We begin with a Missing Person poster, brown with age, torn and hanging from its place on a telephone pole being replaced by a new, fresh version. A sad, pregnant woman with a bag full of posters moves onto the next spot and repeats the ritual. The man has been missing for seven years and something is very wrong with this picture.
It is a beautifully shot introduction, showing rather than telling us the story before us, and with Absentia director Mike Flanagan has created a genuinely haunting film, an intelligent, modern horror story which evokes unease with some inspired visuals and a tight narrative brought to life by a compelling cast.
It’s the kind of film you want all budding filmmakers to end up with – something tangible, original and effective, one which blows the competition, saddled with soaring budgets and low audience expectation, out of the water. It reminded me of Shane Caruth’s Primer from 2004, and this gets close to doing for horror what that film did for sci-fi in that it took a classic element of the genre (in Primer’s case it was time-travel, in Absentia’s case it in a portal to Hell) and creating something new and exciting.
Dealing with the fallout of traumatic and life changing events brings together two sisters
who decide to begin their lives anew and move on, but it is not that simple. There are unanswered questions for both. One of the sisters is the pregnant woman Tricia, whose husband went missing seven years ago, and her sister is recovering from a drug addiction and whose grip on reality is questionable. They reunite as Tricia is about to sign the official papers declaring her husband dead in absentia.
The only problem is that Tricia is seeing her husband’s ghost everywhere, and he is not letting her forget him. As Callie moves in with her pregnant sister she becomes convinced that a nearby tunnel may play some part in the string of disappearances in the area, including that of Tricia’s husband.
Made for around $30,000 and funded in part by the Kickstarter project, Absentia is an dark urban fairy tale whose inspirations appear to be as wide ranging as Noah Baumbach and Guillermo del Toro, and Mike Flanagan has made some extremely wise decisions in bringing this film to the screen. Not least his casting choices allow us to buy into the story immediately, with Courtney Bell and Katie Parker totally convincing as reunited siblings each dealing with their own heartbreak.
Tricia’s guilt at signing her husband’s death certificate (and having a relationship with the Detective who investigated the disappearance) is not conveyed in long, exposition heavy scenes of dialogue – the film is far too smart for that – Flanagan’s other wise decision was to credit the audience with an intelligence and natural curiosity. We are encouraged to question the film and the images and ideas it presents us with. Are Callie’s theories about the disappearances the product of her drug withdrawal, is Callie seeing her husband in the house? Dreams fall into reality, paranoia bleeds into rationality and ghosts become flesh at the most unexpected moment.
It is a tale told with an assured sense of confidence and a real understanding of the basics of cinema as well as horror. I was drawn in by the sizzle reel on Youtube, which contained some truly memorable and terrifying images, I was intrigued by the official trailer which followed some time later, and the completed film makes good on the promise shown. The sound design is especially impressive with low ghostly mumblings and resonant echoing of footsteps adding a substantial depth to the world.
Special mention has to be made of actor Doug Jones. Not only did his tweet alert me to the film in the first place, but his appearance as a returned missing person could have been horribly overplayed and proved ruinous to the film. Instead his performance is pitch perfect, his delivery of the simple line ‘You can see me?’ is truly unsettling and the best example of a cast who never resort to cliche to tell their story, a tenet shared by those behind the camera.
Some may find fault with the near continuous soundtrack, but I found it adds to the disquieting effect of the story unfolding on screen, layering on an, at times almost silent, oppressive element perfectly in accord with the dark path the narrative walks. It is, like almost everything else in Absentia, deliberately understated, and benefits from the director’s decision to ask the audience to fill in the details – a tactic which the Saw franchise in particular has blunted in the last decade. Effective horror lays on a very possible version of reality with a few important differences, in Absentia the trauma of a missing loved one is given a supernatural spin, but is delivered and told through the everyday arguments and of the characters dealing with the very ordinary uncertainties of life. Nothing is more terrifying than a single alien element in a completely normal place.
This is an exciting time for independent film and Mike Flanagan’s film is a rich, effective and original horror film, and I’m hoping will get itself on the festival circuit this year and then see a decent release. I was hooked from the first time I saw footage from the film and I’ve got a feeling that like the Arbus twins from The Shining there are some images here that will always have the power to scare me, as well as remind me of the power and passion of independent cinema. I hope that soon you get that chance too, keep in touch with the film here and we’ll bring you news of a release as soon as it happens.
Update: Good news – we’ve just found out that the UK DVD comes out on the 9th of July. Grab yourself a copy.