NB: This review contains mild spoilers.
Even some of the finest horror films of recent years have an element of disappointment, for the classic reason that the evil within them is never as horrifying as the one you conceive in your mind. Despite this, it seems that commercial cinema assumes that audiences need a big reveal or they’ll go home unsatisfied; like we won’t be able to sleep at night without a nice, rounded-off conclusion which rationalises what we’ve just seen. It’s this over-protective habit of much mainstream horror that has been many a film’s undoing. Also, isn’t the point of horror – more specifically, the stern breed of horror – to make us not able to sleep at night?
Absentia was initially released in 2011 by fledgling director Mike Flanagan. It follows two sisters, Callie and Tricia, who are reunited after a family tragedy. Callie is a recovering addict. Tricia is pregnant, and preparing to officially sign her husband, Daniel, off as dead to the police, after he’s been missing (‘in absentia’) for seven years. Tricia’s guilt over accepting Daniel’s death manifests itself as nightmarish visions, while Callie’s daily jog through a dull underpass tunnel happens her upon an emaciated Doug Jones, who’s surprised that Callie can see him and rambles about a creature in the tunnel’s walls. When Daniel suddenly reappears after seven years, traumatised and memoryless, the tunnel creature isn’t far behind him.
While the blurbs and critics’ quotes you read around Absentia will point to it being the most “terrifying,” “scary” horror of the last couple of years, they don’t do justice to the film’s subtlety and poignancy. With much of it revolving around people disappearing without a trace, Absentia explores the stories those left behind make up to comfort and delude themselves that the disappeared ones are okay. The vignette technique used to depict these stories is intimate, and is also used later in a Rashomon-like way as the two sisters divergently recall a crucial event in the film.
I couldn’t help but connect the film’s theme to the news stories in recent years of people being held captive in basements, subjected to unspeakable horrors, only to suddenly re-emerge years later. The idea that behind any innocuous wall or door you walk by, people are being tormented in a dark ‘other’ place, is frightfully feasible, and Absentia plays to that, knowingly or not.
Absentia builds up briskly, offering subtle but effective chills throughout its first half. At one point, it seems like the whole thing might unravel, as Daniel reveals that the thing that held him hostage for all these years is some kind of giant insect. “Am I about to have another fine film’s mystery ruined by an unnecessary big reveal?”, I thought. “Worse still, is it going to be a giant CG insect created with some leftover Kickstarter money?”
But Flanagan proves cleverer than that, and adeptly keeps the creature in the corners of our vision. Just as the big bug never gets full clarity, neither does its purpose. Hints of a dark dimension that people can get somehow squeezed into – and talk of the conceptually tenuous nature of the atomic bonds that hold our bodies – are discomfiting, but aren’t followed through, leaving us with an uneasy, existential dread by the film’s end.
That’s not to say the film can only be appreciated on the meta-level. There are some classic, spine-tingling shocks along the way, mainly in the form of Tricia’s hallucinations, and invisible forces moving doors and shower curtains. Even if these do amount to something, the film smash-cuts to black just when it seems like we might get the big reveal.
Absentia’s cast is comprised of debutants and part-timers, but this is only noticeable in the early part of the film, where the flat acting feels like the start of an obscure soap opera. The leading ladies warm up as the film goes on however (as if inspired by Doug Jones’ cameo early in the film), and soon the puzzling plot and the director’s natural knack for horror mask the fact that you’re watching a film that was conceived as a side project.
Absentia ended up as far more than a side project. It is one of the most unsettling, surprising horrors of recent years, and rightly paved the dark path for Mike Flanagan to tackle bigger projects (his new film Oculus is just finishing a successful cinema run). Unfettered by pressures for a definite ending, Absentia unapologetically pays homage to our fear of the unexplained and the semi-explained. Let’s hope Flanagan carries that over to the mainstream films that he’s inevitably destined to direct in the future.
Absentia is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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