After She Died is a genuinely insane debut feature that doesn’t let its small budget get in the way of its big ambitions.
In my time writing for this website, I have had the opportunity to see multiple low and micro-budget features across all genres. It’s one of my favorite parts about this position, being exposed to movies I otherwise never would have heard of. Some of them rank among the best movies I’ve ever seen. Others make me fear for the future of cinema. The one constant throughout, however, has been setting their sights within the constraints of their finances, sticking to only a handful of locations (if that) and a small cast, with ideas that can be explored primarily through people talking to each other. After She Died, the debut feature of Jack Dignan, breaks the mold in spectacularly entertaining fashion. It’s a demented high concept horror/thriller that defies the style and tone we’ve come to expect from smaller budget films, and some of the most fun I’ve had watching a movie all year.
The film opens with recent high school graduate Jen (Liliana Ritchie) overhearing a particularly vicious argument between her father John (Paul Talbot) and mother Isabel (Vanessa Madrid). In the aftermath, we see Isabel comfort her daughter, explaining why she won’t leave her husband, and giving her daughter a necklace that belonged to her grandmother. The scene has the background bathed in a deep blue, with the actresses in the foreground lit with a soft pink. It’s a bold lighting choice that strikes a tone halfway between the giallos of Dario Argento and the technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
This is the first indication of After She Died will operate stylistically, drawing from many disparate sources and forcing them together, often in the same scene to dizzying effect. Not long after this scene, Isabel dies from unknown causes; John wastes no time grieving and, within the same week, introduces Jen to his new girlfriend named Florence, who happens to look and act exactly like Jen’s dead mother.
The rest of the film sees Jen descending into paranoia as she’s haunted by the memory of her deceased mother while dealing with the increasingly menacing doppelgänger who has seemingly taken her place. It’s a breath of fresh air that After She Died doesn’t play coy with the audience: it’s obvious from the get go that Florence is not a normal woman, and instead of teasing the viewer with hints of her true identity, Dignan gets right into ratcheting up the tension and thrills. It’s a film that is confident in knowing what the audience wants, and largely succeeds at keeping you entertained. Cinematographer (and co-producer) Rhys William Nicolson keeps the colors saturated and moody during the interior scenes, dispensing with any illusion of reality and covering the characters in red, purple, and blue light for no reason other than it looks good. Composer Andrew Back shifts between musical styles at the drop of the hat, giving us the whiplash that Jen feels as she uncovers startling new information about her new mother. It’s clear that everyone in front of and behind the camera was having a blast making this movie.
What’s most refreshing, or what caught my attention the most as I watched After She Died, was how Dignan leaned in to the constraints of his budget instead of pretending like they didn’t exist. In the absence of a soundscape the characters dialogue, with its filler words and long pauses, reads as absurd dark comedy, with Jen and Florence pretending like nothing is wrong when even the most unobservant of viewers would pick up in the tension, climaxing in one of the wildest horror finales I’ve witnessed in a long time. Scenes of gore and violence toe the line between explicit depiction and implied pain, while the occasional supernatural elements are achieved with prosthetics and masks, which end up creating a stronger sense of doom than would have been achieved with a creature rendered entirely with CGI.
It doesn’t always pay off: I found the sound design to be uneven at points and some of the house locations could have benefited with some extra scenery. But ultimately, the story of the film is so engaging, so off-the-wall insane for a project of this budget that I didn’t care, I was just delighted to see a film swing for the fences like this and succeed. Hopefully, with its wide release, After She Died can find the right audience and inspire other up and coming filmmakers to dream bigger than their budgets and to use their creativity to bring their unique and thrilling visions to life.
After She Died will be available to watch on demand on September 30, 2022.