Review: ‘After Death’ (2023), starring Mary C. Neal, John Burke, Michael Sabom, Jeffrey Long, Don Piper, Howard Storm and Dale Black

November 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” (2023)

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke

Culture Representation: The documentary film “After Death” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American, one Latino and two Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Various people give their testimonials about having near-death experiences where they believe they went to heaven or hell, even though these spiritual experiences are not considered to be provable through science.

Culture Audience: “After Death” will appeal primarily to people who want to watch a documentary that promotes one-sided Christian teachings along with stories of near-death experiences.

Don Piper in “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” is essentially a series of scenes of people talking about experiencing what they believe to be heaven or hell when they came close to death or were considered to be clinically dead. The movie has some re-enactments with actors. The testimonials of near-death experiences seem sincere, but the documentary’s filmmakers only chose to interview people with Christian points of view, ignoring other religions. Most of the interviewees have authored books, so there’s a sales agenda too.

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke, “After Death” is from Angel Studios, a faith-based company that is focused on Christian content. Even so, the movie could have done a much better job of acknowledging that these spiritual experiences don’t only happen to Christians. Instead, the movie gets very preachy in presenting these Christian points of view as the “right” way to think about issues pertaining to life after death.

There isn’t much diversity in the types of people who were selected to be interviewed in this documentary. Most are upper-middle-class white Americans who have “doctor” as part of their titles. The stories are fascinating, but “After Death” has erratic film editing that has a frustrating tendency to interrupt someone’s story and then revisit it later in the movie. It’s meant to keep viewers in suspense to hear the rest of the story, but it just comes across as sloppy filmmaking.

Dale Black, a former airplane pilot, nearly died in plane crash in 1969, in Burbank, California. He describes having an out-of-body experience where he could see himself and two other pilots on the ground within five feet of each other after the crash. He says that this experience convinced him that he has a spirit that’s separate from his body.

Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, says he was initially a skeptic about life after death until he talked to resuscitated patients. He adds, “There’s a process of dying,” but that medically, death cannot fully be measured.

Howard Storm was a 38-year-old professor and an atheist who was living in Paris with his wife in 1985, when he began experiencing severe abdominal pain. He was rushed to a hospital, where he didn’t get immediate care because a doctor wasn’t available to treat him right away. Storm says he fell into a coma and had a near-death experience that he describes in the movie as a miraculous recovery.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist and researcher, says that common near death experiences are people saying that they felt they left their bodies and watched people or things on Earth, such as the place where they died. Other common experiences include seeing a light, hearing music, and seeing the spirits of dead people.

Don Piper, an author, says that his own near-death experience happened when he was in a car accident in Huntsville, Texas, in 1989. During the accident, the car’s steering wheel went into his chest. Also interviewed are district attorney investigator Swen Spjut and Anita Onarecker Wood, an eyewitness at the scene of Piper’s accident. Wood doesn’t have much to add except to confirm that Piper looked like he was dead, and she was shocked that someone could survive the injuries that he had.

Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, describes her own near-death experience that happened when she was kayaking in Chile while she was on a trip with her husband. During this kayaking trip, she fell down a waterfall in an accident. She says that while she was unconscious, she never felt more alive, and she felt like she was being held by Jesus Christ.

Not all of these near-death experiences are stories that resulted in bliss and happiness. Don Piper says that after he got a glimpse of what he believes is heaven, he didn’t want to go back to his life on Earth. He says that this led him to experience depression and wishing that he had died in his car accident so that he could be in heaven. Don’s wife Eva Piper says she felt confused over why Don had a period of time when he didn’t seem to be happy to be back to his life after the car accident.

Steve Kang, a former Buddhist who converted to Christianity, describes a life-changing moment that doesn’t seem like a near-death experience but more like a drug-induced hallucination. Kang, a South Korean immigrant, says he felt like an outsider in school when he was a kid. As a teenager in high school, he was heavily involved in drugs. In 1998, when he was a teenager and a self-described “stoner,” he became suicidal and cut himself with a knife, but he saw a vision of a “grandpa spirit” telling him not to kill himself. Kang says he turned his life around after that incident.

Paul Ojeda, a recovering cocaine addict and founder of Austin Powerhouse Church, says his near-death experience came during a drug overdose. He says he didn’t see a bright light but saw a dark tunnel. He sensed that he was in some kind of hell, and when he tried to justify his life in his mind, the tunnel sped up faster and faster. Ojeda says he pleaded for God’s help and obviously ended up coming out alive from this experience.

Howard Storm, a minister, says his near-death experience was also hellish. He describes feeling like he was in a tunnel where people were sadistically trying to tear him apart. Storm describes being rescued by a light force that he believes was God. Storm says that at the time he had this experience, he had family relationships that were “troubled.”

Storm says he had an unhappy childhood, when his father was abusive to him, which caused Storm be in the habit of numbing his emotions. After his near-death experience, Storm says he became a religious “zealot” (his words), and this life change led to the end of his marriage. He adds that his wife left him and “poisoned” their kids against him, but he eventually reconciled with his father.

Also interviewed are neurologist Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and neurosurgeon Dr. Karl Greene, two after-life believers who share a few experiences that they had with patients which convinced these doctors that there is another state of being after death. The International Association of Near-Death Experiences is mentioned as a group that provides support and other resources for people with these experiences. The documentary does not interview any skeptics to provide any counter-arguments.

If someone believes that human death is final, watching “After Death” probably won’t change that person’s mind. However, the anecdotes and stories presented in the movie can be considered compelling arguments. It’s too bad that many of these stories end up being lectures about Christianity instead of being presented as universally relatable to all people, regardless if they are religious or not.

Angel Studios released “After Death” in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023.

Review: ‘Insidious: The Red Door,’ starring Ty Simpkins, Patrick Wilson, Sinclair Daniel, Hiam Abbass, Andrew Astor and Rose Byrne

July 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ty Simpkins in “Insidious: The Red Door” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“Insidious: The Red Door”

Directed by Patrick Wilson

Culture Representation: Taking place on the East Coast of the United States, the horror film “Insidious: The Red Door” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Divorced father Josh Lambert and his estranged teenage son Dalton continue to find terror in their astral projection abilities where they can see and communicate with spirits from a ghostly realm. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of the “Insidious” movie franchise, “Insidious: The Red Door” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/director Patrick Wilson and horror movies that dumb everything down.

Patrick Wilson in “Insidious: The Red Door” (Photo by Boris Martin/Screen Gems)

“Insidious: The Red Door” is a poorly constructed and dull horror movie with subplots that go nowhere. The movie’s ending is a mishmash of lazy and ineffective jump scares. It’s disappointing, because the story had potential but is badly mishandled. “Insidious: The Red Door” is an example of a sequel that’s leeching off of the name recognition of the original movie but doesn’t deliver anything close to the quality of the original film.

Directed by Patrick Wilson and written by Scott Teems, “Insidious: The Red Door” is the fifth movie in the “Insidious” series. “Insidious: The Red Door” is also Wilson’s feature-film directorial debut. Wilson co-stars in “Insidious: The Red Door,” as well as the first “Insidious” movie (released in 2010) and 2013’s “Insidious: Chapter 2.” The other previous movies in the series are the prequel “Insidious: Chapter 3” (released in 2015) and 2018’s “Insidious: The Last Key.” Most of the stars from these first two “Insidious” movies are in “Insidious: The Red Door.” Unfortunately, they returned for an embarrassing sequel.

“Insidious: The Red Door” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state on the East Coast and was filmed in New York state and New Jersey. The movie begins shortly after the end of “Insidious: Chapter 2,” when the middle-class Lambert family has gone through another ordeal with evil spirits inhabiting a realm called The Further. Family patriarch Josh Lambert (played by Wilson) and his oldest child Dalton (played by Ty Simpkins) have the abilities to astral project and go into The Further, where they become invisible in the real world but visible to the spirits and other entities that exist in The Further.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen “Insidious: Chapter 2”: Dalton and Josh were both trapped in The Further and managed to escape by the end of the movie. The plots of the first two “Insidious” movies are mentioned in conversations and in flashbacks in “Insidious: The Red Door.” Anyone who sees “Insidious: The Red Door” but not the first two “Insidious” movies will be getting a lot of spoiler information about the first two “Insidious” movies in “Insidious: The Red Door,” whether people like it or not.

The opening scene of “Insidious: The Red Door” shows Josh and 10-year-old Dalton undergoing hypnosis so they won’t remember what happened to them in The Further. Other members of the family are in the same room, including Josh’s wife Renai Lambert (played by Rose Byrne) and Josh’s mother Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey), who look like they were the ones who wanted this hypnosis to happen. Dalton’s two younger siblings are brother Foster and sister Kali. During this hypnosis, which is performed by an unseen female priest (voiced by Dagmara Dominczyk), Dalton is told that he will only remember that he was in a coma.

The movie then fast-forwards nine years later. Josh and Renai are now divorced. Josh, Renai, Dalton, Foster (played by Andrew Astor) and Kali (played by Juliana Davies) are at a graveside funeral cerrmony for Lorraine, who passed away after an illness. Dalton is now a mopey 19-year-old who’s about to go away to an art college somewhere on the East Coast. The college is not close to where his parents live but it’s far enough away that it requires a road trip. Dalton is a talented illustrator, so you know what that means: Dalton will be sketching a lot of creepy drawings in this movie.

Foster is about 15 or 16 years old. Kali is about 10 or 11 years old. At the graveside, Kali mournfully says that she misses her grandmother. Dalton cynically replies that dead people don’t miss living people. Renai comforts Kali by saying that it’s not true and that Lorraine misses Kali too. Dalton is firm in his belief that there’s no such thing as the afterlife. He will soon change his mind.

Dalton and Josh have a tension-filled relationship where they are barely on speaking terms. Renai suggests that it might be a good idea for Josh to be the one to drive Dalton off to college and perhaps mend their father/son rift during this road trip. After the graveside ceremony, Josh is sitting alone in his parked car when he decides to text Dalton with this road trip proposal. Josh doesn’t notice (but viewers can see) that the ghost of a man is right behind the car. It’s later revealed who this man is. It’s enough to say that he has the names Smash Face and Ben Burton (played by David Call) in the movie.

Dalton reluctantly agrees to let Josh drive him off to college, where Dalton will be living on campus. During the trip, they argue. Josh, whose father abandoned the family when he was a boy, thinks that Dalton is ungrateful and should feel lucky that Josh wants to be a part of Dalton’s life. Dalton thinks that Josh was too much of an absentee father after the divorce.

When they arrive at the campus and start moving Dalton’s possessions in his dorm room, they argue some more. Josh feels hurt and rejected when he sees that Dalton is putting up illustrations on the wall of all of Dalton’s relatives except for Josh. In the middle of this family tension, Dalton’s roommate suddenly arrives. She’s a young woman named Chris Winslow (played by Sinclair Daniel), who is talkative, sarcastic and a little offbeat.

There’s a not-very-believable explanation that Chris was assigned to this room because she has a unisex name, and the college’s housing staff assumed that she was male. (Most colleges have a policy for first-year students to have on-campus roommates who are of the same gender. ) Dalton and Josh say that they didn’t expect to her to be female, so Chris graciously says that she’ll make other living arrangements with the campus’ housing staff.

After the argument that Dalton and Josh have on the day that Dalton moves into his dorm room, Dalton dismisses Josh with a brusque comment when Josh is about to leave: “No wonder Mom divorced you. Thanks for the ride.” “Insidious: The Red Door” eventually shows why Josh and Renai got divorced, in a scene that’s a ripoff from a well-known horror movie from the 1980s. (Hint: It’s a movie based on a Stephen King novel.)

Josh has no memory of the horror experiences that he’s had, but he senses that there are parts of his life that are unexplained, dark secrets. He mentions early in the movie that he feels like his brain has become foggy and that he’s losing his memory skills. Later in the movie, there’s a fairly insipid scene of Josh testing his memory skills by taping family photos backwards on a window in his house and trying to remember who is in each photo.

A red door is a portal to The Further, but don’t expect much to be happening with the “red door” part of “Insidious: The Red Door” until the last third of the film. The first two-thirds of the movie are a boring slog of Dalton and Chris adjusting to college life and to each other as roommates. Dalton starts to have hallucinations, while Chris tries to get Dalton to open up about himself. Dalton, just like Josh, feels there are secretive things in his life that are buried in his psyche, but he doesn’t quite know what they are.

Expect to see repetitive scenes of people seeing ghosts and then “waking up” as if they just had a nightmare. It happens to Josh. It happens to Dalton. And it eventually happens to Chris. There’s a time-wasting scene where Josh has a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and visions from his past come back to haunt him. Dr. Phillip Brower (played by E. Roger Mitchell), who gives Josh the MRI scan, tells that Josh was asleep the entire time that Josh insists that he was being attacked by menacing people.

Dalton is anti-social and doesn’t want to go a frat house party thrown by a fraternity that Josh was a member of when Josh was in college. Chris doesn’t really care about the frat party either, but she convinces Josh that they should go to this party together, if only to make fun of the ridiculousness that will happen at the party. It’s at this party that Josh begins to find out that he can see dead people.

There’s an insecure dork with the name Nick the Dick (played by Peter Dager), who’s some kind of leader of the fraternity. At the party, Dalton witnesses a student (played by Stephen Gray) vomiting in Nick’s bathroom toilet. There’s a backstory about this student that’s one of the unfinished subplots. The main purpose of introducing this mystery character seems to be to have a gross-out scene later involving much more vomit. Nick gets into a conflict with Chris, who kicks Nick in the groin after Nick calls her a “clown.”

“Insidious: The Red Door” also wastes time showing Dalton in class sessions taught by his pretentious and frequently cruel art teacher Professor Armagan (played by Hiam Abbass), who seems to enjoy humiliating students and expelling them from her class whenever she feels like it. However, Dalton is spared from the wrath of Professor Armagan because she like his drawings. Not surprisingly, Dalton’s drawings become increasingly macabre when Professor Armagan orders her students to dig deep into their souls and draw what they feel.

Dalton ends up drawing a red door with a demon outside. He accidentally cuts himself after making this illustration, and the blood becomes a long stain on the drawing. You can easily predict what will happen next. (Hint: It involves The Further and a lot of “daddy issues.”) But all of it is just so jumbled and ridiculous, with one flimsy horror scene after another. The average “Insidious” fan could’ve written a better screenplay than this mess.

“Insidious: The Red Door” also throws in cameos of familiar characters from “Insidious” Chapter 2,” as if these cameos will somehow make “Insidious: The Red Door” any better. They don’t. Lin Shaye, who has the role of psychic/medium Elise Rainier, shows up in archival video footage and in someone’s visions. Her screen time in “Insidious: The Red Door” is less than five minutes. Her appearance in “Insidious: The Red Door” is expected, but ultimately it’s very underwhelming.

Leigh Whannell, who wrote the first four “Insidious” movies, returns with Angus Sampson as their respective characters of Specs and Tucker, two paranormal investigators, who are only seen on a TV screen in “Insidious: The Red Door.” Steve Coulter reprises his role as Carl (a former colleague of Elise’s), in a cameo where Carl shows up at Lorraine’s funeral and has a brief conversation with Josh, who doesn’t remember Carl. All these cameos do is remind “Insidious” fans that the first two “Insidious” movies are still the best of the series.

The acting performances in “Insidious” The Red Door” are adequate. Simpkins has the most difficult role to play, since his Dalton character goes through the most emotional and physical ups and downs. Wilson has some depth as Josh, but this character has become an annoying whiner going through a midlife crisis. Daniel’s Chris character, who acts like she dropped in from a young-adult sitcom, is an awkward sidekick to Dalton. “Insidious: The Red Door” keeps bungling what could have been an intriguing story. It will make “Insidious” fans think that the door should remain shut on these characters who were brought back for a painfully awful movie.

Screen Gems will release “Insidious: The Red Door” in U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023.

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