Bela Lugosi died during filming of Plan 9 From Outer Space, the alleged Worst Movie Ever, but the labor didn't stop. Director Ed Wood simply employed a double holding a Dracula cape over his face. Problem solved, and I'd say the unsettling film even benefited from the unsettling effect.
Similarly, director Terry Gilliam completed his The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus despite the death, mid-shoot, of star Heath Ledger. Gilliam's solution is unsettling, too. Ledger's character is played in some scenes by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. It works better than you might expect.
Gruff Christopher Plummer is Parnassus, an immortal being who enters trances and transports people into fantastic visions. It's a neat feat, but the elderly Parnassus is a shambling drunk often reduced to performing his trick for small groups of indifferent London pub goers.
His Imaginarium show is a horse-drawn carnival attraction whose grimy, claustrophobic design bears unmistakable marks of Gilliam - of Jabberwocky, of Brazil. When customers enter the Imaginarium, they see visions that reflect their personalities, so that a matron walks amid colossal designer shoes, and a young boy manipulates cartoonish shapes with a videogame controller. These outlandish sequences are Gilliam at his intuitive, freeform best.
Parnassus is aided by his porcelain-skinned teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), an irritable driver (Verne Troyer, who played Mini Me in the Austin Powers movies) and a puppyish young man (Andrew Garfield) who serves as a barely competent carnival barker. We learn in flashbacks that for centuries Parnassus has been wagering with the devil (a wry, taunting Tom Waits) over the saving of souls. (Trips into the Imaginarium can determine the fate of souls.) The prize in the current bet is Valentina.
One night the group is surprised to find a white-suited man (Ledger) hanging by a noose from a bridge. They revive him and learn he is called Tony. He claims to have no memories, but it emerges that he is fleeing a shady past in the world of charitable works. He likes his new friends, and he has keen huckster skills, so he successfully revamps the Parnassus show. Soon the doctor is on the verge of winning his bet. In his scenes Ledger is appealingly roguish and sly, and this is a fitting swansong for him, though it is minor Ledger.
Tony leaps into the Imaginarium when he is chased by real-life goons. It's in these sequences that Depp, Law and Farrell take over. Since the Imaginarium scenes are hallucinatory anyway, the transitions aren't all that jarring, and they serve the character. Gilliam has made a clever virtue of necessity, and without a Dracula cape.
Let it be said, this is one confusing movie. Sustained storytelling has never been Gilliam's strong suit. The admirable vision that is Brazil, Gilliam's signature work, verges on incoherence. Likewise, it's never precisely clear what's at stake in Doctor Parnassus, though the film does have darkly ironic things to say about philanthropy, about show business, about parents and children.
Regardless, Gilliam's strength is his extraordinary design, and Doctor Parnassus is a wonder to behold. There's a moment when a horde of robed monks are levitating about the floor of a crumbling monastery. I've never seen anything like it, and when movies show me sights I've never seen, it's a gift.