Dir: Gez Medinger, Robin Schmidt
Ask most people and they'll tell you that the most profound question asked by a typical horror film is 'how's the next character going to die?' Sometimes they're right, but it would do the genre a major disservice to think that was all it ever had on its mind. AfterDeath, as you might imagine from the title, deals in some pretty big ideas, but it does so in a small scale way that pulls you in to the situation as much as it does the films questions and proposed answers.
As the film opens Robyn (Miranda Raison) washes up on a deserted beach. Written in the sand are the words “Even the good are damned” and all she can see is a lighthouse and a small cabin. In the cabin Robyn finds Seb (Sam Keeley), Patricia (Elarica Gallacher), Livvy (Lorna Nickson Brown) and Onie (Daniella Kertesz). The others inform Robyn that she, like them, is dead. Stuck in a limbo of sorts, Robyn tries to get the group to figure out why they are trapped together and how they can escape, potentially through Onie, who keeps vanishing and reappearing.
AfterDeath sets its pieces quickly. Characters are drawn in short order, if a little sketchily - Seb's a Jack the lad type, Robyn the constant manager, etc - but the film does find time to deepen these characterisations (with one exception) as events begin to unfold. To begin with things seem a little by the numbers; characters trapped in a room, having to figure out how they're connected between occasional attacks by something that seems, initially, like a pretty standard issue movie ghost. Once the characters begin to figure out what's going on though, things get interesting fast.
The film engages with ideas of heaven and hell, of sin and exactly what that might mean. We first see this through a game of truth or dare in which the cabin's occupants reveal bad things they have done that might have sent them to what they have come to believe is hell. For a while the film threatens to go off the rails here, as it begins to paint Seb as a pretty black and white bastard, but the contrast between his sin and that of the women in the cabin is thrown into sharp relief by this choice. It's not the film at its most subtle, but it does work. From here, the characters' world begins to shrink ever further, but as it does the questions and ideas expand, up to a truly haunting idea that, for a certain section of any audience, is among the most frightening concepts possible. It would be criminal to go into that idea here, but trust me that line, perhaps 15 minutes from the film's end, is worth the price of admission by itself.
As the film's ideas become larger and wilder, the performances keep it grounded. Sam Keeley suffers in the second half of the film from having a more broadly drawn character than the women, but his horror at the last demon attack he has to endure is very well played and makes an horrific but outlandish moment land with real impact. The matter of fact way that the characters deal with their situation, even as it grows more extreme, draws you in to the cabin and invites you to examine yourself as the characters do themselves. There's little showy going on in the acting, instead the focus is put on making the emotions as solidly real as the situation is supernatural.
All four of the film's female leads deliver excellent performances, with each getting their own particularly resonant moments towards the end. Elarica Gallacher's performance as the outwardly confident Patricia is especially effective when she later reveals deep insecurity, in a scene that is emotional and echoes in the rest of the film. Another particularly strong moment comes right at the end as Livvy, who has seemed a rather unfocused character, finds purpose and resolve at the most important moment possible, it's an affecting moment from Lorna Nickson Brown, and one that builds on the emotion of her last scene with Onie. These last moments are also some of the best of Miranda Raison's performance, as a huge conflict (and a key twist) play out silently. None of this is to say that the performances aren't effective throughout, but they build, as the film does, to this crescendo.
There is a slight Cabin In The Woods feel to AfterDeath, but with none of that film's winking, often rather smug, tone. Instead directors Gez Medinger and Robin Schmidt and writer Andrew Ellard keep the focus on the ideas. Medinger and Schmidt, for their part, keep the film visually interesting despite the limited settings they have to work with. They find some memorably nightmarish imagery too, especially when the light from the lighthouse illuminates the cabin. They have also managed to marshal, on what must have been a small budget, CGI that is effective, well used, and often genuinely creepy and unnerving.
AfterDeath's ideas aren't new as topics in horror, indeed a couple of films have, over the past few years, even more successfully explored some similar metaphysical concepts, but Ellard's screenplay separates itself and discusses and engages with these ideas from a different angle. It's a refreshingly intelligent piece of writing, matched by strong performances and direction. Oh and it has the best last line I've heard for some time.