As I watched this film and Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel back to back, I found myself thinking about a number of other rather similar unique films such as Earthbound, The Search for Simon, and The World’s End, and realized that the UK seems to have given birth to a new sub-genre of SF films.
It has nothing to do with the classic British, horror-tinged SF descended from the Quatermass films, with their serious tone and emphasis on human reason pitted against the unknown.
However, as different as all of these films may be, they have certain things in common: they are all comedies, of course, and of a particularly quirky and eccentric, distinctively British mold which we have seen of late.
But at the same time, these films have a fan-boyish love of SF, complete with loving in-jokes and references, particularly, of course, to Doctor Who. Perhaps the non-SF sitcom, Spaced led the way, with Simon Peg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright’s fanboy humor informing most of their films since Shaun of the Dead (which might almost fall into this category).
I’m not sure what you’d call this mix of modern British Comedy and Fanboy SF. “New Wave Britcom Sci Fi” mostly works, even if it is awkward. Ultimately, they offer a surprising rich approach to SF as they are as much about the lives and relationships of their characters as they are about their remarkable storylines.
And that certainly describes After Death.
Seven years earlier, the Jones family broke apart because their beloved brother Tom died in an accident caused by their inventor father. Now their Father has died under mysterious circumstances and they gather at the family home once again, only to find that he seems to have spent their inheritance and gone deeply into debt for some mysterious project. As they squabble and spar with each other over the events of their past, they quickly find that there are a lot of unanswered questions: what was their Father working on? Why is the door of his lab locked? What happened to the key? What is his strange machine supposed to be?
And is there something else in the house with them?
At first glance, this might sound like a Gothic horror film with SF elements, but it never really tries for that, despite the somewhat spooky surroundings , a few unsettling moments (played more for surprise than shock) and a brief appearance by the Grim Reaper (yep. He’s in there. Sort of). But the tone is mostly comic, although some of dream sequences prove have a strange, inexplicably disturbing quality quite close to real dreams.
British Comic Leslie Phillips gets a solid part as a ghost, and there’s a truly classic joke that sums up the David Tennant run on Doctor Who in three, absurd words. But the most notable part of the film is the prank (and that’s the only word for it) that writer/director Martin Gooch plays on the audience, a surprise which pulls the rug out from under everything the audience thought they knew about what was going on.
This one has suffered from poor reviews, largely, I suspect, because it was marketed as a horror film (which is absurd). Nor has its deft mixture of so many elements – from sincere emotional moments to striking horror images, from computers spewing cabalistic signs to photos which show someone who isn’t supposed to be there, from a dead-on parody of daytime TV to an opening sequence which ends with a dizzying and unforgettable shot – helped, as far too many people want their films to be one thing rather than a rich confection of so many different things.
The best bet is not to overthink it all and to sit back and leave it all to Martin.
You’re in good hands.
(For other, similar if unique British SF comedies, see here).