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MOVIE REVIEW: Stars make horror flick come to life

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

After.Life (R)

Three out of four stars

Falling squarely into the I-see-dead-people pathos of "The Sixth Sense," "After.Life" (with its pesky period in the middle of the title) does the audience a huge favor by waiting as long as possible to expose its big plot twist. It is original and is not just a retooling of the final reveal in M. Night Shyamalan's enormously popular horror/thriller, but it doesn't quite match its heady and protracted build-up. This is one of those all-journey/no-destination outings made far better thanks to two raw-nerve lead performances and steady, fearless direction.

Co-written by Polish director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, the film proves to be far deeper than its often conventional horror trappings would suggest. However on at least two occasions, it also flat-out deceives the audience with scenes that leave no doubt regarding the ultimate fate of one of the leads.

In a career strewn with macabre and unsettling characters, Christina Ricci stars as Anna, a grade-school teacher constantly at odds with her live-in boyfriend Paul (Justin Long), who is also estranged from her wheelchair-bound mother Beatrice (Celia Weston). Anna's funk only seems to subside during brief conversations with Jack (Chandler Canterbury), one of her picked-on students with an equally unhappy family life.

After an explosive argument at a restaurant where Paul planned on proposing to her, Anna is involved in an auto accident, or so she is told by mortician Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). Eliot then informs Anna that she is, in fact, quite dead. Judging by Ann's wounds and what Eliot does to her body over the course of the rest of the film, it would appear he's telling the truth.

Meticulous to the point of obsession with a vivid imagination, the introverted Eliot could have easily been a regular character on the HBO series "Six Feet Under." Charged with the duties of making dead people look alive if only for a few hours, Eliot has a job that he obviously loves, but one that also carries with it many possible psychological pitfalls.

Although not aware of it immediately, Anna begins to voice regret regarding things she never achieved while alive which, as Eliot points out, will prevent her from moving on peaceably. Not willing to give in to his strong-arm suggestions she proves to be his most troublesome project.

The cinematography by Anastas N. Michos alternates between color-drenched dream-sequences and the kind of stark, unforgiving lighting one would find in a mortician's work space. The contrast is initially jarring but eventually takes on the intriguing role of a third lead character.

In his limited role, the young Canterbury has just the right level of glassy-eyed detachment to make his character more than just a token child occupying space. He goes far in covering for Long, a guy who can get by in lightweight supporting comedic roles but is way out of his element here.

As good as he is Neeson doesn't stray far from what we've come to expect from him -- a sturdy chunk of metaphorical granite that isn't beyond letting some of his more tender elements seep through the character's thick skin when needed.

Appearing in the buff for more than half of the film (without the aid of a body double or tricky lighting), Ricci is simply phenomenal. A young woman with gorgeous yet atypical and angular features, Ricci is the embodiment of a thinking person's vision of sex appeal. Her Anna is at once hard-bitten and achingly vulnerable and the audience's investment in her fate is all consuming.

"After.Life" won't teach you anything about the place or state of mind contained in its title, but it will make you think twice about how wisely you're using your privileged time in the one you're in right now. (Anchor Bay Entertainment)