Starring: Kate Parker, Courtney Bell, David Levine
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
On the back of the box office success of his haunted mirror flick Oculus, writer-director Mike Flanagan’s first foray into horror, Absentia (fond of those Latinate titles, are we, Mr Flanagan?) now gets a re-release on Blu-ray. In this impressively assured slow-burner, loyal, stolidly suburban Tricia (Courtney Bell) is trying to summon the courage to declare her long-missing husband Daniel “dead in absentia.” Come to help her pick up the pieces of her life is her younger sister Carrie (Kate Parker,) herself a one-time runaway, now a born-again Christian.
The two do their best to cope by being brisk and businesslike and speaking about Daniel’s disappearance in matter-of-fact terms. All the same, the bizarre situation weighs heavily on them. Her problems compounded because she in the third trimester of a pregnancy, Tricia uses calming Buddhist meditation and long chats with her therapist to stem her mounting feelings of fear and guilt. Even so, she is prey to terrifying lucid dreams of her missing spouse. Carrie, meanwhile, having encountered a beaten and bloody homeless person in a nearby underpass, becomes convinced that this gloomy spot has something to do with Daniel going missing.
From this premise Flanagan builds an effective chiller that also works as a study of two estranged sisters. The underpass, with its bleak fluorescent lighting and concrete walls scrawled with graffiti, becomes suffused with a sense of the uncanny. In his ability to make suburban blandness seem creepy and terrifying, Flanagan has more than a touch of David Lynch, and Absentia feels at times like Picnic at Hanging Rock remade by the director of Lost Highway.
The advances in the story are complemented by subtle and teasing revelations of character. Carrie, whose sobriety is less secure than she would have her sister believe, is looking to redeem herself through selfless acts, but in the end it could be this very impulse towards goodness that endangers them. This kind of uneasy speculation lends Absentia a disturbing quality far greater than that found in routine horrors. A metaphor, perhaps, for the way we can become lost to each other, even those who should be closest to us, through the vagaries of life, Absentia is a film with an unusually strong emotional core, and solid performances, especially from Kate Parker, the girl next door but shadowed with doubts and far less apple pie than she seems. Shot for only $70,000, the movie betrays its lowly origins somewhat on Blu-ray (it seemed scarier on DVD), but it now comes with a decent documentary which charts how the project started with a modest ambition among a group of friends to make something that might serve as a showreel.