Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Distributed by: Second Sight
Trisha [Courtney Bell] is still somewhat in limbo since her husband Daniel [Morgan Peter Brown] went missing some time ago. Her sister Callie [Katie Parker] comes to stay for a few days, and together they help to have Daniel declared “Dead in Absentia”. This is when Trisha starts to have nightmarish visions of her dead husband, and Callie encounters a strange man inside a nearby tunnel who asks her to “trade…”
Every now and again there comes a movie that digs it’s claws into it’s audience’s mind so much deeper than an lot of others do. I say it’s the vulnerability within the characters, which make them such empathetic persons, hence getting inside the audience mind. I say it’s this vulnerability and values the characters hold that make them such easy characters to have emotional recognitions with. I say it’s emotional recognition that’s the key to great horror. If I feel for the characters, and believe what is happening to them, the effect of everything that happens to them is so much more intense.
It’s an understatement to say that independent filmmaker, writer, director, editor Mike Flanagan has created a great movie. A movie that seeps into the mind of the audience, playing tricks on them through some impressive storytelling and well disposed manipulations. Low-key effects and cunning camera deception make it a sublime haunting. It’s the kind of movie that makes me drool mentally, and going back to check details, I ended up being drawn in once more whilst still having a great time watching the movie all over again.
Movies that want to take their audience on a dark haunting journey need to set up values and familiarity before plunging into a world of horror. Yes, I’m once again talking about setting up the ordinary world. Returning readers will know that this is what I consider a vital cornerstone to all good horror movies. Sell me the real world, make me believe that what you want to show me, and I’ll follow you anywhere. The set up of Absentia is phenomenal, I’m drawn in by the characters, discover their vulnerability, watch them struggle with everyday haunts, empathise with them as I learn their human traits, before the horrors are unleashed, and I realize that the transition from ordinary world into the supernatural realm has been a flawless one.
Four key ingredients are presented in the opening minutes of Absentia. The exterior of the tunnel where the title card is placed and moments later, it’s cobwebby interior. Trisha is out re-posting the “missing” flyers featuring Daniel’s face. When she gets back home, her sister Callie has arrived for a visit, earlier than intended. A brief chat later, and we have some kind of insight into the ordinary world that these characters live in. The pregnant Trisha is seeking some kind of closure from the disappearance of her husband Daniel, and Callie is a restless soul. One can feel somewhat of an animosity between the two, which will sit there brooding until later on in the movie.
Dialogue between the two women explores their relationship further, and we understand that Callie has been in and out of rehab for drug and drinking related problems, Callie obviously had no idea Trisha was pregnant. It’s been six years since the last met, and not only do they have a spontaneous relationship with each other, they obviously have a somewhat blemished relationship with their mother too. It’s more or less the same problems both you and I deal with on a regular basis, family beefs, internal struggles and toils of life. Now we not only have an insight into their world, but we now also know the “flaws” that make them human and believable too.
Releasing scares upon an audience is a moment that can make or break a movie. You can either start to build, with strings and cues, letting the audience in on the game and have them wind themselves’ up, or you can simply let the shocks rip through and have them stand on their own. I’ve noticed a trend of “when you see it, it fucks you up” aesthetics similar to those of the J-horror used when that broke internationally. Moments when the camera hangs in a scene and you expect some kind of cue proclaiming the antagonist pounce, but instead it turns out that the “antagonist” is already in frame, which gives a hell of a freaky scare when you see it already there and caught you with your guard down. This is how Flanagan builds his tense atmosphere, by slowly bringing us in to the realm, and then unleashing the horror on us. Yes, there are classic jump scares that will keep you on edge, but also a lot of assault shocks, with no builds, no cues, just wham! It will grind you down, because it get’s intense, but there’s also a hidden agenda behind this cunning deception.
With that said, I should point out that the ghost of Daniel first makes an appearance after the two sisters together burn the remaining “missing” posters. When Trisha takes that final step towards being free from her past with Daniel, the guilt that comes with it ignites the nightmares. It’s guilt that starts messing with her mind. Again, a key ingredient to innovative horror, guilt, and I love that Flanagan even has a scene where Trisha’s psychologist makes a point of the nightmares being a result of her guilt…
Here a fascinating thing happens, the jump-scares become part of the world Trisha is in. Where one commonly would expect a jump-scare and key shocks the ghost is merely reduced to a figment of Trisha’s imagination - her guilt - and therefore he makes no threat to her. The ghost can be in the scene with Trisha and other, but poses no threat. This is a beguiling display of how one can bring things in from a supernatural world and make them part of the natural one if you make the transition a reasonable one.
Then comes a fine twist to Absentia, where Trisha comes to insight and reason with the ghost she sees, Callie is confronted by ghosts of her own. During one of her daily runs, she encounters a man [Doug Jones] grey and worn out by exhaustion, in the tunnel from the opening titles. Although this man is obviously not a ghost, he’s something completely else, and he asks her to “trade”. It set’s off a whole parallel storyline that runs next to Trisha’s own experiences. Focus is somewhat shifted and Callie takes on a larger part in the narrative.
At times I talk of something called the contrast frame, and it goes something along the lines of presenting two options where one be more absurd than then next which helps sell the original one. One of the best examples is found in John Carpenter’s The Thing 1982, where MacReady after seeing the space craft theorises “ So it crashes, and this guy, whoever he is, gets thrown out, or walks out, and ends up freezing.”. Childs jumps right in declaring it’s all “voodoo bullshit” before Palmer goes off on a stoned rant about extra terrestrials all ready here, that they “taught the Incas everything they knew” and even goes so far as claiming the president is an alien… hence giving the result that we buy into MacReadys suggestion no matter how absurd it may seem, because the president couldn’t be an alien, could he?
I find traces of a variant of the contrast frame in Absentia. We have an explanation for the ghost Trisha sees, but none for the one Callie encounters. With no other explanation except whatever we have imagined ourselves, and the lack of answering the question of what the mystery with the tunnel is or what resides there we go for the closest most reasonable answer, which leads us to accept the theory Callie has presented. All the research she does leads to a shocking insight, hence the abundance of “Missing” posters, both human and pets all around the neighbourhood outside the tunnel. But don’t get your hopes up for a conventional closure to the mystery here, because there are still some hefty twists to come.
Remember that I mentioned an animosity sensed between the sisters in their meeting at the beginning of the movie? Well that comes back to the story when Callie’s “junkie” backstory is spilled wide open to create sceptic character of Trisha. My jaw hit the floor at this point! Because it’s outstanding to bring a sceptic character this far into the narrative, especially one who we would presume to rally up behind Callie and support her theory. As Trisha has been seeing “ghosts” of her own, one would think her to believe her sister’s story, or at least be more open minded about Callie’s tale. Instead she choses not to, and blames it all on drugs. Callie’s backstory and history with substance abuse is brought into light and now empathise even further with her. The emotional recognition of what Callie is experiencing – not being believed despite being right - is where we connect. Now we really want Callie to expose what the mystery with the tunnel is all about, at any costs, reveal it, solve it, save the day.
There’s an interesting subplot with Detective Ryan Mallory [Dave Levine], who is important to the narrative on more than one way. His importance to the story also puts a spin on themes already discussed.
Editing is flawless, time is valuable when it comes to movies, and crap pacing can wreck everything. It’s to an advantage to loose everything one doesn’t need. Without spoiling anything, you can find a solid example of this in the scene where Trisha talks face to face to Daniel’s parents. Timing, acting, deliverance and editing all come together in a perfect crescendo and the result is heart breaking – one can feel the tension, despair and anguish in that room.
Ryan David Leack’s score! Damn I like that score, it set’s a tone which more or less opens an expressway to your heart and soul, and when it’s prepared that road, it starts vibrating with a sinister vibe. It really suits the movie, and this is one of the perks of independent filmmakers, they frequently hook up with composers and musicians burning with the same passion for their craft as they are, and together they become a strong force to rely on.
I could probably use Absentia in my everyday storytelling examples because this is one hell of a well-crafted movie that deserves every piece of attention it gets. Do not be fooled by reviews that didn’t see the magnificence of this piece. This is an impressive movie, and Mike Flanagan is from now on a name that I’ll be keeping tags on.
I’m not going to mention that Absentia is shot on a pretty small budget, and financed partially through a kickstarter programme, because it never really comes off as a low budget movie. The acting is grand, Katie Parker and Morgan Peter Brown both give great performances as tormented souls, and its neat to see Doug Jones in a small part and out of special effects makeup and suits. Courtney Bell’s real pregnancy is wonderful and brings a whole new level of vulnerability to her character, and thank god she’s really pregnant, because there’s something about the way women move when they are pregnant that no one ever get’s down in the right way.
Taking a “What if” cue from the old Norwegian fairy tale De tre bukken Bruse (Three Billy Goats Gruff) written by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the late 1800’s, there’s a brooding despair that grows within this movie, a slow moving nightmare that slowly seeps into our world and into our consciousness. I’d also like to connect this film with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, as the way Flanagan uses things that lurk in the dark, glimpses in the corners of the eye and things that move between dimensions, reminds me of the same rhetoric that Lovecraft used to describe his ancient ones. Needless to say I loved every minute of Absentia, and I'm already looking forward to the next time I watch it, and that's without me getting into the symbolism and small details I've found so far. From gloomy drama, the movie shifts into dark urban fairy tale that keeps throwing unexpected twists at its audience all the time. There are some really haunting moments in Absentia and films that take an unexpected path are rare things these days. It that scared the crap out of me, totally took me captive in its narrative, and left me with strong emotions as the end credits hit the screen.
Absentia is certainly one of the best indie genre movies I’ve seen this year. Genuinely creepy, it simply knocked me down. I fell for all the classic tricks and was captivated by the new ones; as far as I’m concerned this is an innovative future masterpiece of contemporary horror. In the years to come, people will seek out Absentia and wonder how the hell they missed it the first time around. Make sure you see it now and not later.
Absentia is due to be released by Second Sight in the UK on the 9th of July.