Since no one seems comfortable with the idea that they simply cease to exist once they die, nearly every world religion seeks to alleviate this existential discomfort by teaching that human life does not end with death.
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In Western religions such as Christianity and Islam, there is only one life, and then comes the judgment—where one’s soul is sent to either heaven or hell for eternal happiness or eternal suffering.
Eastern religions take a more nuanced view. Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach that the body is temporary, but the soul is eternal. The word “reincarnation” literally means “to reappear in different flesh,” and Eastern religions tend to see birth and death as an unending cycle. Based on one’s actions, one is reincarnated as a higher life form if one accrued wisdom and dignity during a previous life, or they return as a lower life form if they’ve accumulated bad karma.
In a sense, being reincarnated is analogous to a movie having a sequel—the major premise remains intact, but the franchise is reborn in a new era with new challenges.
Reincarnation movies are not strictly horror films, because often someone returns in a happier and more elevated state. But sometimes reincarnation conjures the unending horror of someone’s wretched past catching up with them. Here are a few exemplary films in the reincarnation genre.
Old Reincarnation Movies
A pair of young men take shelter in a remote mansion during a storm. When a landslide blocks the road and thus their ability to leave, one of the men starts to experience deja vu and concludes he visited the mansion in a past life. He used to be a painter named Anand, and he’d fallen in love with a tribal girl named Madhumati. Planet Bollywood writes, “This is a simple film that manages to touch your heart. That feeling of watching a fairytale never goes away when viewing Madhumati. The way the tale has been narrated can be compared to other fairytales or popular mythical stories such as Snow White….Like Snow White, Madhumati’s beauty shines and enthralls everyone and everything wherever she goes.”
Directed by J. Lee Thompson (who also directed the original 1962 Cape Fear starring Robert Mitchum), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is about the titular Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin), a college professor who starts suffering nightmares in which he is killed by a woman on a boat. While all this is going on, he falls for a local girl named Ann. But then he realizes that Ann’s mother killed him during a previous lifetime. He is faced with several perplexing questions: Is he Ann’s father? Why did Ann’s mother kill him? Film Authority writes, “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is a wonderfully musty supernatural-themed thriller. Since it came out, J. Lee Thompson’s film seems to exist in a forgotten netherworld were the interests of science-fiction, horror and drama resolutely fail to intersect. Shot in 50 shades of brown, Michael Sarrazin plays a man troubled with memories of a past life. Margot Kidder is his lover, and the whole thing in interspersed with shots of a boating accident, the exact meaning of which is ambiguous to the end, and quite possible well after that for many. The romantic but menacing tone makes for an enjoyably dated trip back to the 70’s.”
Bill and Janice are a happily married young couple with an eleven-year-old daughter named Ivy. Their familial bliss is shattered by the appearance of an old man named Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins), whose daughter Audrey Rose died in a car accident eleven years previously. Hoover is convinced that Ivy is Audrey’s reincarnation. Although Bill and Janice originally object to the strange man’s intrusion into their lives, they also realize that Ivy, who experiences horrific nightmares, can only be calmed down by the elderly Mr. Hooper. When he eventually kidnaps Ivy, her parents seek to have him arrested, which only cements Hoover’s desire to prove that Ivy is his reincarnated daughter. According to Vincent Canby in The New York Times, the film “is supposed to be about reincarnation, but it’s really about the potentially dangerous side effects when a soul passes from one body to another without a proper interval. Lightheadedness, depression, disorientation and worse—they sound like the warnings on a bottle of prescription tranquilizers.”
Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) is admitted to a hospital in San Francisco complaining of a tumor growing in her neck. Her doctors believe it’s actually a living fetus gestating inside the tumor. Karen’s former boyfriend, a psychic named Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis), originally dismisses the idea that it’s anything more than a tumor, but then he becomes convinced that what’s growing inside his former girlfriend’s neck is the Manitou, a 400-year-old vengeful Native American spirit who must be quashed before he can wreak havoc. According to a review in Blood Brothers Films, “The Manitou is a high camp classic that was originally made to be a seriously taken Exorcist rip-off. The great cast, absurd plot and unintentional laughs will make this a must see for fans of the ludicrous side of horror films.”
In this updated remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan—in which a boxer suddenly finds himself dead and waiting at heaven’s gate—Warren Beatty stars as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who wants more than anything to guide his team to a Super Bowl victory. But then Joe is struck dead on his bicycle in an LA tunnel by a truck driver and is whisked up to heaven to face his judgment. When it’s determined that his guardian angel made a hasty decision and that Joe wasn’t supposed to die yet, it is decided that Joe’s soul should inhabit the body of a recently murdered LA millionaire. Roger Ebert writes, “This is the kind of upbeat screwball comedy Hollywood used to do smoothly and well. Hollywood still does; the co-direction by Beatty and Buck Henry is confident, the performances are slyly humorous without hitting us over the head, and the screenplay (by Elaine May with Beatty’s participation) takes the curse off the plot’s essential sweetness by getting in some nice, mean digs at greed, corporate politics, adultery, professional football in general and jocks in particular.”
Robert Downey, Jr. and Cybill Shepherd star in this tale of a reincarnated man who died in a traffic accident in the early 1960s, only to be reincarnated and fall in love with his daughter from his previous life. He also realizes that the girl’s mother is his previous wife. Most of the comedy and drama in the film revolve around trying to reconcile what is clearly an awkward and irreconcilable situation. According to The Movie Scene, “The thing about Chances Are is that Robert Downey, Jr. makes the movie and when watched now there are scenes of almost silent comedy which makes you see why he ended up cast as Charlie Chaplin just a few years later.…What this all boils down to is that Chances Are is an entertaining take on the familiar reincarnation story with Robert Downey, Jr. delivering a beautifully visual comedic performances but also a charming one.”
In Kenneth Branagh’s second outing as a director, Branagh stars as LA private detective Mike Church, who takes on the case of a mute woman with amnesia (Emma Thompson) who doesn’t even know her own name. She is plagued by nightmares of the murder of a female concert pianist named Margaret Strauss (also played by Emma Thompson), who was thought to have been killed by her husband (played by Kenneth Branagh) back in the 1940s. When Thompson’s mute character agrees to undergo hypnosis and starts revealing that her former husband was actually framed for the murder, things get interesting. Reel Views writes, “Although Dead Again‘s story is complicated, Branagh presents it in a clear, straightforward manner that leaves little room for confusion. Each of the plot twists is exposed with suitable buildup, maintaining viewer interest. The characters, both past and present, are remarkably well-developed, and there is a legitimate sense of uncertainty concerning Roman’s guilt.”
Robin Williams stars as Chris Nielsen, a pediatrician whose wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) works as a painter. They have two children, Ian and Marie, who are suddenly taken from them in a car accident. Years later, while attempting to help people in a car accident, Chris is hit by a car and killed. He instantly enters heaven. But Annie, distraught at the loss of her entire family, commits suicide and goes to hell. Chris must leave heaven and enter hell to negotiate his wife’s release and ensure the reunion of their broken family. Roger Ebert writes, “What Dreams May Come takes us too far and risks too much to turn conventional at the end. It could have been better. It could perhaps have been the best film of the year. Whatever its shortcomings, it is a film to treasure.”
New Reincarnation Movies
A ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) attempts to persuade a young woman named Anna (Nicole Kidman) that he is her murdered husband Sean—who was slain ten years ago while jogging in Central Park—reincarnated. At first Anna scoffs at the idea but slowly begins to realize that the boy may be telling the truth. Roger Ebert writes, “Echoes of Rosemary’s Baby are inevitable, given the similarity of the apartment locations and Kidman’s haircut, so similar to Mia Farrow’s. But Birth is less sensational and more ominous, and also more intriguing because instead of going for quick thrills, it explores what might really happen if a 10-year-old turned up and said what Sean says.”
Released in Japan as Rinne, this film revolves around a young actress named Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) who signs on to star in a film based on a real-life story from 35 years ago where a crazed professor killed 11 people at a hotel—and the film is slated to be shot at the same hotel where the massacre occurred. Nagisa, who portrays the professor’s daughter in the film-within-a-film, is slowly driven insane by the ghosts of the hotel’s ten murder victims. Movie Feast writes, “Rinne is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overdone genre as it seamlessly interweaves a mystery story within a traditional ghost story not terribly unlike Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural epic, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), but without the stinging social commentary….Rinne has no aspirations other than being an entertaining film, and it succeeds at that rather handily.”
Darren Aronofsky directed this love story that takes place across three different eras. In each story, the lovebirds are played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. In the first, a Spanish conquistador in Mayan country seeks to find the elusive Tree of Life to free his captive queen. In the second, a medical researcher searches desperately for a cure to save his dying wife. In the third, a space traveler seeks to reunite eternally with his lover, who is trapped on a dying star. Black Sheep Reviews writes, “There is no dispute that Aronofsky is a genuine artist and genius in his own right. THE FOUNTAIN shows his insight, his openness and his innovation….But for all its ingenuity, THE FOUNTAIN never feels like it has fully translated from Aronofsky’s complex mind to the screen. That being said, there are worse places to be trapped than the mind of a genius.”
Six different stories spanning from 1849 to the 2300s intersect to prove the eternal concept that “Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and each kindness we birth our future.” These stories are: A slave-owner writes a diary while sailing across the Pacific in 1849; a composer writes letters to his lover in England during the 1930s; a reporter uncovers damaging information about a US nuclear plant in the 1970s; a publisher is framed for a crime while living in a nursing home in 2012; a clone escapes tyranny in Korea in the year 2144; and tribespeople battle cannibals in a postnuclear world during the 2300s. Roger Ebert writes, “I was never, ever bored by Cloud Atlas. On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters. What was important was that I set my mind free to play.”
An atheistic molecular biologist named Ian (Michael Pitt) falls in love with a woman who is deeply spiritual in nature (Brit Marling). Ian’s research focuses on eyes and the chromosome for sight across several species. But when the couple has a son and his eyes are mapped, the scientific data shows that these eyes used to belong to someone else who is now dead. Surrender to the Void writes, “Origins is a marvelous film from Mike Cahill. Featuring a great cast as well as captivating take on the ideas of evolution and spirituality, it’s a film that showcases one man’s fascination with man’s evolution despite his apprehension towards the ideas of faith and spirituality.”
This sequel to 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose follows a dog named Bailey through four reincarnations and four human families. Bailey slowly finds meaning for his own existence through the lives of the humans he meets. Irish Film Critic writes, “The movie is divided into sections using every death and reincarnation and fuel to push the story forward. Bailey passes four times in this movie and that is four times you have to watch, stomach-turning, as Bailey’s life ends and you hope he’ll return.”
More Reincarnation Movies
- Somewhere in Time (1980) a Chicago playwright (Christopher Reeve) hypnotizes himself so he can travel back in time to meet an actress whose vintage portrait hangs in a hotel. More of a time travel movie, but with elements that can at times feel like reincarnation.
- Videodrome (1983) a soft-core cable TV channel that can only be perceived through brain tumors is able to make those who watch it become reincarnated entirely on the video channel.
- The Wraith (1986) a fun action film about being reincarnated as a vigilante.
- Always (1989) a dead firefighter pilot reincarnates to ensure the safety and happiness of his girlfriend and his successor.
- Defending Your Life (1991) Albert Brooks directed, wrote, and stars in this hilarious comedy about waking up in heaven and having to account for your misdeeds throughout life.
- The Double Life of Véronique (1991) The paths of two women—one named Weronika, the other named Veronique—keep crossing to the point where it is suspected that they may be separate incarnations of one another.
- Little Buddha (1993) after the Dalai Lama dies, Buddhist monks must decide which one of three children—one American, the others Nepalese—is the great teacher’s legitimate reincarnation.
- Fluke (1995) a man finds he must make several adjustments after being reincarnated as a dog.
- Down to Earth (2001) Chris Rock plays a black comic who gets a second chance at life after being reincarnated into the body of a wealthy white man.
- Café de Flore (2011) Two different couples—one in the present day, one set in Paris in the 1960s—turn out to be reincarnations of one another.
- Jupiter Ascending (2015) Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is the reincarnation of an ancient family matriarch.
- Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) Three guardian angels take a deceased firefighter into the afterlife, where he must prove his mettle if he hopes to reincarnate.
- Infinite (2021) Evan McCauley (Mark Wahlberg) fears he’s having a mental breakdown until three spirit guides appear and inform him that his memories are legitimate and come from his past lives.
- Shyam Singha Roy (2021) after a film director receives a head injury during a fight, he starts being plagued with memories from a previous life.