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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

AFTER.LIFE -- DVD review by porfle


After a promising start, AFTER.LIFE (2009) gradually starts to resemble its protagonist--you're never really sure if it's alive or dead.

Christina Ricci is ideally cast as a grade school teacher named Anna Taylor, whose unhappy past makes it hard for her to love or accept love from others.  This gums up her relationship with fiance' wannabe Paul (Justin Long), and after a senseless argument Anna drives off into the rain and has a bad crack-up.  But instead of waking up in a hospital, Anna finds herself lying on a slab in a funeral home, whose creepy director, Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson) tells her she's dead and that he will now guide her into the afterlife.

This is director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo's feature debut, and her film is beautifully photographed.  There's a formal composition in some shots that reminded me of Kubrick, and she creates a strong Gothic atmosphere inside that gloomy, spacious funeral home.  She also makes the most visually of her leading lady (whose "Wednesday Addams" vibe remains undimished), framing and posing her with an artist's eye as the camera lingers over her fascinating face and often-nude form.


But what could've been a deliriously dark chiller along the lines of PHANTASM, with a dollop of DEAD AND BURIED's autumnal morbidness thrown in, never really establishes a compelling mood or manages the kind of scares that it tries so hard to deliver.  The mystery of whether or not Anna is really dead loses steam when the film begins to drag about halfway through and can't decide if her predicament is supernatural or merely part of the deranged Deacon's bizarre fantasy world.
 

Some of the curiously ineffective horror scenes end with a character waking up as though it were all a nightmare, while other unexplained occurrences, such as a bobble-head doll whose gaze seems to follow Paul and other inanimate objects behaving strangely, appear to be real.  In some films, depending on how it's handled, such ambiguity might actually be effective, but here, it feels indecisive and misleading. 

Ricci does her best to sell it all as no one else could and is both convincing and fun to watch.  (Seeing her naked for about a third of the film definitely doesn't hurt.)  Neeson is a bland boogeyman and is pretty much the same throughout the film, never developing into the figure of fright that he might have--in other words, he's no Angus Scrimm.  As the haunted boyfriend Paul, who's convinced that Anna's still alive although nobody believes him, Justin Long is just bland.  I like him in films such as GALAXY QUEST and LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, but here he seems miscast.


The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include a director's commentary, a making-of featurette, and a trailer.  One curious thing about director Wojtowicz-Vosloo's comments on the film is her mention of various visual "clues" a la THE SIXTH SENSE, which is odd since the two films are nothing alike.  The latter has a clearly-defined game plan for the viewer to play by, while this one's pretty much all over the place.

Probably the most disturbing thing about AFTER.LIFE is Deacon's wall filled with Polaroids of the people he's ushered into the next world.  All are lying in coffins, but while some are clearly dead, others are wide-eyed, immobile, and aware.  Being buried alive is a potent fear for horror films to exploit, but this one doesn't seem real enough to make us feel as though it's actually happening.  By the time we've hashed over all the inconsistencies of the story and have sorta decided whether or not it's all just somebody's nightmare, it's too late to feel much about it.


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