Dead or Alive
After.Life can give the willies, especially to those in the autumn of life when family and friends have begun departing and who now check the obituary pages as their parents used to. Director and writer (with husband Paul ) Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s limited-budget feature has some first-timer flaws but avoids “cheesy horror movie” B-status by such purposeful ambiguity that “audiences are split 50/50” and by serious tapping into the vein Poe mined for premature burial and Ernest Becker dissected in his 1974 Pulitzer-winner The Denial of Death.
The tale is not posited as a possible life flashing before one’s eyes at the moment of dissolution but, rather, as what might happen in the hours afterwards. Viewers’ uneasiness is in part due to the appalling tools of the undertaker’s trade -- needles and threads, syringes and scissors, knives and long sharp steel -- in disquieting close-up even if their employment is shielded or oblique. The time is that misty period between here and hereafter, and despite heavy-handed philosophizing on mortals’ resistance to proof of mortality, this is memento mori as surely as carved medieval skulls or New England gravestone verse.
Similar locked doors and opening and closing automobile smashups are too pat, precocious eleven-year-old Jack (appropriately surnamed Chandler Canterbury) too easily out of The Shining’s young Danny, and nosebleed red whirlpooling in a shower and twice-draining red hair dye all too referential to Hitchcock. Despite these and a couple cheap nightmare sequences, the story nicely plays off scarlet against ghoulish neon paleness, characters’ hopes against their fears, and audience interest that alternates with disquiet.
Grade school teacher Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) has no clue what she expects from life, pops prescription pills, and grows unresponsive to lawyer boyfriend Paul Coleman (Justin Long) and tetchy enough to misinterpret his proposal and get herself killed on a rainy highway.
Or does she?
The police impound her accordioned car, while a coroner signs a death certificate without seeing the body. She “wakes up” on a gurney in a greystone mansion now a funeral parlor whose also appropriately surnamed director, Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), speaks in ministerial monotone to the grieving quick and to the dead he readies for burial. Believing the claimed talent a curse as well as a gift, he can speak with these dearly departed entrusted to his care, whom he photographs and addresses and whom he would emotionally as much as physically prepare for “your farewell.”
Condescension and contempt only thinly veiled, his homilies harp on making them beautiful again and on their having been dead already in the physical existence they led without acceptance of the inevitable end. This beating an idea over the head is not an uncommon failing even in the experienced, but one hopes Wojtowicz-Vosloo will prove one of those who grow beyond it.
In crimson slip and panties, and then unnecessarily in nothing, Anna argues with fate, death and patient Eliot, and tries to escape.
Or does she?
In shock and at odds with her selfish mother (Celia Weston), Paul cannot accept the fact that his intended is forever gone from him. Thwarted somewhat by editing inconsistencies, policeman Vincent Miller (Shuler Hensley), Anna’s hair dye and mother’s request, he confronts the funeral director along with his own dreams, suspicions, anger, and a perhaps imagined phone call. Contacts with police captain Tom Peterson (Josh Charles) give anticipation of a cover-up thriller only to disappear within the bereaved lover’s psyche.
Christ is referenced by Eliot and in Anna’s side wound, but the tenor is not heavenly or hellish religious afterlife. Commonplace at first glance and not tied to a concrete American location, the surface is soon revealed as indefinably off-center. Woody Allen’s Death (A Play) whistles in the dark about our one certainty and an undemonstrated afterlife. After.Life rubs our noses in it.
(Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment and rated “R” for nudity, disturbing images, language and brief sexuality.)