"Where did everybody go?" This is the starting point for plenty of horror/suspense where someone seems to be the only person left in the world. It's also the basis for After, though the movie goes more for sentiment than science in its trip to the end.

Ana (Karolina Wydra) is taking a bus home to Pearl, Maryland, when she's hit on by Freddy (Steven Strait). She's a nurse who's trying to write in her journal, and he's a comic book artist chatting her up. It turns out that they live on the same street, though they've never met. Suddenly there's a crash on the side of the bus.

In the next scene, Ana wakes up in her home. She heads to work -- only no one is there. No one is anywhere: Every home and office is deserted, cars are empty, and there's no answer on the radio or signal on the TV. Then she runs into Freddy, and the two of them decide to pair up and figure out what's going on.

That's when the weirdness starts (or intensifies). The whole town is surrounded by a wall of swirling black smoke, and it's slowly moving towards them and the center of town. Ana and Freddy seem to walk into each other's flashbacks, scenes from decades ago in their past. Somewhere in the smoke is the sound of a monster on a chain. And everything seems to have a connection with their past.

Writer/director Ryan Smith runs into the problem so many stories like this face: The explanation isn't as satisfying as the mystery. While Wydra and Strait do a good job with their roles -- regular people forced together by a nightmare situation -- as the pieces of After start coming together the situation gets less interesting. And, as is so often the case, the monster is more fearsome when it's just heard than when it finally shows up.

The intrigue of After is interesting (the swirling blackness closing in on the town, the giant door with hundreds of keys in front of it) while it lasts, but the payoff is a bit lackluster. This movie would have worked better if it had, to quote Iris DeMent, let the mystery be.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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