DVD Review: Absentia (2011)

Posted on June 25, 2012 by Ben

Review by Ben Bussey

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Okay, pardon my Meg Ryan moment, but I assure you it’s warranted. Films like Absentia are the very reason us nerdy web-critics get into writing these reviews; the reason we invite distributors and PR agents to flood our letterboxes with screener DVDs for films that we’ve heard little or nothing about; the reason we exalt independent filmmaking. That position is often sorely tested, believe you me. So many microbudget features from unknown and/or relatively inexperienced filmmakers turn out to be so worthless and incompetent that we come to dread the arrival of the screener we’ve never heard of, automatically expecting the worst.

But those rare occasions when we find on the doormat a DVD which leaves us asking why we hadn’t heard of it already – those are moments to cherish. So it is with writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Absentia. It’s digitally shot with no big names and not much money, but everything about it radiates professionalism, and even a hint of real innovation. It’s truly one of the most unique and sophisticated horror films I’ve seen all year, enough to put most recent genre releases to shame.

Recovering drug addict Callie (Katie Parker) comes to stay with her sister Tricia (Courtney Bell), marking the first time the two have seen each other in some time. And a rough time it has been, as seven years earlier Tricia’s husband Daniel disappeared without a trace. With no explanation of where he has gone or why, whether he is alive or dead, Tricia has naturally tried to move on with her life; she’s even pregnant, though she’s reticent to let Callie know anything about the father. With her sister’s support, Tricia has decided it’s finally time to declare Daniel dead in absentia. But as they get to filling in the paperwork and boxing up artefacts from the marriage, Tricia finds herself experiencing visions, waking nightmares of a phantom figure. Perhaps these are just the psychological manifestations of residual guilt, but perhaps not, as Callie too has been seeing strange things, mostly in the tunnel nearby; a frail figure (Doug Jones) who’s there one moment, gone the next, and scurrying, insect-like noises…

From the premise, you might anticipate something reminiscent of J-horror; or from the hints of something insect-related (and, of course, the presence of Doug Jones), the influence of Guillermo del Toro might be apparent. These are both valid points of reference, but somehow Absentia really does stand apart as something quite distinct and different. A big part of what makes it so refreshing in the climate of modern low-budget horror is that it sets out to tell an interesting story in an understated fashion, and is successful in doing so. That might seem like faint praise, but it really isn’t. So many contemporary genre efforts have similar aspirations, but fall short through poor casting, writing and direction, and concessions to expectation. Absentia succeeds in that it places character and drama first, and has actors more than up to the task. Cheap thrills and shock tactics are cast aside in favour of real emotional content, which can of course be so much more unnerving when done well – as it most certainly is here. Katie Parker and Courtney Bell (the latter having been actually pregnant at the time of shooting) more than convince as sisters, with the standard melange of love, shared experience and mistrust that goes with that territory. Neither their performances nor Flanagan’s script try to spell everything out for us in black and white, leaving a great deal left unsaid and crediting the viewer with enough intelligence to fill in the blanks. This goes not only for their relationship, but also the circumstances under which Daniel disappeared, and the nature of the phenomena both sisters encounter. Like vintage Stephen King, Absentia allows us plenty of time to get to know the characters and get invested in their lives, and only then does it start to throw the weird shit into the mix.

As for just what this weird shit is; again, the film does not spell it all out in black and white. No special effects film, this, and while the presence of the supernatural is strongly hinted, a great deal of what occurs is left open to interpretation. Indeed, a predominant theme in the film seems to be the ways in which individual viewpoints affect our interpretations of events. Tricia doubts her visions as her therapist tells her they are simply products of her own subconscious; Callie, meanwhile, is not always deemed a reliable witness because of her drug history. Religion also rears its head, with Buddhist Tricia meditating on freedom from earthly attachment, whilst born-again Christian Callie prays to Mother Mary to help her get her shit together (her words; Callie’s, that is, not Mary’s). The straight-laced voice of reason comes from Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine), the cop assigned to Daniel’s disappearance. As to which, if any of these perspectives are correct, in the film, as in life, there are no clear-cut definitive answers. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I can’t help pondering whether the film’s core motif of the tunnel might not be a nod to the concept of reality tunnels, coined by Timothy Leary and drawn upon by Robert Anton Wilson; the notion that we all exist within our own individual ‘tunnels’ based on our own experiences and beliefs, and that these invariably narrow our line of sight, twisting ‘reality’ to our own worldview regardless of whether we intend it to do so.

Anyway, sidestepping such philosophical notions, Absentia shouldn’t just stand to reaffirm the potential of modern indie horror filmmaking; it may also serve as a very good advert for Kickstarter. The crowdfunding website has risen in prominence of late – for example, it was utilised to help complete Screaming In High Heels (to which, in the interests of disclosure, I myself contributed) – but opinions are divided on its merits. In this instance, I’d say it was definitely money well pledged, Absentia having reputedly raised over a third of its budget through Kickstarter. I must say, in these days of ten-minute end credit sequences that are 75% CG animators, it’s really quite refreshing to see a film with barely a minute of end credits, a good portion of which is taken up listing the names of all the Kickstarter contributors.

Biggest credit of all must of course go to Mike Flanagan. As writer, director, producer and editor, he and his comparatively tiny crew have put together a film that is as aesthetically pleasing as it is personally involving. It may not be to all tastes, given the slow-burn pace and the absence of gore and titilation, but it really is a film that stands apart from most modern horror, skillfully and artfully made, surely boding well for Flanagan’s future career. I gather he and his team already have a few more productions in the works, and I very much look forward to hearing more about them. Here’s hoping for many more unexpected gems like this one.

Absentia is released to Region 2 DVD on 9th July, from Second Sight Entertainment.