Sam barely buried (especially given an earlier half-hint of ‘contamination’ when, with Sam acting as his straight man, Carl playfully sows unease in a crowded lift by pretending to be suffering from a contagious disease). Otherwise, with the unusual blend of horror, comedy and high romance skilfully and seamlessly managed, this marks an auspicious solo debut as director for Jerry Zucker.