Agnieszka Wojtowciz-Vosloo's After.Life is a picture with multiple personality disorder, a film so busy quoting and borrowing that it has no time to develop an identity of its own. It's like a mixtape of creaky horror movie tropes--the creepy kid, the laughably bitter wheelchair-bound mother, stringy-haired ghosts, bugs spilling out of mouths, a variety of flickering lights, and dead bodies galore. Oh, and the surprise, Shyamalan-style twists. Wojtowciz-Vosloo didn't write a screenplay, she made a checklist.
Christina Ricci stars as Anna Taylor, an unhappy schoolteacher in a dead-end relationship with Paul (Justin Long). One night, after an ugly fight in a restaurant, she drives home fast in the pouring rain among heavy traffic while messing with her phone (they may as well have had her putting on make-up too), so she wakes up on a slab at the funeral home. Yes, she wakes up; she's dead, but mortician Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) can apparently see her and talk to her. "I have a gift. I can talk to those between life and death," he tells her, "to help them make the transition."
His job sounds roughly like the reapers from Dead Like Me, but here the concept is played very, very straight. She spends her three days between death and burial rattling around the funeral home, trying to escape, trying to understand, protesting her, y'know, aliveness. In the meantime, Paul becomes convinced that she's not dead, and runs around town furiously overacting. (His interactions with her bauble-head doll are unintentionally hilarious.) Meanwhile, Anna screams and sees ghosts in the funeral home, and the picture morphs into a J-horror version of Six Feet Under.
The physics of the situation are loopy; he's supposedly the only one who can "see her," but she can smash up all of his stuff, and lead him on a chase through the house that's played as if it's the most suspenseful sequence since the last ten minutes of The Silence of the Lambs. But the scene doesn't work (in spite of them trotting out every worn-out device in the book) because we don't understand the rules of the game. Does she have a physical presence, or not? Can she be seen by others? If she can't, then what does he care?
Alas, this will all be (kind of) explained in the end; they're drawing out the twists by leaving us in the dark, by not playing fair. The film has to work, and the logic has to hold, in the moment--not just in retrospect. That's not to say the picture doesn't occasionally play; there are couple of good jolts (they're cheap thrills, but hey, I'll take 'em where I can get 'em) and some vivid imagery. And it's slickly done, for whatever that's worth.
Ricci is quite fetching, wandering around in her slinky red slip with a Frankenstein stitch, but her sleepy-voiced delivery is monotonous, and she can't do a thing with the dialogue, which is mostly terrible (sample: "Is this the afterlife? Because it feels like hell.") The writing is particularly bad in the opening scenes of her and Long's stalled relationship, full of dull platitudes and trite clichés and awkward formalities, rendering these two personable actors into androids. It's an unfortunate kick-off for Long, who is just plain bad here; his youthful look and personality can't sell the grown-up beats he's called upon to play (he looks like a kid in a high school play, dutifully wearing his grown-up clothes). It's basically the same performance as the one he gives in Drag Me To Hell, but out of context. Neeson plays his role with adroitness and smooth professionalism, but he's so much better than this material.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Anchor Bay's MPEG-4 AVC transfer is sturdy and handsome; it's a picture that spends much of its running time in the darkness and shadows under the funeral home, and black levels are impressively deep while shadows are rich. The flashes of color--Ricci's red hair and slip, the flowers at the funeral home--are nicely saturated, the whites of the walls and sheets are appropriately stark and clean, and tight close-ups are impressively detailed. The picture's muted palate doesn't exactly make for an eye-popping HD disc, but it replicates the theatrical experience nicely.
The PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio track is pitched a little low--I had to crank my receiver up a good six db higher than usual, and much of the film plays out in a hushed, dramatic whisper that doesn't make much use of the surround channels. But the occasional action and suspense beats bring the soundstage to life (as does Paul Haslinger's strident score). It's an uneven aural experience (you may find yourself jockeying the remote more than you'd care to), but is somewhat immersive and involving.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 option is also available, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Not much in the way of bonus features. Co-writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowciz-Vosloo's Audio Commentary isn't terribly insightful--it's loaded with pauses, and heavy on narration of events ("Paul comes in very disheveled..." Yeah, we see that).
"Delving Into the After.Life: Making Of Featurette" (7:59) features Wojtowciz-Vosloo discussing the origins of the film's ideas and (thankfully) clarifying some of the murkiness of the narrative--she's almost defensive in divulging the "clues" she's placed in the picture ("This is a clue that most people get on the second viewing," she notes, as if there's a lot of second viewings happening). The Theatrical Trailer (2:01) is also included, as are several additional Anchor Bay trailers.
I don't mean to denigrate After.Life too harshly; there are, it must be said, worse ways to spend a couple of hours than with a frequently-nude HD Christina Ricci. And the film is, indeed, well-made, even if much of it is empty, meaningless "flair." But the dialogue is painful, Long is atrocious, and the twists and reverses and double-backs get downright tiresome. Eventually, you give up--if it's not gonna bother to make sense, why bother making sense of it?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.