Saturday, September 1, 2012

ABSENTIA (2011) Kickstarts Indie Horror

Absentia (2011)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8/10

Every year at Nevermore, there's one film that I miss and later on hear great things about. Absentia was that film in 2012. If I could go back in time, I wouldn't have a second thought about exchanging my experience with Eaters for this one. I learned after watching the credits that it was also partially crowd-funded via Kickstarter, which makes it even more impressive. Director Mike Flanagan has put a lot of effort into making this film happen. Rather than letting budgetary limitations hold his vision back, he's made the wise decision to play with the unseen to invoke anxiety. Along the way, his film deals with some pretty complex themes and simultaneously some pretty horrifying ideas.

Absentia opens with a young pregnant woman named Tricia posting missing person flyers for her husband, Daniel. Daniel has been missing for nearly seven years, and Tricia is in the process of having him declared legally dead, "in absentia". To help Tricia deal with the late stages of her pregnancy, her sister Callie moves in with her. Callie's something of a nomad, and has recently recovered from a period of drug abuse with the help of her newly adopted Christian faith. As the legal deadline approaches, Tricia begins to have dreams of Daniel, who looks more like a starved apparition than his normal self. These dream sequences are really nicely composed - it was during the first one that I realized that this movie looks good! There are a few fallbacks to jump scares, which I am usually not a huge fan of, but a couple in particular are done really well. By the time most occur, you're too invested in the characters to notice.

While Tricia is having nightmares, Callie is enjoying sobriety and life in her new neighborhood. One day while on a morning run, she encounters a strange man lurking in an tunnel that passes underneath the nearby highway. He's in bad shape, and mutters about something "sleeping". Callie quickly asks herself "what would Jesus do?" and brings the man back some food, but by the time she returns there's no trace of him, save for a pile of small trinkets, and what look to be broken watch pieces.

Things get even stranger quickly, but I'd rather not spoil too much. Needless to say, there is a link between the eerie tunnel and Daniel's disappearance. As the plot continues to deepen, Tricia and Callie learn that there may be vast malevolent forces at work behind the scenes. This film is something of a slow burn, and it takes its time allowing us to get to know the characters. That turns out to be one of the strengths of this film. When things become dark, we're way more attached to these fully-developed people than we would be to your generic pack of teenagers.

At its heart, Absentia is about dealing with loss and uncertainty in the face of the universe's indifference. The world in this film is run by unseen forces only tangentially aware of humanity's existence. Real life can be vicious too, and we're all at some point going to experience inexplicable loss in one form or another. We can try to escape the futility that we feel in the face of tragedy, but in the end, no amount of religion, drugs, or support from others is going to be strong enough to shelter us from this cosmic horror. It's a hard truth to face, and an even harder one to weave into a story, but Absentia handles it surprisingly well.

In short, Absentia is an impressively shot film with a great soundtrack and a mature take on some deep themes. Its low budget only occasionally shows. While it falls back onto some cliches now and then, most of the time it's willing to give you some credit as an intelligent viewer. This ultimate lack of an explicit answer to its questions was a wise decision, as it keeps the film from falling into the trap of an endgame info-dump. Both lead actresses handle their roles superbly, resulting in a depth of humanity that's leaps and bounds above most horror. If you're impatient, this may not be the film for you, but in that case, you may be better off checking out Detention, which is very nearly the stylistic polar opposite of Absentia.

After looking at the cast and crew's hilarious Kickstarter promo videos, I wish I could go back in time and give them some money. Instead, all I can do at this point is offer my recommendation. Absentia is currently streaming on Netflix, so go check it out (ignore the silly Quarantine knock-off poster) and support indie horror!


  1. I LOVE this movie, so glad to see it getting some love from you as well. It's very Lovecraftian, which seems to get overlooked in most reviews but I'd heard about that aspect and it's what made me give it a shot on instant watch. :)

    1. Glad you liked this film too - I've been noticing positive reviews slowly pop up in lots of other blogs. I also liked the Lovecraftian element, and was impressed by how well the filmmakers pulled it off. Not an easy thing to do, especially on a low budget!