It is an unstated but nonetheless understood universal goal of both beauticians and morticians everywhere to make their clients look far more beautiful than they were when they first arrived on their premises.
Additionally, it’s a rule that young schoolteacher Anna (Christina Ricci) discovers very quickly, having had the misfortune to visit both professionals as a client in a less than twenty-four hour period within the first act of director and co-writer Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s feature filmmaking debut, After.Life.
And while traditionally the beauty shop is the place for oral confessions, After.Life decides to stage its intense conversations in the funeral parlor.
After impulsively meandering into a salon where her brunette hair is dyed red in a silent sequence on the way to Anna’s old piano instructor’s funeral, shortly thereafter Anna engages in a flurry of desperate dialogue with Liam Neeson’s mortician Eliot Deacon who informs her that she has died as well.
“How can I be dead if I’m talking to you?” Anna begs the eerily calm Eliot after fruitlessly trying to convince him to stop preparing her body in the hope that there must have been some sort of misunderstanding. Initially, he tries reasoning with Anna, sharing that he has a gift to communicate with the dead and help them make the transition between worlds regardless of the fact that as far as she’s concerned she’s very much alive.
And even though she feels unexplainably fatigued, lying on the metal slab in the funeral home, Anna grows increasingly impatient with his explanation that she was involved in a fatal car accident which indeed we saw her heading into after getting into a terrible fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), before slamming herself in her automobile and barreling down the rain-soaked road.
Angrily snapping back at Anna, whom Eliot reveals is similar to the other corpses that always test him -- endlessly wanting proof that the dull lives they were leading are now over -- Eliot snarls that he’s the only one who can see her as she really is and everyone else just recognizes her as another dead body.
And Neeson in particular is exceptionally good as an unspeakably creepy presence who continues to talk to his clients long after they’ve been buried courtesy of snapshots he’s tacked to his wall.
However, once the spectacularly ingenious Edgar Allan Poe meets David Cronenberg set-up is complete, the film loses confidence in itself. While perhaps it would’ve worked much better as either a succinct story or short film, tragically it fails to hold our interest with its refusal to offer any new twists by instead erratically shifting back and forth in tone from a gothic, psychological thriller to a flat out horror movie as Anna alternately tries to escape from and/or give in to Eliot.
Visually the work is strong especially with its film school 101 crisply cool use of the symbolic color red throughout. Similarly, the filmmaker certainly understands how to ratchet up the tension by pulling out other genre standbys such as the obligatory weird little kid who may or may not see dead people, life/death metaphors about truly living your life, a predictably vague “gotcha” coda moment, lights shutting off, and locked doors aplenty.
However, as witnessed in After.Life, in the end, Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with all of these ingredients to help breathe enough life into a tale about the dead, undead and those like Anna who are possibly somewhere in between, yet nicely assured that at least they’ll look beautiful while they try to figure it all out.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.