Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
Ghosts are at the very heart of Next Exit, Mali Elfman’s feature film debut. From this, you might assume that Next Exit is a full-blooded horror film, but you’d be mistaken. It’s certainly scary, but more in an existential way than a boo! kind of way.
Teddy (Rahul Kohli) and Rose (Katie Parker) are both headed to San Francisco. The purpose of their respective journeys is to kill themselves. You see, in the near future, the existence of ghosts has been proven and people are voluntarily giving their lives in order to take part in the study of the afterlife. The two strangers share a car and a whole lot more on a road trip across America.
Kohli and Parker have both worked with Mike Flanagan extensively and both had parts in The Haunting of Bly Manor, although they never shared the screen. Next Exit, in many ways, shares some DNA with Flanagan’s filmography. Its humane approach to the supernatural is key here and it’s what makes this film so endearing and touching.
Next Exit is also surprisingly funny. Most of the laughs come from the dynamic between Teddy and Rose, who at first seem like total opposites but as the film and their trip progresses, we learn that they’re both running away from something and see death as the ultimate victory over their traumas.
It’s undoubtedly a film that runs on its performances. Both Kohli and Parker are extraordinary in their roles, especially Kohli. Teddy is about as broken as they come, but Kohli never resorts to asking for our pity. Despite being so keen to die, Teddy is still funny and witty, almost as if he hasn’t given up on life at all. And perhaps dying isn’t giving up in Next Exit, it’s simply a new route to take that will provide a relief from their painful existence.
You might fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film. That it would still be morally wrong to allow these individuals to end their lives, but that’s not the point. Next Exit examines life just as much it does death, pondering over what makes life truly worth living. It’s a little cheesy and more than a little sentimental, but the film also holds a few universal truths at its core.
Elfman’s directorial choices are often unseen; always a sign of good direction. Next Exit is at once vividly futuristic while also keeping one foot firmly in our present time. Elfman also wrote the script, which is perhaps the film’s greatest weakness. Next Exit can be very talky and many things are spelled out and explained to the audience, when they really don’t need to be.
Regardless, Next Exit is one of the finest films playing at this year’s FrightFest. It’s one of those films that you stumble upon by accident, but it ends up shaping your very core. Led by the exemplary Kohli and Parker, Next Exit represents the ascent of an exciting new voice in genre filmmaking, with a humane touch.