by Jason Coffman
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Even with the explosion of independent horror films and the new types of distribution out there for these films, there are far too few female-centric, relationship-driven horror films. This type of film is ideal for independent filmmakers on a budget— if your central relationship is well-written and strongly acted, you’re most of the way to a solid, memorable film. Writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Absentia is a great example of this kind of film, a seriously creepy take on the haunted house film that strikes a nice balance between character development and scares.
Tricia (Courtney Bell) lives alone in the house she shared with her husband Dan (Morgan Peter Brown), who disappeared seven years ago. As she walks the neighborhood, visibly pregnant, Tricia replaces the “MISSING” signs for Dan with the last batch she had printed. Her sister Callie (Katie Parker), fresh from a lengthy road trip and trying to get clean, arrives to help Tricia fill out the paperwork to declare Dan dead “in absentia,” pack up her belongings and find a new place to live away from the painful memories of the house they shared. The sisters each have surprises for each other: Callie is surprised to find her sister is tentatively entering into a relationship with Detective Mallory (Dave Levine), the police detective investigating Dan’s case, and Tricia is surprised to find Callie is trying Christianity on for size.
As the sisters try to adjust to living together again, Tricia has the added stress of nightmares of Dan reappearing. Before long, these nightmares are bleeding into daytime reality, as Tricia begins seeing Dan in unexpected places. Callie has her own weird experiences with an ominous tunnel near Tricia’s house, where she finds a haggard, panicked man (Doug Jones) who desperately tries to get her to relay a message to someone. As Tricia and Callie’s experiences become more unsettling and potentially dangerous, Callie begins to suspect a supernatural creature is terrorizing the sisters and the neighborhood, but Tricia is convinced it’s all in her head. And unfortunately, the police agree, leaving Callie on her own to confront something she cannot understand.
Absentia wrings serious mileage out of a strong series of creepy dreams and upsetting appearances of Daniel in Tricia’s everyday life. The film opens with many open questions and answers many of them related to the characters, but leaves the exact nature of its supernatural menace maddeningly vague. For the most part, however, this is fine— Absentia is more about the relationship between Tricia and Callie than anything outside their home. Courtney Bell and Katie Parker both give strong performances, and their characters’ relationship is the heart of the film. The mostly simple makeup and effects in Absentia are mostly subtle and carefully deployed, an effective tactic that prevents the creepiness from overshadowing the shifting dynamics of the sisters’ relationship.
Mike Flanagan paces the film strongly, giving the audience just enough time to settle in with the sisters before the weirdness begins creeping in. Giving the audience that time to get to know the characters is key to Absentia’s success. While some audiences may feel the film’s pacing is perhaps too deliberate, the film’s thick atmosphere of dread and daylight scares will hopefully gain Absentia the attention it deserves. This is one of the best independent horror features of the year, and is worth tracking down for any serious horror fan.
Phase 4 Films released Absentia on DVD on 13 March 2012. Special features include deleted scenes, “making of” featurette, camera test trailer, and feature-length commentary.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and is a regular contributor to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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