Friday, June 10, 2016

DVD Review: The After Death Project

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Live images © Robert Barry Francos, 2016
Other Images from the Internet

The After Death Project: Collector’s Edition 2-DVD Set
Written, produced and directed by Paul Davids
Paul Davids Productions / Yellow Hat Productions
207 minutes, 2013

So, we all know there is death after life, which is physical reality. But the more philosophical one is whether there life after death. If there is, what is the form it takes? Do we go to heaven or hell, meet 72 virgins, get to sit with Ra or Osiris (or the god of your choice), or do we just….fffffttt out?

In my opinion, this is a prospect based on the fear of begin gone and forgotten. There is also somewhat of an ego aspect, as in, I must go on! Most religions tell us that we suffer in this world to be rewarded in the next, but in so many of the ghost stories we are told that the souls that wander the Earth are tormented, either seeking justice, or reliving the nightmare of their death over and over. Or, in some cases, seeking revenge against the living. Every culture has their version of ghosts, from Casper-ish wisps, to see-through people, or the stringier, long-haired and dark-eyed Asian version.

I’ve had my own experiences, as have had most, though I’m still not sure what it was. In my early twenties, I stayed at a friend’s parent’s house where she were still living. They had a full suite downstairs and I snuggled in at some late hour after hanging out with the family. I was just falling asleep when I felt something sit on the bed. I assumed it was my friend to talk more, but I turned on the light and there was no one there. Needless to say, I did not sleep the rest of the night. In the morning, at the breakfast table, I shared my experience. Very calmly, she said, “Oh, that’s just my grandmother. She used to live down there until she died in the bed. She comes back to visit sometimes; she’s harmless. I was furious for not being warned (I would have driven the two hours to get home). We’re still friends now.

This documentary seeks to discover what happens afterwards, especially since there is an entire market of people who are fascinated by the topic, or claim they can be in touch with those “beyond.” I’m not saying I believe it’s true or not, simply because I know that I don’t know. Experts, whatever that means, also take extreme camps on their side of the argument. There was a time in my life that I dated the assistant of a well-known professional psychic. I’m still not convinced, though (part of why she chose to be an ex-).

Forrest J Ackerman / pic by Robert Barry Francos
The first disc has two central characters, one living, and one ethereal. The person still suckin’ air is the director, Paul Davids. The premise is that he has a printed out piece paper from a computer that has a mysterious smudge on it, and he’s convinced it’s a message from the dear departed, writer / Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher and genre promoter Forrest J Ackerman (a man I greatly admire and have seen talk at a few conventions in the early 1990s), who had rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible in 2008.

The documentary is kind of a frenetic road trip attempting to prove that Forry, as he is commonly referred by fans, has been quite active since he’s been bereft of life by throwing down papers, moving objects, filling masks with electric energy, and making coincidences happen around puns.

There is more than a hint of skepticism present, I’m happy to say, by scientists. Again, I don’t have an opinion about an afterlife (though the thought of real ghosts as opposed to cinematic ones still make me unconformable), I’m just against arguments that are only one-sided. For example, one psychologist here states that the human brain tends to put things into patterns to help them make sense, and may see them where they are not, such as seeing shapes by combining stars (e.g., the belt of Orion).

Thing is, everybody loved Forry, and not surprising as he was a genuinely sweet man-child with a pun-loving humor – the worse the better – who touched so many people’s lives, even if you’ve never heard of him. Well, if you’re reading this, you probably have, but I digress… Getting back on point, because he was so beloved, people understandably want it to be true, to keep contact with someone important to them. Again, I’m not saying it isn’t so, but…

Through the length of the disc, we meet scientists, psychics, people who knew Forry intimately (such as his caretaker over the last years of his life, Joe Moe), and even ink specialists who try to diagnose the smudge on Davids’ paper, to try and figure out if it’s supernatural in origin. The filmmakers look at it both from spiritually and as a scientific phenomenon.

There are two ways to look at this body of information, the first being that it’s a lot of coincidences that people see what they want to see (for example, the clock on the wall behind the drawing of Forry on the DVD cover, done a few years before his death, supposedly shows the exact time he passed), or that there is a lot of these events. Either way, they are catalogued and shown in great detail.

While fun to some extent, especially since so much of it is about Forry, who I believe would have be greatly bemused by this kind of attention. It does seem to go on for a long time and over 106 minutes for this disc alone. Which brings us to…

The second disc, at 101 minutes, is titled “Life After Death Project 2: Personal Encounters.” This one takes a bit of a different approach than the first disc; this is more of an investigation of the separation of the spirit from the body in a few different forms.

For example, we meet a number of people, most in the Southwest between California and Texas, talking about seeing ghosts in retirement homes, ERs, and hotels, among others. Some discuss seeing the spirit actually leaving the body in the form of a wisp of smoke out of the mouth, or a gold orb from the chest. We also meet a team of ghost hunters, but the camera stays focused on Davids as he “plays poker” with a spirit, calmly making bets depending on an electronic reader that supposedly reacts to the spirits desires. I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

An interesting segment to me is more about out-of-body experiences, where e person has died and left the body, observing his/her surroundings, and/or talking to spirits (angels?) discussing the situation. No mention of seeing a religious entity, I’m happy to say. If I heard one person saying they saw Jesus, Moses or Mohammed, they would have lost me completely.

One scientist / philosopher states that many who have had these near death experiences gain psychic abilities, which sounds a bit too Stephen King / The Dead Zone to me, though who knows, perhaps that’s true.

My biggest issue with the content is everything is either post-fact or unprovable. Four people say 0ne of them received a phone call from someone who had just died. Okay. Why should I take their word for it? Others talk about how they left their house and an object was moved while they were gone. Okay, how much is being read into it? In another case, a mask flew off a wall (there’s a lot of mask action going on in these films) during a party and lands a couple of feet away from the wall. One person discusses it (the director), claiming there were others in the room, but no word from them.

Forrest J Ackerman /
pic by Robert Barry Francos
As with the first film/disc, there is an awful lot of conjecture based on coincidence, which is like sending someone to prison on circumstantial evidence. Does a distorted video recording a ghost sighting make? If I may digress for a second, this all reminds me that there is a brilliant book from 1976 by Julian Jaynes (d. 1997) called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a fascinating study about what is “consciousness,” and when it first came to humans as a species. The problem with the book, and why some of it was hard to fathom for me – and this goes to these films – is that if certainly feels like the premise came first, and the evidence is used to prove the premise, rather than the proof bringing a conclusion. This film, unlike the first, is more one sided, which was a bit disappointing to me. The first had some skeptics “experts,” but here it’s everyone on the same page.

Oh, this is certainly a fun ride, and despite my own agnosticism about the topic, it was a fun watch, even though, again, much of it felt quite self-serving, as in let’s make a film about this topic and then make me the focus! It’s a well put together work in its narrative framework, but I had more moments of c’mon than I should have.

There were only two secondary but real annoyances though. The first was that the descriptor captions for the talkers went by too fast for the amount of text (two or three seconds), and I had to keep going back and pausing. On the other hand, I appreciate that the titles were repeated when the speakers came back; not enough documentaries do that. The other thing that I found grating was due to the single-camera filming, there were a lot of jump cuts in each segment. One of the director near the end jumps every few seconds. Perhaps most people would not notice it much, but I found it distracting.

There are about 40 minutes of extras included with the DVDs (on the first disc), which I thoroughly enjoyed. There is a Play All button, which I engaged, and sat through them, happily. The only one that came close to being whatever was the last one. The others, mostly about Forry, including his friendships with the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury dating back to the 1930s (and initiating their careers), are great stuff. Also, more info about his wife and his house (the Ackermansion) which was infamous for its collection of sci-fi (a term Forry is credited with creating) and horror. The extras are:
  • Forrest J Ackerman: He Coined the Term ‘Sci-Fi’
  • Uncle Forry, Joe Moe and the Demise of the Ackermansion
  • The Director’s Relationship with Forrest J. Ackerman
  • Ray Bradbury, Rick Baker and Paul Davids Speaking at the Ackerman Tribute
  • Jacob McMurray, Senior Curator of the Science Fiction Museum
  • Dr. John Allison, 3 Years After the Inkblot Incident

I have no doubt that there is an audience for these two discs, and I do recommend it for them. There is a lot of good information among the peacocking, so definitely check it out if this is your speed of a topic. Off the top of my head, I can think of about half a dozen friends and acquaintances who would get a kick out of this, and will tell them about it, without hesitation.

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