For all the teeth gnashing about the state of horror films being in a decline, there’s no shortage of smaller independent features that push the genre forward. Rather than being the end result of a team of marketers and studio executives trying to cash in on trends while delivering a product watered down for Middle America, these smaller films take risks, don’t assume its audience is made up of chowderhead thumbsuckers and push the boundaries of horror in new directions. Mike Flanagan’s ABSENTIA is one of those new breed of horror films, delivering a terrifying story full of left turns that dare its audience to keep up with the film.
Seven years after her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) disappeared with no clues to his whereabouts, a very pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) resigns herself to the fact that he will never return. After hanging the last of her MISSING flyers in her neighborhood (out of habit and a refusal to see them go to waste rather than a clinging hope they may lead to information) she prepares herself to sign his death certificate “In Absentia”. Her wildcard and fresh out of rehab sister Callie (Katie Parker) arrives from across the country to provide support and help Tricia move on with her life. As Tricia counts down the days before she can legally declare Daniel dead, she begins to see him, or rather she begins to see an emaciated and terrifying version of him. At first he appears to her in dreams and she wakes up in a sweat as he lashes out at her and her unborn child. Soon he appears at random points of the day, lurking in the corners of her peripheral vision. Meanwhile Detective Mallory (Dave Levine), implores her to leave the neighborhood due to the unusual number of missing persons cases, break-ins and lost animals. As Callie settles in, a number of odd occurrences take place. Jogging through the tunnel at the end of her street she encounters a gaunt homeless man that can’t believe she can even see him. Piles of old jewelry begin to turn up on her doorstep and under her pillow. Tricia presses on, and the day her husband’s death certificate arrives in the mail, she is ready to move forward embrace new relationships and a new life. It’s at this precise moment a disheveled and disoriented Daniel turns up outside her home.
To give any more away would deprive new viewers of the twists Absentia takes viewers on. If writer/director Mike Flanagan had kept the focus on the mystery of Daniel’s disappearance, Absentia still would have been terrifying. Instead, Flanagan uses Daniel’s story as a leaping point for an intricate modern Grimm’s Fairy tale. Absentia combines suburban paranoia, urban legends, children’s fables and metaphysical theories on alternate dimensions while unraveling the mystery of the tunnel that seems to be the center of all the area disappearances.
Absentia straddles the fine line between giving its audience enough credit where it does not to be spoon fed every bit of information while also not failing to provide answers for important plot points and closure for its characters. Flanagan also embraces the “less is more” aesthetic when it comes to his creature design. Aside from a tentacle or claw here or there, Absentia chooses to never reveal the being responsible for Daniel and others disappearances. Flanagan focuses on his characters’ reactions to seeing the creature to sell audiences its horrific appearance. This is a wise choice for two reasons. First, the limited funds to creature design afforded by the budget means whatever FX could come up with pales in comparison to what the imagination can create. More important, Absentia is not a “creature feature” and any emphasis on FX would overshadow the characters Flanagan really means to explore.
Absentia’s strength lies in the performances of Bell and Parker as dysfunctional sisters. The two share an easy chemistry which makes it easy to buy in to them as siblings with a long shared history that covers every range of emotion. Whether offering one another support, trying to fill in the blanks over the years they’ve been out of contact or tearing in to one another when the stress gets to be too much, their interactions never feel forced or trite. Parker gives her troubled character multiple angles for audiences to explore. While a decent person at her core, she struggles to cope with her free spirited past and addiction. Parker manages portray Callie backsliding to occasional use of drugs without giving the vibe of a zoned out junkie. It’s her past experiences that make her the only candidate equipped to help Daniel cope with his trauma.
For her part Bell earns audience sympathy portraying a woman faced with unbearable circumstances that pile one on top of the other. Her character is always on the edge, trying to come to terms with Daniel’s disappearance then reemergence, while trying not to drown in a pitiable but understandable wave of crushing sorrow as bills pile up, rent needs to be paid, and the baby comes closer to its due date. While she’s not a tough girl heroine like a Ripley, there’s power in her keeping her wits about her at all. Flanagan displays a knack for delivering powerful emotional moments. One scene finds Tricia needing to deliver devastating news to Daniel’s parents. We never hear a word of the conversation. Instead, Flanagan focuses on the parents’ expressions after the fact, and in those few moments.
In smaller roles Levine anchors the story as the detective trying to make sense of Daniel’s case while getting too involved with Tricia on a personal level, and Justin Gordon is his partner that takes a more detached view.
All the above is well and good, but you’re reading a horror film site, not a family drama site. If Absentia didn’t deliver in the scares department, it would be a failure. Thankfully Absentia is equally strong in this department. In place of false jump scares are quick bursts where Daniel’s “ghost” pops up in unexpected places (the closet scene made me jump out of my seat). This gives ways to deeper, unsettling terror that taps into our primal fear of feeling unsafe and helpless in our own homes. Watching the film from the comfort of my sofa, I found the need to pause it midway through in order to deadbolt the front door and take a quick breather.
Horror has been in a draught this summer with multiplexes opting for CGI spectacles and superheroics to put asses in seats. Genre fans looking for something new need to turn to the smaller screen, as Absentia is available for purchase, or rental through Redbox, iTunes, Amazon and other VOD services.