An elegant exercise in horror, “After.Life” spins a strong visual web around its thesps — Liam Neeson, magisterially creepy as a self-appointed angel of death, and a pallid Christina Ricci, suitably otherworldly as a woman who awakens after an auto accident, only to be told by Neeson’s mortician that she has died. But the potent imagery never meshes with narrative logic in Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s first feature, promising more than it can deliver. Opening April 9, this uneasy fusion of art-film aesthetics, metaphysical musings and timeworn genre conventions will prove less compelling a draw than Ricci’s un-self-conscious nudity.
Eliot Deacon (Neeson), a very special undertaker ensconced in a posh manor/funeral parlor, not only speaks to the dead as he prepares them for burial, but apparently hears them as well. Deacon’s meticulous movements and calm demeanor stand in sharp relief to the frantic behavior of his latest “corpse,” Anna (Ricci), whom he is ostensibly keeping prisoner for her own good (echoes of Ricci’s legendary chained-to-a-radiator role in “Black Snake Moan”), until she can accept the notion she has passed over.
The action then seesaws between Anna’s slasher-film-style escape attempts and moments of utter resignation as she submits to Deacon’s funeral preparations. Throughout, Wojtowicz-Vosloo deftly contrasts Deacon’s precise, ritualized gestures and royal composure with Anna’s skittering uncertainty. Meanwhile, Anna’s b.f., Paul (Justin Long), races around like a headless chicken, his reactions swinging wildly from paranoia to grief.
Even before she lands on Deacon’s slab, there is something strangely frenetic about Anna, oddly mute one minute, hysterical the next. The escalating misunderstanding that leads to her car wreck plays like an overcranked soap opera, complete with thunder-and-lightning accompaniment.
But on a plot level, few of the psychodrama elements make much sense. The psychological profile proffered by the script (co-written by the helmer and her husband, Paul Vosloo) presents a fearful, withdrawn woman terrified of commitment — or, in Deacon’s moral summation, someone more afraid of life than of death. But Anna’s survivalist responses suggest the opposite: She stands with knife upraised, waiting for Deacon to turn the corner, or desperately phones for help as he menacingly mounts the stairs.
Pic’s relentless pileup of standard-issue red herrings, “gotcha!” reversals and suspenseful cross-cutting seldom prove either titillating or satisfyingly campy; indeed, they seem to weary Anna as much as they do the viewer.
With its inexplicable apparitions and vibrantly hued weirdness, Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s style adapts more cozily to the realm of dreams. As rendered by lenser Anastas N. Michos with admirable clarity, vivid portents swirl around Anna well before her car crash — from the blood-red water spiraling down a drain to the overhead lights inexplicably shutting down as she walks a deserted corridor. Against Ford Wheeler’s stark production design, Anna’s cherry-red slip speaks more eloquently than any line of dialogue.
Rounding out the cast are Celia Weston as Anna’s coldly selfish mom, scooting about in her electric wheelchair like a malevolent spider, and Chandler Canterbury as the solemn little boy who serves as Deacon’s necrophiliac disciple.