Absentia is a 2011 horror film written and directed by Mike Flanagan. The story concerns the pregnant Tricia whose husband Daniel has been missing for seven years. Her recovering addict sister, Callie, comes to support her as she prepares to declare him “dead in absentia. Callie’s fascination with a nearby tunnel prompts the unraveling of the mystery behind Daniel’s disappearance and how it ties into a long series of missing persons cases in the country and throughout history. More after the jump.
I’ve been campaigning for Absentia to get more attention since I first saw it a year ago. The principal photography was crowd-funded and its budget was a modest $70,000. The film demonstrates how so much can be accomplished with so little and serves as a lesson on how to make a truly effective horror movie. It deserves better and Hollywood can sure learn a lot from everything it does right.
First, the story is very character-driven. Rather than filling the footage with pretty faces pretending to be scared, Flanagan gives us real people in unreal circumstances. From the genuine, seemingly improvised dialogue between the sisters when they meet, to Callie’s very honest prayer (“Dear God, Help me get my shit together. In Jesus’ name, Amen”), to the display of grief’s many faces, the filmmaker crafts what can best be described as a very human film. Never is there any doubt, even as events turn more toward the supernatural, that these are people.
Secondly, it’s quiet. While I’m not one to deride a film for gore (I grew up on Italian horror!), I think we can all agree that splatter is never scary. Neither is your average jump scene. Fear, true fear, is created by something else. It’s that whisper in the wind. It’s that walk alone through dark streets. It’s living in a neighborhood where people go missing. It’s addiction. It’s losing a loved one. All of this is touched on here. Even as Tricia has started another relationship, so far as she’s gotten pregnant, she cannot totally let go of Daniel’s memory because she never really found out what happened to him. The characters try to rationalize, but never really come to hard conclusions, and uncertainty can be the greatest fear of all.
Thirdly, Flanagan maintains this serious tone even when the explanations turn toward the supernatural and that’s okay, because by this point, he’s sold us so far. I won’t spoil what the explanation is, but I will say it was a neat touch to what was already an intriguing movie.
I’ve recommended Absentia many times over the past year, especially when a horror fan bemoans that “they don’t make them like they used to,” and I’ll continue to suggest it until more people give it the attention it deserves.