Jack Dignan’s After She Died may open with various evening shots, first exterior and then interior, of a multi-storeyed, modernist family home set on an enviably Edenic Australian waterfront – but there is trouble in paradise.
As Jen (Liliana Ritchie) struggles to revise for her high school finals, she is distracted by the sound of her parents Isabel (Vanessa Madrid) and John (Paul Talbot) arguing loudly in another room. Later, Isabel will come in and placate Jen with loving words (spoken, as a sign of shared intimacy, in her native Spanish). “Why are you still with him?”, Jen asks, “He’s an arsehole.” Isabel explains calmly, “I can’t imagine a life without him,” adding, “It’s not worth hating your father.” Then Isabel gives Jen the heart pendant that she herself had once received from her own mother, reassures Jen that she loves her – and a simple match cut from Isabel’s smiling face to a similar framed image on display at Isabel’s funeral not long after marks the end of this idyll.
Not only has adolescent Jen’s mother died in an accident, but Jen’s beloved school friends Cameron (Annabelle Andrew) and Ash (Mariah Stock) are soon heading off to university in Sydney. On the cusp of adulthood, Jen is not herself quite ready to move on, and is contemplating, somewhat despairingly, her own future in a small town where little ever changes and where everyone expects her to get together, even settle down, with her friend Louis (Adam Golledge) even though she is quietly gay. Still, this town, constantly beleaguered by bushfires, is well used not only to facing devastation and tragedy, but also to rebuilding itself. Perhaps there is hope yet for Jen and John (himself a local firefighter), both grieving in their own ways.
In other words, the principal themes of After She Died are all carefully laid out in its first act: mother love, deepest loss, repressed sexuality, cruel rites of passage, cloying small-town conformity. Yet these will soon be amplified and complicated by the introduction of a genre element. For John’s new girlfriend Florence (also played by Madrid), who moves in after fire has destroyed her own home, is the uncanny spitting image of Isabel – and even speaks with Jen in Spanish. “Dad, is it her? Is she mum?,” Jen asks, to which John replies, somewhat ambiguously, “Nothing could replace your mum.”
As the confused Jen struggles to reconcile herself to her grief and to exorcise the ghosts of her past, a more sinister aspect of this town reveals itself. Louis, whose own mother has been missing for some time and whose father (Greg Poppleton) has been behaving strangely ever since, has also noticed something amiss. A mysterious, masked figure out in the smouldering ‘dead woods’ (Noah Fowler) holds the key to this community’s haunted entrapment – but Jen will have to take matters into her own hands at home, even after an accident leaves her incapacitated and yet more stuck in place than before.
Writer/director Dignan draws on films like Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried (1981), Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), Dave Payne’s Reeker (2005), Robin Campillo’s The Returned (2004) and Justin McMillan’s Sweet River (2020) to depict an insulated community full of secrecy and denial, complicity and conspiracy, and barely buried pain which never lets anyone go. It is an unusual ghost story, whose messy eccentricities only escalate into something altogether more tensely unhinged as its story goes on – and yet it is also written much more tightly than is first evident, with every line coming to resonate in unexpected ways.
Subjected by ‘Florence’ to a series of persistent, intrusive questions, Louis will complain, “Jesus, I didn’t know this was a therapy session.” Yet the truth is that, for all its supernatural enigmas, After She Died is ultimately a psychological study. For here domestic tensions and traumas are resurrected in the guise of genre, with Dignan restaging (as horror) family ties that bind, wounds that never heal, and the crippling nature of loss. This debut feature is an impressive, ambitious and adventurous calling card, underpinning its wilder conceptual excursions with a real emotional intelligence. It is also wise enough not to resolve any of its issues too patly, but rather just to set the fuse and let the viewer bring the de(con)structive fire.
strap: Jack Dignan’s ghost story takes its closeted heroine through rites of passage involving deep loss and small-town conspiracy
© Anton Bitel