First published by Little White Lies
As a coach travels through the January night, its only two passengers start chatting awkwardly. While they are strangers, it turns out they have a lot in common. Both live not only in the same town (Pearl) but in the very same street, both are loners, and both are artists manqués: Ana (Karolina Wydra) is a hospital nurse who scribbles obsessively into notebooks (and had aspired, aged 11, to being a playwright), while Freddy (Steven Strait) supplements his amateur passion for comicbook illustrating by working days as a cinema projectionist.
Projection, it turns out, will play a key role in Ryan Smith’s After. Once the coach has crashed, and the two characters wake up in their own homes to find Pearl eerily abandoned, they will gravitate both towards Freddy’s projection booth and a second theatre located in Ana’s memory, all in a struggle to escape both their present, paradoxical predicament and a monstrous burden of guilt from a briefly, fatefully shared past.
Much as these two characters find themselves on a home turf that has been defamiliarised by the absence of other people, Smith places viewers in a terrain recognisable from the post-apocalyptic genre, and then exploits our familiarity with similar films as much to confound as to confirm expectations. When, lost in this depopulated twilight zone, Ana is heard shouting “Hello?” first in a hospital’s echoing corridors, and then in an empty urban street, there is a clear allusion to the undead outbreak of 28 Days Later… (and Romero’s Day of the Dead before it) – and Freddy himself, evidently thinking the same thing, suggests that their fellow townsmen are “probably holed up in a mall somewhere, Romero style.” Meanwhile, the gigantic wall of dark fog that is encircling the town evokes the Lovecraftian horror of The Mist, while a terrifying encounter in the local school building references the parallel realities of Silent Hill.
Monstrous creatures, the walking dead, alternative dimensions – these are indeed all keys to what is going on (and one of the film’s most striking images is a massive pile of keys), but they are only a partial fit for a solution that in fact has more in common with Rod Serling (or a host of films that it would be criminal to name). Aware that his twist is not exactly original, Smith toys with viewers only for the film’s first half, before revealing the mystery and shifting his focus to the developing relationship between Freddy and Ana.
To find the right key for a future together, Ana and Freddy must first take a painful stroll down memory lane, leading either to romance and redemption or to oblivion – for it is this couple’s evolving, cross-fertilising psychodrama that carries the film through to its end. In other words, the SF and horror here come thoroughly grounded in character, and even the hellhound that plagues this locked-in pair is, for all its toothy immediacy, a very personal demon. And so After is ultimately a twisted tale of boy meets girl, in a neat merger of boyish comicbook fantasy and girlish fairytale dress-ups that all unfolds in the barren mindscape of a less imaginative adulthood.
© Anton Bitel