Some years are so stacked with excellent horror movies that it takes pleasurable effort to keep up with them all; in others, there are so few even passable releases that fans are left desperate for any morsel studios deign to throw their way. In terms of recent years, 2011 was a good one. Regardless of particular taste there was something truly interesting for everyone; aside from the depressing inevitability of films such as Steven Quale’s passable ‘Final Destination 5’, Scott Spiegel’s not-awful ‘Hostel: Part 3’, and the weakest instalment in the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise, and the much underrated ‘Scream 4’, there were some truly memorable releases. For the more comically minded, 2011 played host to the scattershot, but mostly excellent, ‘Chillerama’, and the less entertaining Yorkshire-based redneck movie ‘Inbred’. We were also treated to a number of unexpectedly great, ultra-low budget gems too, like Joseph Kahn’s incredibly odd ‘Detention’, Ti West in full on spooky mode with ‘The Innkeepers’, the derivative but fun Brits-on-a-plane horror ‘Panic Button’, Lucky McKee’s very tough ‘The Woman’ and, of course, the year’s breakout smash, the uniformly excellent ‘You’re Next’. Fans were also treated to some solid contributions from elsewhere in the world: Alejandro Brugues’ ‘Juan of the Dead’ was an interesting Cuban-centric take on the zombie flick; Dutch shock-master Tom Six created a fuss with the second part of his ‘Human Centipede’ trilogy; Takashi Shimizu menaced small children with a giant stuffed rabbit in ‘Tormented’; and part time pornographer, full time insanity merchant Noburu Iguchi contributed the memorable but downright bizarre ‘Zombie Ass’. As is the pattern with modern big studio horror, there were also an unnecessary number of remake and re-imaginings that, for the most part, were poorly received although, admittedly, there was some fun to be had with the ‘Fright Night’ remake. In the middle of this bumper crop, a small, low-budget supernatural movie was released and, whilst not the mainstream success perhaps it should have been, it heralded the breakthrough of a young, interesting, and talented director; that man was Mike Flanagan, his movie ‘Absentia’.
After Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years her sister Callie moves and, with her help, she reluctantly signs the legal paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia. Trying to move on with her life, Tricia is haunted by vivid dreams and strange hallucinations featuring her missing husband. Dismissed as simply guilt by her therapist, Tricia is not convinced, believing it to somehow be a sign from him. When her sister has a bizarre encounter with a stranger at a nearby tunnel, threads start to connect with other missing people, the sisters’ personal demons come into play, and they begin to wonder if the tunnel is more than it first appears.
Mike Flanagan will be far better known to contemporary audiences now through the release of the excellent ‘Oculus’, which is both structurally and stylistically similar to ‘Absentia’. He is clearly a director who understands the genre on a thematic level; much like ‘Oculus’ this is not a movie for horror fans whose interest extends little beyond violence and gore. Rather it is a movie in which the narrative plays second fiddle to the characterisation, and it is here that the director truly excels; the central conceits, a haunted location and mysterious disappearances, are not new but in focussing closely on key relationships it transcends expectation and sits squarely in the middle of the very best supernatural movies of the decade.
‘Absentia’ is, without doubt, divisive; it is a slow-burn piece, often languid in nature, and there is little in the way of narrative closure. The conclusion is left to the audience and, as the best genre movies are, it is haunting and atmospheric. Much like the more recent ‘Under The Skin’, Flanagan’s camera is unflinching and, through lighting and muted palettes, he paints the familiar world an ethereal and sinister place at night. This feeling of dread extends to the audience and is further supported by some very clever sound decisions; unlike similar large budget movies, which prefer to create jump scares with a sudden, and unwelcome, blaring noise, Flanagan takes the opposite route. There are very few sound cues, few visual ones too, that something ghostly is about to happen and ‘Absentia’ is far better for it. He clearly is a director who understands that discerning horror fans appreciate atmosphere above most other things and he delivers in spades; it is a constantly uncomfortable, nervous experience, and one that is haunting to watch. When a shot of a single shoe is one of the movie’s most affecting moments, it is difficult to argue that ‘Absentia’ is not a masterclass in suspense and audience manipulation from a director who fully understands his craft.
The cast are uniformly great too. Lead role Tricia is played by actress Courtney Bell, relatively unknown, who creates a heroine who is immediately sympathetic. As a woman torn between old loyalties to a lover lost long ago, and guilt at her own desire to move on with her life, she is incredibly relatable and gives a nuanced performance here. The standout performance here is Katie Parker who, as Callie, is asked to give a simultaneously strident yet flawed, subtle yet at times overwrought and overbearing, character breathing space to be sympathetic too; in this, she excels. Able support is provided by James Flanagan, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, and genre stalwart Doug Jones. It is testament to Flanagan’s regard for his cast here that many of them crop up in, admittedly lesser, roles in ‘Oculus’.
‘Absentia’ was a success on release but did not find the audience it deserved; Second Sight are now releasing the movie on Blu-Ray with extra bonus content to augment the visual and audio remasters. Firstly, the film looks terrific and is reason alone to upgrade from DVD; whilst there is some grain at points, this comes from the original source. Beyond that the muted colours are clean and striking, the close-up shorts show good levels of detail, and the blacks – so key to the film’s feel – are inky and deep. The audio has also been brushed up and, whilst it is not as striking an improvement over the original home video release, the effort is welcome, with ambient noises adding further to the atmosphere. The tent pole special features here are dual commentaries, one with Flanagan, and producers Morgan Peter Brown, Joe Wicker and Justin Gordon, and the second with Flanagan again, and stars Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, and Doug Jones; both shed interesting insight into the production and process, but the real gold is in the cast commentary where their passion for the project is clear through interesting anecdotes and entertaining interplay. There is also an excellent documentary about the initial release and reception, called ‘Absentia: A Retrospective’, some deleted scenes and short camera test footage. For such a low-budget production, it is pleasing to see it get such respectful treatment.
‘Absentia’ is a great movie; Mike Flanagan’s success with his follow up ‘Oculus’ will hopefully persuade those who missed its original release to check it out now. It is not a flat-out, aggressive, violent bloodbath and, as such, some genre fans will fail to see its charms. To expect such things from it is to do it a disservice however; it is, in actuality, more a rumination of the paralysing power of grief, the desperation of lost love, and the bonds of family. It is scary in an unsettling way and has a creepy vibe that is difficult to shake; whilst the pacing is slow, Flanagan’s commitment to character and his refusal to pander to lowest common denominator filmmaking is to be applauded. He is one of the most interesting, intelligent genre directors coming through the ranks and with Second Sight’s excellent Blu-Ray re-release, there’s never been a better time to catch up with ‘Absentia’. Highly recommended.
Audio / Visual: 4/5
Special Features: 4/5
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