Absentia

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Absentia  (2011, dir: Mike Flanagan; cast: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Scott Graham)

 

 

 

 

Tricia's husband, Daniel, disappeared seven years ago. She's still posting "Has anybody seen this man?" flyers on trees, but she's about ready to move on. She's pregnant with another man's child. She's also kinda, sorta seeing this detective. (The film intimates the unborn child is his, though that's never made clear.)

Seven years. Soon the County of Los Angeles will declare Daniel officially dead, and Tricia can begin dating detective Mallory -- openly rather than sorta, kinda.

Then Callie, Tricia's prodigal sister, returns home. Tricia and Daniel had raised the troubled Callie, a runaway druggie who left to backpack across the U.S. But Callie has cleaned up her act. She's a Christian now, in contrast to Tricia's Buddhism.

It's okay. The two sisters love and respect each other.

Then Callie notices something ominous about that creepy, dark tunnel near Tricia's home. Callie can't say for sure why it feels wrong. A homeless man babbles nonsense in the tunnel. (Is he just another homeless crazy?) A teenager leaves a plastic bag by the entrance. (What's inside -- and who is the intended recipient?)

You won't see much of That Which Lurks In The Tunnel. Absentia is minimalist horror. Its monster is intimated rather than seen in long, lingering shots. This may disappoint some gorehounds, but I found Absentia's brief, murky shots to be just right. Perfect, even.

We see shadows. Brief shots of tentacles and feelers -- a bit reptilian, a bit insectisoid. It's all very Lovecraftian. Absentia is not specifically based on a Lovecraft story, yet H.P. is clearly one of the film's inspirations.

A strong spirituality also informs Absentia. Callie lives her Christianity. She makes the mistake of reaching out to the homeless man in the tunnel, bringing him food. This lures the monster back to Tricia's home.

It seems these creatures have been abducting people for centuries, dragging them into their lair, which is both beneath the city and in another dimension of space/time.

 

 

 

Although spiritual, Absentia is never preachy. All of its characters are flawed, yet all of them -- Tricia, Callie, detective Mallory, and the deranged Daniel -- try to do the right thing. But these Cthulhuian creatures -- who move through the walls of houses unlucky enough to overlap their dimensions -- are more than most, even good-hearted, mortals can handle.

Absentia's dramatic minimalism is supported by its soundtrack. We hear sound effects that may or may not be monsters -- discreet, difficult-to-identify noises. It sorta sounds like an insect? The music consists of simple, moody melodies that simultaneously support the film's domestic strife and enhance the creepy atmosphere.

Part of Absentia's strength is that its domestic story (of sisters and lovers and estranged spouses -- and their emotional conflicts) is well interwoven with its tale of Lovecraftian creatures. The fear and anger engendered on those two dramatic levels support, and play off of, each other. When Callie reports seeing a giant insect, Tricia blows up at Callie, suspecting her of regressing to her drug habits. "The last time you saw insects, they were crawling under your arm!"

Director/writers Mike Flanagan is a master of minimalist horror. His short film, Oculus, was set in one brightly lit room, most of the "action" occurring between a man and a mirror. (Both that mirror, and the star of Oculus -- Scott Graham -- make cameo appearances in Absentia.)

Oculus drew much of its tension from its script and acting, and Absentia likewise excels in those areas. The film's entire cast is well above average.

I wonder if distributors are wary of Flanagan's low-key style. Absentia's early poster (bottom, left) effectively captures the film's suggestive atmosphere. Not so its new poster (bottom, right).

 

        

 

The early poster was created before the film was finished, to raise funds. I suspect Flanagan helped design it, because it better represents the film's tone and vision. The latter poster looks like something a distributor created to suggest a "juicier" story. Apart from its false, overly lurid imagery, the new poster also falsely shows hands, rather than tentacles, dragging off people.

The early poster is more honest -- and creeper. If you prefer suggestive creeps as opposed to in-your-face gore, you should like Absentia.

 

 

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