After… actually has a promising first quarter, with the director/co-writer David L. Cunningham (The Path to 9/11, Little House on the Prairie, To End All Wars) and co-writer Kevin Miller nicely setting up their tale about a trio of urban explorers who creep into the bowels of a building in Detroit, parachute down to the ground before the security patrol can put a stop to their thrill-seeking shenanigans, and head off to Moscow in search of Stalin's secret subway system and Rasputin's underground torture chamber.
Even the characters make it clear that it's not about actually finding the secret locations, but the journey and weird wonderment of what's discovered along the way, and the knowledge that they're examining a crack in civilization's ongoing lifecycle that few remember, care to remember, or know actually exists beneath some banal metal trap door, or to the right after venturing 3 feet into a sewage drain beneath a bland, governmental edifice.
There's an intriguing flash video available online that briefly covers Cunningham and Miller's research trip to Moscow where, like the characters, they contacted urban spelunkers online, networked, and made a few creepy, dangerous pokes into the Moscow subway system; so up until the adventurous trio – brother Jay (Rottweiler 's Nicholas Aaron), sister Addy (Basic Instinct 2's Flora Montgomery), and her husband Nate (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life's Daniel Caltagirone) – encounter a mysterious subway train full of seemingly catatonic passengers, the film follows much of what Cunningham learned from his own trip (or at least what's revealed in the short featurette, and Cunningham's own observations).
Much of his technique is a acid-spiked editorial style that flips between multiple video and HD footage, and for that initial quarter, it works extremely well. It takes some getting used to, but he cleverly integrates HD footage from our vantage with ECU's inches from the actors faces, their own POV's, security camera footage, and clips from the lenses attached to the spelunkers own video harness, including bleeding herringbone video noise for verisimilitude. It's one of the better examples of exploiting extant multiple video feeds, and it genuinely gives the impression of the actors becoming their characters as they too sneak into the subway system, avoid security patrols, quickly gear up in public, and sneak off down a subway track, quickly searching for the hatch within a three minute gap between passing trains.
The pacing and thrill-seeking is enhanced with clips of songs from the Crystal Method, and Cunningham makes good use of ugly, grimy locations and encrusted filth of disintegrating passageways. John Cameron's dramatic score fits smoothly between the songs, and provides a sad theme for Nate and Addy's seething personal loss that begins to dominate what's supposed to be a bonding experience.
After is not a horror film; there are some simple shocks and effective, surreal ripples of subtle digital effects, but there's no underground creature or zombies – just a personal tragedy that sets up Nate's disintegration in what's basically an expanded Twilight Zone tale.
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And that's where Cunningham falters, because a Twilight Zone tale – ideally a short story with a simple twist – is a fragile thing, and too much style or eccentric tangents or bad creative decisions can muck up the whole narrative.
After is basically “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce's famous tale of a solider in flight mode before the author reveals the chase and near-death experiences are part of his final seconds of life before the noose around his neck kills him. What the mind recalls, reorders, and plays back is what we're seeing in Cunningham's suspense-drama, but it's a creative mess.
When Adrian Lyne attempted to tell the same story in Jacob's Ladder, he focused too much on weirdities – increasingly prolonged stretches of hallucinations – before one fast explanation of military experiments of Viet Nam soldiers and the capper that everything we've seen came from the mind of a dying man; in a shorter drama, the results would've been more agreeable, but Bruce Joel Rubin's self-absorbed, philosophical diversions and subtext prolonged a capper that should've been delivered a half hour earlier.
Cunningham makes a point of introducing visual motifs early into the film so their increasingly recurrences are less confusing, but he bumbles by covering some key dialogue exchanges between Nate and Addy using a fish-eye lens that turns a couple trying to rebuild their lives after their daughter's death into grotesque carnival figures; with inflated heads and bulbous, sweaty noses, their ridiculousness renders already melodramatic dialogue sterile, and kills our sympathies or curiosity for the drifting couple.
Worse is an hallucination scene that has Addy asking Nate if their daughter had any regrets; the scene marks the major point where the film snaps because Nate's reaction is subdued in place of outrage; he's annoyed she'd ask such a thoughtless question, but he shows no ire when the mother of his murdered child suggests the 3 year old might deservedly be sharing in some of the guilt that's eating away at Nate's soul.
After could've been an intriguing tale of risqué spelunkers exceeding the limits of the thriller seeking and losing their minds and lives within the claustrophobic environs of some terrifying underground tunnels – a premise that was also propelled the midsection of David Elliot and Tomm Coker's clumsily rendered Catacombs (2007) - but Cunningham introduces the after-effects of some ersatz radioactive bomb blast, and extends scenes where Nate sees flashes from his past on monitors in each subway car.
Adding to the mélange is Addy 3-month pregnancy, which ends up being either true – she reveals her status after the ‘regrets' exchange – or is a supposition of Nate's dying mind, since the reason he dives off the Detroit building without a parachute is to kill himself because of the massive guilt coming from flirting with a Russian mom at a playground; in paying attention to another woman, he lost track of his own daughter Casey, and left her vulnerable to a pedophile/child killer.
If Cunningham's direction implies Nate jumped off the building knowing he was leaving his expectant wife alone and future child fatherless, then Nate doesn't deserve any audience sympathy, and any resulting hatred towards the character negates the whole drama. Maybe Cunningham and Miller felt the ambiguity was in context with the drifting realities Nate's mind was reshuffling as the oxygen drains from his brain disappeared, but the lack of clarity leaves one with little more than anger towards an idiot, if not a complete asshole.
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The primary disappointments are the film's twist revelation, followed gaffes in character scenes that needed to resonate without the filmmakers' decision to stick with ambiguity and melodrama.
Other regrets include the lack of background info on Stalin's secret subway and Rasputin's secret lair beyond the opening character comments, and how more urban spelunking apocrypha wasn't worked into the film's roughly 70 min. running time (excluding end credits).
One aspect that even some adventure seekers fail to capture in their video diaries are paced impressions of the locales they visit; their footage is sometimes a blurry mush, and when edited into short featurettes, they completely fail to convey their arduous and sometimes dangerous journeys into underground, industrial, or cultural armpits of urban society, and give a basic sense of what it's like to stand in a cold, damp, filthy, mold-infested location, be it a once-grand hall, the shell of a remote complex, or an underground maze – something Cunningham also fails to capture though his consistent use of fast edits between extreme close-ups and tilting camera setups. The irony is how the only real impression of ‘invading' the Moscow subway system comes from the online video diary, and unused footage over which the end credits have been overlaid.
It's still too little, and much too late.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan