Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon, and Doug Jones
Length: 91 min
Label: Second Sight
Release Date: July 7, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- ‘Absentia: A Retrospective’ documentary
- Camera Test Teaser
- Deleted Scenes
- Audio commentary with director/producer Mike Flanagan and producers Morgan Peter Brown, Joe Wicker and Justin Gordon
- Second audio commentary with director Mike Flanagan and cast members Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine and Doug Jones
Before being given a comparably heftier budget for this year’s much-praised Oculus, writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan made Absentia. A 2011 micro-budgeter that made a splash on the horror festival circuit, the film is now seeing a Blu-ray release through British label Second Sight. The film itself has so little to lose when it does so much with very little means. Technically uneven but effective in its guttural response, Absentia is ultimately very worthwhile, making up for its budgetary constraints with disturbing, maturely handled themes and well-drawn characterization.
Tricia Riley (Courtney Bell) is trying to move on with her life. Her husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), disappeared seven years ago without a trace and she persistently puts up missing-person flyers. In the interim, Tricia is now very pregnant with the child of Detective Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine), who has been on her husband’s case and grew closer to her ever since. She is about to go through the arduous process of declaring her husband dead with a “death in absentia” certificate,” but before then, her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) makes a stop in California to console Tricia. Losing herself to drug addiction five years before, Callie is now clean, well, sort of, as a box that she hides in her guest room suggests otherwise. As both sisters try to bury both of their pasts, Callie has a run-in with a man (Doug Jones, Guillermo del Toro’s go-to creature actor) begging for help in a nearby tunnel. She thinks nothing of it—a homeless man wanting food—but could it be one puzzle piece in Daniel’s disappearance?
In a time where micro-budget filmmaking, albeit not necessarily all in the horror genre, attracts more and more name actors by “mumblecore” pioneers Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg, there are both pros and cons to the lo-fi aesthetic. With Absentia, there is a student-film earnestness to the performances and the cinematography (by Rustin Cerveny) on the one hand. Then again, in a way, the horror feels more nightmarishly banal, grounded and primal, as in the use of a tunnel in the daytime and a sly storybook allusion to “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Calling all the shots, Mike Flanagan knows to stage an effectively creepy scare, whether it be an abrupt jump cut or something out of focus and in the background. More importantly, Flanagan, the writer, has a strong script to work from and draws nuance out of his unknown performers.
Both sisterly characters are complex and damaged in their own way. Tricia is at a standstill. With the obsessive desire to know what happened to Daniel, she also wants to take charge of her life with her newfound interest in Buddhist meditation. And, she keeps having hallucinations of Daniel, which doesn’t help with her grief and sense of guilt for being pregnant with another man’s baby. After running away from home and making her way around the country, Callie, too, has found faith since her battle with substance abuse, and yet, her religious practices haven’t given her a complete turnaround. As Tricia and Callie, Courtney Bell and Katie Parker (who looks like she could be the long-lost sister to Marla Sokoloff) build a history that feels lived-in rather than written. Separately and together, they both create backgrounds of regret, grief, new and old values, and an overall sadness.
Second Sight’s remastered Blu-ray transfer is more than respectable. The picture is frequently grainy, and detail consolidates in the darkest shadows, although it adds to the life-like horror of it all. The scenes that play with soft focus and darkness are indelibly creepy, although the look of the film overall feels more like video than cinema.
Audio is fine, if not greatly improved. Dialogue is clear and the unsettling creature noises definitely augment the film’s already dread-inducing atmosphere.
For such a low-budget affair, the Blu-Ray release is more than loaded. Both audio commentaries shed some light on the production process with director Mike Flanagan, his producers and actors. The documentary, ‘Absentia: A Retrospective,’ is a nice bonus, along with the requisite deleted scenes and test footage.
2011 was a solid year for horror and if Absentia happened to fly under your radar (and it probably did), it is recommended to fans of the cerebral variety. More of an intimate, compelling horror film about loss, guilt and trauma than Lovecraftian, body-snatching monsters (though it is that, too), Absentia doesn’t pretend it has all the answers. It’s a thrill to see that even an up-and-coming filmmaker like Mike Flanagan knows it’s always smarter and more provocative to opt for ambiguity instead of spelling out everything for his audience. Leaving us with a haunting final few moments, the film leaves every possibility up to the viewer. Not knowing is more unnerving than anything.