Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Peter Engert
Writer: Christian McDonald
Producer: Zachary Reeves, Scott Wining, Peter Engert, Bobbi Sue Luther
Stars: C.J. Thomason, Monica Keena, Edward Furlong, Andre Royo, Christine Kelly, Jessie Rusu, Ross Britz, Tody Bernard, John Kennon Kepper, Randal Reeder
A group of terrified survivors take refuge in a farmhouse cellar when nuclear devastation covers Texas with radioactive fallout.
Particularly when the majority of the movies fall into the same niche subgenres, the more reviews one writes, the more of a challenge it becomes to not repeat one’s self. My conscious mind stays as active as possible to avoid overused phrases like “must see,” “instant classic,” or “tour de force performance” and to aim for originality in articulating criticism, even if reviewing an unoriginal film. In a distant way, it is somewhat similar to the challenge facing horror filmmakers tackling another seen-before “found footage” asylum investigation, demonic possession tale, or post-apocalyptic thriller.
I offer that thought as an introduction because even though it is cliché to say that a movie “doesn’t offer anything new,” that is really an accurate way to summarize “Aftermath.” Director Peter Engert’s film is earnest in its storytelling and in its performances. The tone is sobering and thoughtful. The technical execution is methodical and streamlined. And yet, no matter how well-made the movie is, there is no shaking the feeling that it doesn’t have anything “new” to say regarding the same human survival scenario that horror has been exploring since Ben and Barbra first went into that Pennsylvania farmhouse in 1968.
C.J. Thomason, who can easily pass for Milo Ventimiglia’s twin brother in both looks and dialogue delivery, is a doctor by day and an Everyman hero by night as he wanders a Texas wasteland during a nuclear attack on American soil. Thomason’s character rescues a shellshocked young woman, her blind brother, and Monica Keena as they scavenge for supplies while searching for underground refuge from radiation fallout.
Having already confronted Armageddon in “Stitch” (review here), “The Last Light” (review here), and of course “Terminator 2,” Edward Furlong faces the end of the world once again as the resident grump holed up with another band of survivors in the home where Thomason and his crew eventually take shelter. Populating the group are the apocalypse movie staples of pregnant woman, invalid old man with diabetes, and inflamed tempers that come with confined life in a dim cellar while reality burns in a mushroom cloud outside.
Something to appreciate about “Aftermath” is that it is an apocalyptic horror movie not focused on reanimated corpses for a change. Radiation poisoning has a slow yet ravenous effect on its victims, but the emphasis is on how humans deal with the threat of extinction and circumstances unknown as opposed to flesh-eating monsters.
Unfortunately, that more realistic element setting “Aftermath” apart from its peers simultaneously limits broad appeal. Even if someone is “sick of” zombie films and actively looking for a more grounded spin on a similar premise, that means s/he has seen enough world-ending epics to have already logged plentiful hours in dingy basements with scrabbling survivors dwelling on hopelessness and swimming in cabin fever.
“Aftermath” has its work cut out for it in satiating action fans hungry for visual thrills and shocks. Aside from a brief spike around the 40-minute mark, “Aftermath” is a mostly quiet, introspective affair spent watching people fiddling about with radio dials, tending to festering wounds, and wondering what is happening beyond their restrictive walls until Hell breaks loose for an explosive finale. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a level-headed examination of human behavior in a crisis situation, it is a tricky matter to determine to whom this qualifies as satisfying entertainment, especially when most horror fans have had their fill of ego-flaring fights, petty power struggles, and depressive panic in the face of annihilation.
Strengthening “Aftermath” immensely is a strong assembly of onscreen talent with their hearts clearly in the game. While his presence is light, an actor like “The Wire” veteran Andre Royo gives a largely needless character weight he would not otherwise have with lesser talent occupying that same space. And Thomason slots as nicely into the protagonist part as Furlong does into the antagonist role.
Furlong fits right into the characterization of an angry blue collar Joe whose sleepy eyes suggest haggard exhaustion and defeated apathy. He complains a lot, berates others, and is quick to pull a pistol as his problem solver, but “Aftermath” only teases the typical survivor stereotypes. Its characters are less jerk-like in their behavior than one might expect. Furlong’s blowhard isn’t the usual redneck bastard itching to stir up trouble whenever the script requires conflict. Because he and screenwriter Christian McDonald are more interested in subtlety, Furlong’s hothead is only masking insecurity and personal fears as he comes to grips with a horrific reality just like everyone else.
Apart from someone’s questionable creative choice to employ freeze frame zooms during the climactic shootout, “Aftermath” has a terrific visual look going for it, which leads into special recognition earned by director of photography Scott Winig. I have seen three other movies that Winig has shot and although I would have to double check to be sure, I believe I called out Winig by name or mentioned his work in each of those reviews. With “Aftermath” being no exception, Winig’s lighting has been noticeably crisp in efforts like “Fractured” (review here), “The Monkey’s Paw” (review here), and “Animal” (review here), making his name a talent to be cognizant of for future films.
You would be hard pressed to find any other cinematographer in independent horror this skilled at lighting darkness for mood and for practicality. I don’t wish to sound like a verbal demo reel for the man, but if you have a film set in fog, a forest, or a subterranean tunnel, Scott Winig ought to be your go-to guy for shooting it believably and effectively.
Now here I am concerned about repeating myself, and yet finding that the best way to conclude my “Aftermath” summary is to basically reword what I’ve already said. Making the most of a minimalist budget by being well-acted, well-lit, and intelligent in its drama, “Aftermath” is easy to appreciate for being carefully measured, structured, and plotted. At the same time, I’m stuck on determining who to recommend this movie to. Maybe a 90-minute movie built largely for entertainment isn’t the best place to look for meaningful insight into the human condition. But that is what powers the drama of “Aftermath.” And unfortunately, the only impact remaining once the end credits roll is an echo from all the films that came before it and showed us the exact same things.
NOTE: “Aftermath” was previously titled “Remnants.”
Review Score: 50