The concept of this interesting little horror film was pregnant with promise: A young girl awakes on a mortician’s slab convinced she’s still alive while the mortician explains that she’s dead and he’s the only one who can help her over to the other side. From there, you’ve got two options: Is you is or is you ain’t my dead body. For her first feature, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo (no relation to the Mummy) does an outstanding job balancing your doubt with atmospheric creepiness and great performances from her two principal leads. You’re never quite sure which way the wind will blow. Unfortunately, she manages this for about 40 minutes, until the whole house of cards completely collapses from arty-goth-porn into a bitterly cheesy B-grade slasher flick tarted up to look as slick and shiny as the ridiculous red slip Ricci runs around in. That is, when she’s not spending the rest of the movie bare-ass naked, carefully crossing legs or shifting hips to avoid the gratuitous beaver shot. Wojtowicz-Vosloo (who shall henceforth be referred to as WV because she has not earned the respect of a fully-spelled name) tips her hand early, particularly when there’s a parallel storyline that involves the boyfriend running around like a histrionic Hardy boy. Even when WV rolls back around at the last minute to try for what on paper seems like a clever ending, the movie feels like a cheat. Justin Long’s been a better horror boyfriend, the creepy little kid in the film doesn’t even make the top ten list, Liam Neeson’s been way more unnerving, and there’s better movies to sit through if you want to see Christina Ricci’s tits. So unless you’ve got a lot of free time on your hands or a death wish, you should just do what Ricci’s character took forever and a half hours to do and fucking pass.
Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci), a middle school teacher, and her longtime boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) have a relationship that’s dying. At every opportunity they bicker, even when Paul tries to propose to Anna, she mistakes it for a breakup and storms off. Which leads her to get into the car crash that finds her on Eliot Deacon’s (Liam Neeson) slab. Talk about your all-time fucking backfires. Anna is convinced that she’s still alive, because she’s talking and moving and fussing. Eliot explains calmly that he’s got a touch of the Osment and can see and talk to dead people. He’s there to help her over to the other side. Anna is, of course, resistant, thinking that Eliot’s insane, so he injects her with “a muscle relaxer” to help him prepare her. For some awful convention of plot, Anna’s mortuary prep takes about five days, which she spends alternating between somber reflection and running around carrying anything sharp she can lay her hands on.
This is ripe with possibility, and for a while, WV nails it. Almost as frightening as Stephen King’s “Autopsy Room 4” short story, the idea of being dead and not being aware of it is terrific. Whether or not Deacon’s some kind of angel of death or truly an angel of mercy is the entire movie, but ultimately you have to make a decision, and WV chooses the path of mediocrity in my estimation. It’s like watching a backyard magician with a rabbit’s furry foot resting on his forehead. Worse, once the decision is made, she keeps trying to sell you on the “is she, isn’t she.” While Neeson’s always good even when forcibly swallowing the terrible plot and dialogue being stuffed down his throat, Ricci’s just kind of placid. After her fiery hellcatting in the overwrought Black Snake Moan, it’s a step back to watch her stumbling through this with a permanent medicated gloss. You can practically hear the director shaking the bottle of Prozac offscreen.
This is only topped by the terrible subplots tacked on like the slow kid’s attempt at pinning the tail on the donkey. One of Anna’s students is the creepy little creep Jack (Chandler Canterbury), who starts to become interesting, but fast turns into a bad version of Danny from The Shining. There’s obviously something wrong with him, but that’s just it — it’s fucking obvious. WV should have just called him Weirdass and pinned mittens with bats to his sleeves. His could have been a more interesting thread, but it gets trampled in the mess of the film. However, there was no hope for poor Justin Long, who rends his storyline like he’s auditioning for a telenovela. It’s not his fault, it’s just a terribly written, terribly crafted part. Unfortunately, he’s forced to drag Josh Charles and his small-town detective pornstache through the mud with him.
After.Life showed promise in the trailer, but totally suffocated under the weight of its shoddy plot and overwrought artistry, right down to the fucking unnecessary punctuation in the title. It didn’t even have enough blood pumping through it to be a hot mess, but rather a cold, lumpy Christina-Ricci-titted mess. It made me feel awful — both for the cast and for the short few minutes when I actually thought WV would pull off the upset. I can’t even muster up anger over it, because it’s like finding someone’s dead fox-mauled cat on the side of the road — it’s just really, really sad. Just do what the studio did: Dig a hole and bury this deep where you can forget about it, and then move on to the next one. There’s no life left in this. It’s dead on arrival. It’s an ex-parrot. Someone please whang me over the head with a shovel before I keep punning. CLANG! Aaaah, sweet release.