Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 103 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: DD 5.1; PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Apr. 9, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 3, 2010
The road to a dud is paved with good intentions. The debut feature co-written and directed by NYU film school graduate Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo features a superior cast, fastidious production design, expert cinematography and subject matter that reliably sends chills down the spine. So why is the film so utterly unthrilling? Why does one sit in a state of detachment waiting for it to get good? Within the limits imposed by a desire to preserve the film’s secrets (for those who wish to judge for themselves), I’ll try to explain.
Christina Ricci, looking more like Wednesday Addams than she has in years, plays Anna Taylor, a deeply troubled young woman who teaches primary school in a small town. As the film opens, Anna is in bed with her boyfriend, Paul Coleman (Justin Long), and it’s obvious that something is wrong. Paul tries to talk to her about it, but she pulls away and retreats to the shower. Anna is constantly reaching for some kind of pills (tranquilizers? antidepressants?), and in the shower she suddenly has a nosebleed.
Anna arrives for work in a parking lot that’s curiously underpopulated for a school day. So are the classrooms and corridors. One student Anna encounters is Jack (Chandler Canterbury), an odd kid who is being bullied by two older boys until Anna intervenes. Jack is concerned that one of the newly hatched chicks in a school science project has died, but Anna assures him that it’s just not moving because it’s scared.
At the end of the school day, Anna and Jack seem to be the only ones left. Jack is waiting for his mother to pick him up, but Anna must leave to attend a funeral for her old piano teacher at the funeral home operated by Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). As Anna stands over the coffin, she is startled when the corpse appears to draw a breath, but she dismisses what she saw as a trick of the eye (or the light).
Anna meets Paul for dinner, where he plans to propose. But before he can do so, they have a fight, and Anna runs out of the restaurant and drives off in the rain. They next thing she knows, Anna is lying on a preparation table in the basement of Deacon’s funeral home, and Deacon is leaning over her telling her that she died in a car wreck.
The remainder of the film consists of Anna’s protests to Deacon that she’s still alive, while Deacon insists that she’s really dead and that the only reason they’re conversing is because of his special “gift” that allows him to assist the dead in their transition to the next world. Certainly all available evidence supports Deacon’s version. There’s a death certificate, a police report, local newspaper coverage, even the twisted wreck of Anna’s car in police custody, which a grief-stricken Paul goes to inspect. Anna’s bitter mother (Celia Weston), who never approved of Paul, is making the funeral arrangements, and on the one occasion when Anna actually makes it to a phone and manages to dial Paul at home, he can’t seem to hear her. I’m the only one who can hear you now, Deacon tells her. He also reproaches Anna for having been so unappreciative of her life while she lived it. “You people are all the same”, he tells her.
Meanwhile, young Jack comes to the funeral home and catches sight of Anna through a window, standing and apparently alive. He tells this to Paul, who bursts in on his friend, the chief of police (Josh Charles), demanding that Deacon’s funeral home be searched. But another cop (Schuler Hensley) was there earlier that day to check on the arrangements for his deceased brother, and he saw Anna lying dead on a table. What is going on?
There are two major problems with After.Life, one stylistic and the other thematic. The stylistic problem is that effective scary movies require rises and falls, ebbs and flows, momentary releases of tension as part of an effective overall buildup. But After.Life speaks in a monotone. The atmosphere and mood are roughly the same, whether we’re in Paul’s and Anna’s apartment, the school where Anna teaches or any part of Deacon’s funeral home. (Indeed, the apartment and Deacon’s preparation room appear to have had the same decorator.) When everything is pitched at the same level of strangeness, the revelations, when they finally arrive, don’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. They are, as Deacon might say, all the same.
The thematic problem is harder to explain without spoiling what little entertainment value the film has to offer. Films that frighten an audience with issues of death and life can be roughly divided into two categories. On the one hand, you have films that tap into an almost metaphysical dread that each of us has about what it means to wrap up our corporeal existence and say good-bye. Obvious examples are The Sixth Sense and The Others. On the other hand, there are films where such issues are merely a pretext for scares and shock effects. The most obvious example is the Saw franchise, in which the killer known as Jig-Saw claims to be teaching people “the value of life”, but all the audience really wants to see is his next ingenious device for killing someone. Another example is Phantasm, of which After.Life may remind some viewers, because it too involved an intimidating mortician.
But Liam Neeson (who’s the best thing in After.Life) is no Tall Man. Indeed, for most of the film, you can’t decide what to make of him, and that’s not the fault of Neeson’s performance but of the film’s design. After.Life can’t make up its mind what kind of film it wants to be. It’s clear from certain scenes and dialogue, and Wojtowicz-Vosloo confirms in her commentary, that she was aiming for metaphysical horror, but too much of the film operates strictly at the level of jumping out at the audience and crying “boo!” (and not very well either). As for the ending, let’s just say that it’s hard to reconcile with Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s aspirations. (It’s also very obviously lifted from another film, where it worked much better, but I can’t name the film without giving away the show.)
The film may be problematic, but the Blu-ray presentation is not. Anchor Bay has provided a detailed, clean and colorful transfer with excellent black levels. As she makes clear in her commentary, Wojtowicz-Vosloo is deliberate in her color choices; indeed, one almost suspects that her narrative sense is keyed to colors more than dialogue. The film favors a cold pallette with many white or neutral expanses. Even the upstairs portions of the Deacon funeral home, which reflect a warmer pallette, are framed to look desolate and forbidding. The Blu-ray fully conveys this effect. Certain colors, notably red, are meant to jump out, and they do. Despite the use of a BD-25, I did not detect any detail loss consistent with excess noise reduction, nor did I spot any digital artifacts.
The PCM 5.1 track is subtle but effective in creating a sense of empty space and ambiance. There is an occasional rear-channel effect, but these are relatively subdued. Dialogue is clear, and the score by Paul Haslinger (formerly of Tangerine Dream) is well-presented.
Commentary by Director/Co-writer Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. Wojtowicz-Vosloo is clearly enthusiastic about her first feature, but her commentary doesn’t add much to the viewer’s experience. Her comments only occasionally illuminate the shooting experience, and she says nothing at all about writing the script. Most of the time, she describes what is happening on screen, and much of the subtext she appears to think needs explication doesn’t require it.
Delving into the After.Life: Making of Featurette (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (7:59). Wojtowicz-Vosloo is the only person interviewed, and she doesn’t cover anything that isn’t included in her commentary. The featurette is spoiler-laden and should not be viewed until after seeing the film.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Frozen, I Spit on Your Grave (the remake) and the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand; these can be skipped with the top menu button and are separately available from the features menu.
I can’t recommend After.Life, but if you do decide to buy or rent it, you should have no trouble with the presentation on Blu-ray.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (PCM decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub