Though he’s a horror darling these days, in 2011 Mike Flanagan was just getting started. His first feature, Absentia, was a critical hit on the festival circuit, and with good reason. Though it’s been somewhat overshadowed by his later efforts (Oculus, Hush, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House), Flanagan’s debut film is a pleasantly freaky movie, squeezing an impressive amount of atmosphere and effective scares out of a meager $70,000 budget. Those looking for outlandish special effects and other studio-money embellishments should seek other fare, but fans of psychological terror and personal hauntings will find that this film has been crafted just for you.
Absentia is a taught psychological foray into the mind of a woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell), who is about to declare her husband, vanished seven years past, legally dead, or, “death in absentia.” In order to face the moment when her husband will not exist in a legal sense, Tricia calls on her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) to help her in the final steps of moving out and moving on. But when strange things start happening in a neighborhood where “things go missing,” old wounds are opened between the sisters and the tension skyrockets. And there’s something strange about the tunnel across the road.
At first it seems that Absentia will adhere to predictable horror beats, but then comes a wicked punch to the chin that follows with a few other revelations soaring in from left field. The story continues to work these interesting angles and relies on atmosphere and mystery rather than violence, shock value, or profound digital visuals. Flanagan plays on sinister, old folklore then turns it around to make it his own. There are times when the plot advances based only on conjecture, but the pacing is spot-on and makes even the weak moments work. Following a tried and true horror storytelling technique, the film shows as little as possible while spinning the mystery. As the climax crawls nearer and nearer, the audience knows that something is going on, can feel that something is lurking, but we can’t see the whole picture just yet. The imagination is flexed here, and that always makes a good horror story stand out.
The cast also elevates the film, despite their generally inexperienced nature, which is great considering Absentia is very much a character-driven story. Katie Parker plays the lead as comfortably charismatic, while Bell convincingly taps into the ideal image of the older, responsible put-upon sister. Their relationship as sisters feels lived-in, each of the actors conscious to maintain a sense of realism even amidst the inexplicable.
A few plot points remain somewhat murky when the credits roll, and that may mean this film should be avoided by mainstream horror fans, but Absentia is still great in that it presents a fresh idea, a compelling story, and explores themes that have not been run into the ground by lesser works. It reminds us that capable storytellers and strong performers can always serve up creepy joyrides without the big bucks.
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy
- 3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror