Talking to Heaven (2002) poster

Talking to Heaven (2002)


aka Living With the Dead

USA. 2002.


Director – Stephen Gyllenhaal, Teleplay – John Pielmeier, Based on the Book Talking to Heaven: A Medium’s Message of Life After Death by James Van Praagh, Producer – Preston Fischer, Photography – Jeffrey Jur, Music – Normand Corbeil, Visual Effects Supervisor – Tom Turnbull, Visual Effects – GVFX & Toybox/Toronto, Special Effects Supervisor – Gary Paller, Production Design – Brent Thomas. Production Company – Once Upon a Time Pictures.


Ted Danson (James Van Praagh), Mary Steenburgen (Detective Karen Condrin), Queen Latifah (Midge Harmon), Jack Palance (Allan Van Praagh), Diane Ladd (Regina Van Praagh), Michael Moriarty (Adrian), Donna White (Molly Katz), Connor Widdows (Young James Van Praagh), Lindsay Bourne (Monsignor Bender), Jay Brazeau (Psychiatrist), Reece Thompson (Andy), Joy Coghill (Mrs Ziff), Neil Denis (Dennis Branston), James Kirk (Eddie Katz)


As a child, James Van Praagh grows up being able to see people that are not there. In adult life, Van Praagh’s co-worker Midge Harmon convinces him that he has the power to see the dead. Using this ability, Van Praagh persuades police detective Karen Condrin that he knows the whereabouts of a murdered boy. With Van Praagh being guided by the dead, they track down a gravesite in Turtleneck Preserve where several murdered bodies have been buried. As Van Praagh tries to rid himself of his visions, the ghosts of the murdered victims try to guide him to rescue a boy who has been abducted and is about to become the next victim of the killer.

Talking to Heaven is tv mini-series based on the life of medium James Van Praagh. Born in New York, Van Praagh was raised a traditional Catholic and at one point entered the seminary. He was working at the William Morris Agency and unsuccessfully trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood when a supervisor took him to see a medium. There Van Praagh allegedly discovered his own abilities and in the space of a decade became one of the top mediums in the US, with appearances on Oprah, Larry King and numerous other talkshows, as well as making millions from live appearances. His book Talking to Heaven: A Medium’s Message of Life After Death (1997) spent thirteen weeks in the New York Times bestseller lists where it sold some 600,000 copies and has been followed by a host of follow-ups. Van Praagh even briefly obtained his own tv show Beyond With James Van Praagh (2002-3) and served as an executive producer on the medium tv series Ghost Whisperer (2005-10) and the ghost story film The Dead Next Door (2004).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a growing body of people have dismissed Van Praagh’s 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 member’s grandmother when he thought the camera wasn’t on and then pretending to be using that information as though he didn’t 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.

Ted Danson as medium James Van Praagh in Talking to Heaven (2002)
Ted Danson as medium James Van Praagh

Talking to Heaven is a mini-series that widely fictionalises James Van Praagh’s 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 one’s 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 Danson’s wife Mary Steenburgen cast as the investigating detective. An 83 year-old Jack Palance plays Van Praagh’s father in his second-to-last screen appearance. Van Praagh himself has a minor cameo as a church organist.

Trailer here

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