Bus crash survivors Ana and Freddie (Karolina Wydra and Steven Strait) awaken to find they are the only people left in their small town, and their attempts to leave are thwarted by a towering wall of impenetrable fog completely encircling the place. Before long they discover that all is not what it seems, and as the sinister fog continues to encroach upon them, they realise their time is running out…
While the premise for Ryan Smith’s intriguing genre mash-up won’t be unfamiliar to most horror/sci-fi audiences, it has enough interesting ideas, conviction, striking visuals, and plot twists to ensure it remains engrossing throughout. There are little nods here and there to the likes of Carnival of Souls (1962) — most notably in the scene in which the couple enters a diner full of people, only to realise no one can see or hear them — but with its intriguing premise, creepy atmosphere and ever-twisting plot, After appears to be most influenced by The Twilight Zone (1959-64). The influence of fairytales also echoes throughout; at one stage we glimpse an advert for The Night of the Hunter (1955) — another dark tale of two youngsters running from death (in the guise of their wicked stepfather) — on a billboard outside a cinema.
To begin with, Smith keeps us guessing about the sinister predicament Ana and Freddie find themselves in. Have they been abducted by aliens? Are they somehow travelling through time or been sucked into an alternate dimension? Is the whole thing a shared death dream? The rapture? In a pretty daring move After actually reveals its major twist about half-an-hour in; but it’s testament to Smith’s script, direction and myriad fascinating ideas, and the chemistry between the two leads, that it remains such a quietly compelling yarn. As the central relationship blossoms and the two lost souls gravitate towards each other, kindling their burgeoning friendship in unimaginable circumstances, tension and intrigue is sustained. Given the low budget there are quite a few moments that prove visually arresting, one of the most striking of which is the towering wall of thick, swirling fog that is slowly, surely swallowing up the town. The visual effects, framing, end titles and plot devices hinging on Freddie’s career as an artist, go some way to creating a strong comic book vibe.
In much the same way as Gareth Edward’s Monsters (2010) focused on the central relationship of its protagonists, After gradually reveals that, despite the horror/sci-fi backdrop, it is at heart a love story about two hermetic oddballs, brought together by chance, and trying to stay together against all odds. As the story progresses, interesting ideas regarding redemption and guilt are swirled into the mix, becoming more prominent as the narrative, spliced as it is by the occasional flashback, reveals the extent of which the paths of the pair have previously crossed and become entwined. This is where the film’s power lies. The horror elements are handled well, particularly in the early scenes which feature Ana’s panic as she realises she is the only person in town, and the moments when the duo are pursued through the eerily deserted town by a largely unseen and snarling beast. A few clichéd moments, including a car that fails to start, threaten to strip proceedings of tension, but Smith’s strong direction and the ever-engaging chemistry between Wydra and Strait, ensure After, with its engaging themes of destiny, fate, and redemption, emerges as a strangely touching and haunting film.
After is available on DVD from today