Toronto After Dark Review: Absentia
Review by Kayley Viteo
Of all the films to play Toronto After Dark, one of my most anticipated was the independent supernatural horror Absentia. Prior to the screening, the hype was tremendous. Touted as Toronto After Dark’s scariest film of the festival, Absentia delivers – though compared to the rest of the field, it is the only film of its type.
Absentia focuses on the relationship of two sisters, one a pregnant near-widow and the other a recovering drug addict. The addict, Callie (Katie Parker), returns when Tricia (Courtney Bell) is finishing the process of declaring her husband, who has been missing for 7 years, dead in absentia. As Callie helps her sister through the demanding process, she discovers a link between the substantial number of missing persons in the area and a tunnel.
When it focuses on the sister relationship, which is really the heart of the film, Absentia is at its best. Not only is the script great, but the quick dialogue is given something extra from actors Parker and Bell, who are both funny and dramatic when they need to be. The sibling relationship is realistically complex, fraught from past abandonment, which adds a level of tension to an already legitimately creepy film. Three-quarters of the way through, Absentia loses some of its steam, which I attribute largely to the scope of the film growing too large. I had no desire to spend more time with the cops, who are stereotypical at best. That being said, Absentia never really loses its creepy factor entirely. The tunnel’s always waiting – a claustrophobic, yet still expansive, reminder of the fears lurking in the dark.
Absentia succeeds in creating a scary, smart horror film even when the characters are in direct sunlight. It delivers some fantastic shocks and twists that keep the script to a fast, and pleasing, pace. Just when you think you’ve figured things out, there’s something bigger and better around the corner. If anything, the only real drag is the use of flashbacks, which I find a flawed device at best. It decreases the tension- why not just show everything in “real” time? Otherwise, you already know the result, which is really fun for no one.
What I like best about Absentia is that it is very much a mesh of sub-genres. It has thriller, supernatural and Lovecraftian elements – and all contribute to the story rather than detract. It’s admirably directed by Mike Flanagan, with the right amount of something extra to keep the story fresh, yet still restrained enough to not go overboard. The film is also powerful from the start, taking very real occurrences and compounding them into extreme fears that work on a visceral level. The effect is an unrelentingly disturbing atmosphere that ends… well, let’s just say you’ll be wanting more. One last piece of advice on this one: don’t watch the trailer. It gives away a significant shock that I think most viewers would rather experience for the first time while viewing the film.
Absentia played with the short film Nowhere Elsewhere. Unnerving and well-acted, this one had me wanting more, making it a good (if wonderfully frustrating) pairing.