Walking among stacks of corpses at the Los Angeles County morgue, some with rotting fingers and toes, a 25-year-old woman caught Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo's eye. "You could see she got a haircut just before she died," recalls the filmmaker. "It was perfect." And on the plastic sheet above her mouth condensation gathered—"as if she was living."
Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo's debut feature, "After.Life"—a genre-stretching psychological horror film out Friday in limited national release—plays in the lines between life and death. In it, a young woman, sporting a new hairstyle, is in a car accident and wakes on the cold slab of a funeral-home prep room. "Where am I?" asks Anna, played by Christina Ricci. "You're dead," calmly says the mortician, Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). Is she? The movie gives lots of hints, but no straight answer.
To research her film, Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo visited morgues and hung out with funeral-home directors. Death attracts and repulses. "It's the last taboo," she says, "but we all die in the end." She set out to answer all her questions about it. As in, do our pupils dilate? In fact, no. "Things leak out, that's why in every hole you have to put a plug in," she says. Before burial, mouths are sewn up so they don't open. Decomposition starts with the stomach. "That's why they embalm people. They basically don't want the corpse exploding," she continues, and then, looking around, breaks into a laugh.
A warm spring sun comes in through the large windows at the Modern, a chic eatery attached to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. Lunch is on the way. "I don't know how much you want me to tell you," she says, laughing again. But, she adds, "I so think there should be a mandatory trip to the morgue [for everyone]. . . . It puts so many things in perspective."
Now 34, Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo was a standout at New York University's film school. Her first short, "Pâté," another lunch-ruining conversation piece about, roughly, cockroaches and cannibalism in a postapocalyptic dystopia, won critical notice and a bunch of awards. After "Pâté," she got a top-flight agent and Hollywood interest. But she doesn't act the part of the young hotshot or, for that matter, the darkly ghoulish director. "She's girlish and giggly and awfully sweet," says Mr. Neeson.
"I called her the plain-clothed Goth," says Ms. Ricci. "She looks so normal. But oh my god, 'You're so totally obsessed with death.'"
Only at the beginning of her career, Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo brings to mind, somewhat unfairly, lofty comparisons. More so since she was born and raised in Poland, which has a rich film tradition.
Her interest in the supernatural and in posing hard philosophical questions echoes Krzysztof Kieslowski, who made his name abroad with the "Colors" trilogy in the 1990s. Her taut psychological horror strikes some as Polanskiesque, most obviously evoking the classic "Rosemary's Baby." "She definitely has a more European aesthetic," says Ms. Ricci.
Speaking by telephone, Mr. Neeson says Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo "reminds me a little of Kathryn Bigelow," the Oscar-winning director of "The Hurt Locker," with whom he's worked as well. "There's something about their attitudes on the set. And they share. Kathryn likes to share what she's thinking, what she's trying to do. Agnieszka does too. A lot of directors don't do that. Maybe they don't like to be caught with their pants down."
Aside from the Hollywood casting, "After.Life" in many ways resembles a European film. Its pacing is slower. The ending lacks clear resolution. Some big studios insisted on inserting what Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo calls the standard "blanket moment": with Anna wrapped in a blanket and Eliot carted off in handcuffs while the credits run. In the end, she made the film the indie route, keeping her vision intact but being forced to work with a small budget. "I intentionally don't want to reveal if [Anna's] dead or alive," she says—or if Mr. Neeson's character is a kind of shaman with special powers to speak to the dead or a plain psychopath intent on burying the living. She says she knows, but likes to hear viewers reach conflicting conclusions. "The film will polarize people," she says. "I think it's a good thing."
When Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo was 10, her father died. She dates her fascination with death in part to his burial. "Funerals in Poland are so different than here. Here everything is so anesthetized. In Poland it is all there, you see the hole, you see the ropes going in. . . . We're more comfortable with death. I think death is really dignified in Poland, historically and traditionally. It starts with how we treat old people in society." In America, I note, we tend to hide them away. "And we hide death away," she says.
Poland's history tends toward the dark. Its great filmmakers mostly obsess over stories of past glories and betrayals. Best known in this school is the octogenarian Andrzej Wajda, one of whose more recent films—the 2007 "Katyn"—was about the murder of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviets. The end of communism deprived Polish political cinema of a lot of its bite and, not unlike society as a whole, films started to imitate Western models, but with limited means. The results were predictably mediocre. Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo says the respect for the craft of filmmaking remains deep in Poland. In the U.S., "film is an art but also a business, more business than art. In Poland it's still something sacred."
Few Polish directors have jumped to Hollywood, perhaps because, she says, they're "still telling only Polish stories." Though now more in the news for his legal troubles, Roman Polanski originally broke that mold. "What I love Polanski for was that he was able to make his own cinema—still to take his very Polish experiences, his parents in the ghetto," she says, "and then translate it into something different." Ms. Wojtowicz-Vosloo left Poland with her English husband, Paul, first for Hong Kong and then to get her undergraduate degree at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Neither "Pâté" nor "After.Life" has anything overtly Polish about it.
On the Warsaw film scene, she says, "it's hard to be anonymous. I liked the idea of coming here and being who you are."
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.