So many horror thrillers are driven by noise, cheap jump scares, and ridiculous twists that a movie as quiet and ambiguous as After.Life, now on DVD, ought to offer refreshing small-scale chills. Anna (Christina Ricci) has a fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) and storms off into a car wreck. She wakes up in the basement of a funeral home, where funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) informs her, matter-of-fact, that she has passed away.
Is Eliot communicating with her, as he claims, through a gift to speak with the dead, and really ushering her toward an acceptance of her mortality? Or is something more sinister afoot? This is the central mystery of Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s film, which turns out to be spoiler-proof because I’m still not entirely sure what happens. Moving through a semi-eerie fog that never clears, the film is curious, peculiar, but rarely, if ever, suspenseful.
At first, the caginess seems like savvy withholding. Even before Anna’s maybe-passing, her life appears full of deathly and/or gothic signifiers: white light, sad faces, lipstick and hair-dye reds saturated to look like blood. Neeson cuts an imposing figure and it’s fun to watch Ricci back in black, so to speak, reclaiming her pale goth Addams Family roots.
After Anna maybe-dies and meets Eliot, though, the movie hits a rut. To maintain its mystery, the screenplay doesn’t let Ricci or Neeson say much of interest to each other; his mediation on acceptance of death involves him telling her, over and over, that she needs to, uh, accept her death. With Anna trapped in a basement listening to an older guy speak in sonorous tones about whether she has valued her life, After.Life starts to resemble a more existential installment of the Saw series. In fact, Eliot’s philosophy is considerably less thought-provoking than Jigsaw’s similar, if rigged, observations about human failings; at least Jigsaw is upfront about setting traps
Compared to the somber sexlessness of the Saw franchise, After.Life does, at least, revel in bodies that remain relatively intact. The movie may dither around, refusing to answer big questions it barely bothers to pose, but it does work to turn Ricci (back) into a gothic pin-up, lovingly photographing her draped in a blood-red undergarment and, eventually and for a substantial chunk of the movie, lounging naked on a slab.
However, even Ricci’s nudity, visually striking as it is, just sort of hangs around in great quantity with little lasting effect—much like everything else in the movie, from boyfriend Paul’s detective work to Neeson’s interactions with other maybe-corpses to a subplot with a creepily independent child. Anna’s potential awareness of death—be it accidental, premature burial, or none of the above—has a creepy charge that might make a chilling Twilight Zone episode, but can’t sustain 100-minutes of stalling, theorizing, and twists that don’t really make sense no matter the interpretation.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo attempts to further preserve the film’s mysteries in her commentary track. She speaks earnestly about the film as a passion project derived from her “fascination and fear” regarding death, and indeed, what few chills After.Life generates have to do with its unanswerable questions about the process of dying. However, the director gets caught up in the unanswerable rather than the chills; not wanting to spoil either interpretation by explicitly stating her own, she instead points out “clues” and, for some passages, more or less narrates what’s literally happening on screen. Whether Anna’s death is accidental, orchestrated, or all in her head, the movie itself feels a bit too much like purgatory.