3 out of 5
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Low budget horror has motivated the creation of some pretty great things over the years, whether it’s splatter-fests that go gonzo or flicks that put their lack of monetary resources into emphasizing a creepy mood, but budget-related or not, there’s a splinter of horror that thinks we’ve gotten too showy in our modern age, and so wants to highlight the Lovecraftian dread of The Unknown. While this can go hand in hand with the creepy mood category, its not strictly tied to it; you can do creepy without the unknown, and you can do the unknown with a budget. Whatever the arrangement, if you’re going for the mysterious shtick, it requires a level of balance to maintain audience interest: How much do we tell / show?
Absentia is definitely going for this genre of the unexplained, and at 70,000 bucks, it’s also definitely low budget. Unfortunately, I think it makes some missteps in regards to both, by under-doing the show/tell and by letting some budgetary aspects hamper the environment.
Tricia’s husband has been missing for several years. We join her at the film’s start putting up missing flyers, waddling through her neighborhood, quite pregnant. When she returns home, she finds her sister, Callie, waiting, visiting after a long period that’s filled-in-the-blanks with drug use, rehab, and Christianity.
The missing flyers turn out to be something of a final goodbye; Daniel has been gone long enough to be declared legally dead – in absentia – and Callie is there to help with the final steps and assist with her sister moving out of the neighborhood.
There’s a long underpass near the house through which Callie jogs in the mornings, and after a disturbing interaction with a derelict in there – who seems surprised that Callie can see him – strange things start happening around the house. Noises, movements. Tricia is seeing visions of her husband lurking in the background in typical horror garb: Gaunt skin, black eye makeup. And maybe he’s not done with Tricia yet, and maybe there’s something more to that tunnel…
The overall direction Absentia takes, meaning the big plot points, aren’t so surprising once the basic elements have been put in place. But that’s fine; crafting some twisty turny plot doesn’t seem to be Mike Flanagan’s intent, so much as casting the confusing and unresolvable nature of loss through a horror lens. This the movie does well. One of the more appreciable aspects is that Flanagan has the characters explain potential reasons for what’s happening (that don’t involve gaunt ghosts) and shows it in chopped up “flashbacks,” the mind making sense of things. Because what we’re shown is minimal, this is really effective: The explanations are completely reasonable; the character has to decide whether or not to be satisfied with the lack of a definitive answer. But because its a horror movie, we’re also shown things to purposefully confound these explanations. And here’s where the juggling act becomes a bit of a stretch: Flanagan tosses both too much and too little into the pile. Money constraints require the creeps to come from off-screen sources, which works for the “what’s in the dark room” scare but feels like a cheat when you shoot people looking wide-eyed at something we can’t see (and won’t see); to up the ante of that unseen, Callie spins a wild tale about what’s going on, but it’s way too late in the game to be effective. It’s last ditch exposition that ends up being entirely unnecessary. To then pad out the runtime between start and finish, we get an excessive amount of ghost husband shots, which feel out of place in the otherwise slowburn flick, and come up too often to be effective.
The indie cast conducts themselves well enough, and even though some of the character beats are also runtime padding, I appreciate how Flanagan imbued their existence with history, but let that flow sort of organically over the course of the film. The setting is also a highlight, limited to the house, the tunnel, and an interrogation room. Spending all of our time there allows the environments some breathing room to come across as real spaces, and Flanagan plays with lighting and mood so that things flip-flop between being mundane or creepy as the plot demands.
Absentia’s imaginative approach to a ghost story had a lot going for it considering its budget, but the 90 minute runtime allows too much plot padding and rough edges to show, dispersing the sense of dread that could have been maintained more effectively for a short film.