TALKING TO HEAVEN
LIVING WITH THE DEAD
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a growing body of people have dismissed Van Praaghs claims to the extent that he has earned the nickname James Van Fraud. Noted sceptic Michael Shermer has shown that Van Praagh is a master of cold reading that most of his so-called success has come from the ability to sift through questions until he gets some that strike true and that the audience so willingly believe Van Praagh that they tune out the negative hits. Analysis of his performances has shown that Van Praagh is clever at quickly adapting to and using information and responses given by the people he reads. On a tv appearance, Shermer and Van Praagh both read a woman picked by the producers and Shermer, who confessed that he was making it up, actually obtained the same number of positive hits that Van Praagh did and, in fact, far less negative hits. On an episode of 20/20, Van Paagh was taped finding details about an audience members grandmother when he thought the camera wasnt on and then pretending to be using that information as though he didnt know when he was performing. In another high-profile incident subsequent to the making of the mini-series (and uncannily paralleling its plot), Van Praagh claimed to offer up details about a missing teenager whom he claimed had been murdered, only for the supposedly dead teenager (who had instead been abducted) to turn up alive several years later.
Talking to Heaven is a mini-series that widely fictionalises James Van Praaghs non-fiction book. To this extent, the mini-series almost entirely invents a new background for Van Praagh. There, for instance, is no record of Van Praagh of ever having solving any kind of murder investigation but despite this the bulk of the mini-series is taken up by a supposedly true race to locate a killer. Even if one did believe mediumistic abilities were real (this author does not), Talking to Heaven should more correctly be considered a work of fiction, which places it in the company of other medium films like Fear (1990), Murderous Vision (1991), Dead On Sight (1994), Sensation (1994), After Alice (1999), Murder Scene (2000) and Troubled Waters (2006).
Almost certainly, the mini-series was inspired by the spooky doings of The Sixth Sense (1999), not to mention the great success that was being had by tv mediums such as John Edward and Colin Fry during the early 2000s. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal attains an occasional spookiness but mostly the mini-series has the atmosphere wrung out of it by the banality of typical mini-series length. The story is little more than a murder mystery about people trying to piece together clues garnered by the psychic a la the abovementioned medium films. Sadly, for a mini-series that is supposedly based on fact, Talking to Heaven offers precious little insight into mediumistic abilities or the afterlife. The afterlife is shown in banal feelgood homilies of ones family waiting to embrace the living and forgive tiny slights. The first half of the show is tedious padding and filler; at least, the second half develops some passably absorbing suspense during the race to rescue the abducted child.
Talking to Heaven is directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, the father of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal has mostly worked in television but has directed at least two good feature films with Paris Trout (1991) and Waterland (1992). Ted Danson plays Van Praagh, with Dansons wife Mary Steenburgen cast as the investigating detective. An 83 year-old Jack Palance plays Van Praaghs father in his second-to-last screen appearance. Van Praagh himself has a minor cameo as a church organist.