Reincarnation pops up in rom-coms (see: a young Robert Downey, Jr. in Chances Are), existential dramas (like Cloud Atlas and I Origins), and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bollywood movies. But horror movies have also used the theme, putting a sinister spin on the idea of past lives rising up to haunt the present.
With the recent reveal that there’s a remake of Audrey Rose in the Hollywood pipeline, we decided to revisit these nine spooky movies about people who’re confronted with the fact that the life they’re currently living isn’t their first time on Earth.
Might as well start here, with this woo-woo drama that’s getting its own reincarnation of sorts, with a script in the works from filmmaker Chloe Okuno. Audrey Rose came out in 1977 and is based on the novel by Frank De Felitta (he also wrote the book that was adapted into predatory-ghost saga The Entity), with acclaimed director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) behind the lens.
The biggest name in the cast is none other than Anthony Hopkins, circa Magic and The Elephant Man; he plays Elliot Hoover, a grieving father whose quest to find meaning in his young daughter’s tragic death leads him down some mystical corridors—and right to the doorstep of a posh NYC couple whose precocious daughter, Ivy (Susan Swift), just might be the reincarnation of his dearly departed Audrey Rose.
If that sounds like an awkward set-up, it is. The parents are understandably like, “Who is this creep?” at first, while poor Ivy’s horrible nightmares—which seemingly force her to re-live Audrey Rose’s demise in a fiery car accident, over and over again—begin to take a physical toll. Eventually, the movie segues from touchy-feely Exorcist rip-off to courtroom drama, and Ivy goes through even more agony until the moment when...sorry, gonna spoil a 42-year-old movie...she actually dies while regressing into her past life under court-ordered hypnosis. The movie tries to give Ivy’s plight spiritual meaning by ending with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, but the whole thing is just kind of too depressing to salvage at that point.
Takashi Shimizu, creator of The Grudge franchise, keeps to the supernatural with 2005's Reincarnation, a movie that blends vengeful ghosts, sinister dolls, true-crime fascination, and horror filmmaking itself—and also makes use of a real-life abandoned location, the historic Aso Kanko Hotel, a place that gives off some serious Shining vibes.
When an ingenue (Yūka) gets cast in a much-anticipated new film from famed horror director Matsumura (Kippei Shiina), her delight in getting her big break is tempered—severely—by the fact that the project seems...cursed. The movie, called Memory, is based on a real-life massacre that happened decades prior, years before she was even born, and yet she can’t shake the feeling that she was present for the murders. That feeling of dread gets worse once Matsumura starts building sets that are exact replicas of the hotel’s interiors—and then insists that the entire cast and crew take a field trip to the actual crime scene to get in the proper headspace for the movie.
While past and present begin to scramble together for the actress, other random people—including a college student who’s curious enough to track down the massacre’s only survivor—also begin to experience flashbacks they can’t explain. Suffice to say there are no happy endings for any of Reincarnation’s old souls trapped in new bodies—but on the upside for the audience, the movie does manage to unfurl a few surprises as to who’s really who in the end.
Speaking of The Grudge franchise, 2006's The Return stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as Joanna, a restless woman who starts to suspect the unsettling visions she’s been having since childhood—mostly involving a faceless dude who menaces her with taunts of “Hey, sunshine”—are actually somebody else’s memories, a woman who apparently met a bad end and has some unfinished business to attend to on this side of the veil. Work brings Joanna to a small town in Texas, where things feel so eerily familiar she starts doing some detective work, guided by nothing but her own déjà vu.
The Return isn’t technically a reincarnation movie—it eventually proves to be more of a case of soul-swapping, as Joanna puzzles together her strange connection to the dead woman. The Return was an early feature for director Asif Kapadia, who went on to achieve greater fame for his documentaries, including the recent Oscar-winning Amy. Despite some effective elements—the great Sam Shepherd plays Joanna’s father for some reason, and the cinematography keeps to a washed-out palette that feels tonally appropriate for Joanna’s haunted state of mind—The Return is more of a meandering meditation on grief than the supernatural thriller its marketing would have you to believe.
Magnum, P.I. was still a few years down the line for Tom Selleck, but his character still gets to drive a red sports car (and sport a luxurious mustache) in this 1972 low-budget affair. He plays Jim Robertson, a Manila-based American museum curator who impulsively buys a painting because it reminds him of his doe-eyed wife, Chris (Barra Grant)—though she’s understandably taken aback when she sees it, considering it depicts a ghoulish witch-burning with a woman that looks just like her being tortured at the stake.
But in Daughters of Satan, witchcraft soon proves to be more than just artistic inspiration, as certain figures (starting with an alarmingly large Rottweiler) slip out of the painting and into real life. Chris soon starts hearing voices and acting strangely, and Jim begins to suspect a conspiracy is afoot—especially when another painting, featuring his exact likeness as a witch hunter, comes to light. Will the pursuit of past-life vengeance win the day, or will Jim and Chris be able to overcome their torrid histories? Unfortunately for these two, it’s hard to overcome any obstacle when Satan’s pulling the strings.
Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic vampire story offers a reminder that if you live long enough—for instance, over 400 years—you will eventually re-encounter a loved one who took her own life after mistakenly believing you’d died in battle. This is what happens for Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) when he spots a photograph of Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) and realizes she’s a dead ringer for his long-lost Elisabeta and tracks her down in Victorian London.
Of course, there are complications: She’s already taken, and he’s a vampire. Despite those obstacles, they come pretty close to spending eternity together as bloodsuckers, but in the end, her enduring love is what ultimately frees him from damnation. So it’s still a happy ending, really.
Speaking of classic monsters, the 1932 Mummy has a similar “reincarnated love” plot point, in which a long-dead high priest, Imhotep (Boris Karloff), fakes his way through Egypt circa-1932 while he searches for the reborn version of his beloved princess. As luck would have it, she’s alive and well in Cairo as Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who takes nearly the entire movie to recall her past life in ancient Egypt and save her present life in the process.
Decades later, The Mummy Returns (which is set in 1933, but came out in 2001) would borrow elements of this storyline, resurrecting a version of Imhotep (played by Arnold Vosloo in the 1999 The Mummy and this sequel) whose earthbound orders of business include awakening the soul of his beloved Anck-su-namun (Patricia Velásquez)—and there’s less resistance this time around, because her reincarnated form is already part of an Imhotep-worshipping cult. There’s a lot more CG, though.
J. Lee Thompson—who directed the original Cape Fear and the final two first-wave Planet of the Apes movies—helmed this 1975 oddity based on the book by Max Ehrlich, who also wrote the screenplay. The title is a little misleading because Peter Proud (played by Michael Sarrazin) isn’t the person who’s reincarnated, it’s a guy named Jeff Curtis (Tony Stephano), who drowned when his wife (Margot Kidder) clobbered him with an oar after a lakeside argument.
Though decades and the entire United States separate the two men—Peter’s a hippie-ish California college professor, Jeff was a preppy-ish Massachusetts tennis pro—Peter’s incredibly vivid dreams (complete with sleep-talking in an unfamiliar, deep voice) send him on a fact-finding quest, lest he go crazy battling the other person in his head. He tracks down Jeff’s widow, who’s been living with her secret for years and is none too thrilled to meet him, and her daughter (Jennifer O’Neill), and finds that he can “erase” his recurring visions if he re-lives them in real life. It’s an effective strategy, but a foreboding one—seeing as how we already know that Jeff, who we learn through flashbacks was habitually unfaithful, met a rather violent demise.
Though it’s kind of long-winded, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud has a bit more to chew on (and far fewer imperiled children, though Peter does strike up a romance with Jeff’s daughter, which seems...wrong) than its fellow 1970s reincarnation saga Audrey Rose. And it’s also been tapped for a rumored remake, from Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker and director David Fincher.
Kenneth Branagh directs and co-stars (with then-wife Emma Thompson) in this 1991 murder mystery that’s really more neo-noir than horror. But it does contain a horrific murder-by-scissors-plunged-into-the-throat, a particularly cinematic case of amnesia, and a love so powerful it reunites two souls across the divide of time.
In the present day, Branagh plays a former cop turned P.I. with a quirky affinity for antiques and a not-so-original playboy attitude toward women. He meets Thompson when she becomes his latest case: She’s an amnesiac plagued by nightmares that feel suspiciously like memories. In Dead Again’s late-1940s storyline, which is rendered in crisp black and white, Branagh plays a wealthy German-born composer frustrated by his inability to find success in America, at least until he meets and marries a beautiful pianist (Thompson). Their happiness is short-lived thanks to that damn scissors murder, which kills her and sends him to death row.
The truth of what really happened that bloody night decades ago becomes a life-or-death pursuit for both characters, and it’s an entertaining race to the finish even if Dead Again’s twists aren’t all that surprising. The best part about revisiting this film is the cast; obviously Branagh and Thompson are great in their dual roles, but you also get Derek Jacobi as an eccentric junk-shop owner who dabbles in hypnosis, Wayne Knight as a cheerfully sleazy photographer, Andy Garcia as a suave newspaperman, and—best of all—Robin Williams as a former shrink turned grocery store owner, who shows up in a couple of memorable scenes to drop some profound theories about karma and quitting smoking.
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