Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{FrightFest} Next Exit

Drawing from an eschatological premise, Next Exit is a horror-adjacent romantic drama about hope and personal responsibility.

Mali Elfman’s film, which received its UK Premiere at FrightFest, opens with a scientific discovery that might change our notion of life and death. Life Beyond, a study from a San Francisco-based company led by Dr. Stevensen (Marvel star Karen Gillan), has solved one of humankind’s biggest questions, proving that dead people can be tracked into the afterlife. This means that ghosts can linger in the orbit of their loved ones, interacting with them and bridging the gap between this world and the next.

Next Exit is a dialogue-packed road trip towards death

These radical findings polarize public opinion. While some are wary of the ethical consequences of Life Beyond’s ongoing experimental trial, others consider it an exciting scientific advancement in the making, with free will taking center stage. As Dr. Stevensen is looking for participants willing to leave this world behind via pain-free suicides to return in a different form, Rose (Absentia‘s Katie Parker) and Teddy (Midnight Mass‘ Rahul Kohli) jump on their chance to do something with their lives… and deaths.

The film adopts rom-com tropes to propel these two strangers’ journey to their final destination. A few days before their scheduled appointment to “terminate their physical form,” Teddy and Rose share a rental car in New York to drive across the country. What kicks off as a reversed holiday comedy turns into a cross-state journey with a side of existentialism. Over what are supposed to be their very last days on earth, the protagonists reluctantly get to know each other and confront their demons.

Elfman’s directorial debut is an intriguing, dialogue-packed road trip towards death. A dark on-the-road adventure, the film sees Parker and Kohli dominate every frame with their committed performances as two tormented souls. A closed-off woman chased by her own, very tangible ghosts, Rose’s icy demeanor slowly thaws thanks to Teddy’s breeziness and warmth. Introduced as a relaxed jokester from across the pond, he uses humor as a coping mechanism as he is, too, wrestling with his past.

Mali Elfman’s film uses the horror to instill hope

You won’t find the horror in the way you might expect from a ghost story, but you’ll get something different and equally upsetting among the washed-out strokes of Azuli Anderson’s ethereal cinematography. Next Exit stares into a sucking, all-consuming void, touching upon depression and suicidal ideations, but it is also, ultimately, a stubborn celebration of being alive.

Awarded the Best Cinematography prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, Anderson masters the balance of light and darkness to portray the conflicts within the characters. The photography has a foggy quality, as though Rose and Teddy were already walking in the suspended reality of the afterlife while still being among the living. 

The film includes some beautiful glimpses of truth as intimacy is slowly built between Rose and Teddy. At their best when bickering — be it over who should drive the rental or over more complex matters— Rose and Teddy are two people who find each other by sheer luck in the most inappropriate of circumstances.

These beacons of honesty, however, are rare in a script that tends to lean too heavily into stereotypical characterizations and romantic clichés, to the detriment of the film’s pacing. Kohli and Parker elevate the material with an element of rawness and charisma in their performances, but some lines are still too cheesy to digest and create an overall distracting effect from the story.

Next Exit leaves life and death behind to tell Rose and Teddy’s story

Due to its structure, the film leaves, inevitably, very little space for secondary characters, but Gillan feels especially underused as Dr. Stevensen. On the other hand, Tim Griffin as PTSD-stricken veteran John and Rose McIver as Rose’s sister Heather (bringing the protagonist of iZombie onboard a movie about the intricacies of the afterlife is a nice touch) have their moments to shine.

None of these characters, not even the cheery priest Rose and Teddy encounter on their journey, holds the answers to such fundamental questions. Despite the premise begging for a thorough afterlife investigation, Next Exit doesn’t dig too deep into the mystery of life and death.

Though it gets gloomier and scarier towards the end, the film never expands on its heavy subject, preferring to zoom in on its protagonists’ worldly bond. It feels the assisted suicide plot is but an additional narrative layer to tell the tale of two lonely people who might have just found love in a hopeless place. While not knowing more about Life Beyond may frustrate some at first, it doesn’t matter as you grow fond of these two characters.

Next Exit is a flawed yet interesting debut from Elfman, with her directorial skills exceeding her writing. She manages to capture the beauty in the cold air between her lead actors, eliciting two charming performances that command to be seen.

Next Exit opens in US cinemas in November.