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Absentia (2011)

Tunnel Visionary

Absentia is a great horror film. Writer/director Mike Flanagan tweaks classic genre elements just enough to make his parallel-dimension bug-gods movie a must-see. I understand that the promo art and the phrase "parallel-dimension bug-gods" might cause some of you to pass reflexively. But those willing to take a chance will be rewarded with a solid story told through raw performances and an inventive eye that brings spooky misdirection into the twenty-first century.

But I've got to warn you: the first five minutes are downright atrocious.

Flanagan opens his picture with Tricia (Courtney Bell) stapling "Missing" flyers of her husband to trees all over her Los Angeles neighborhood. Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) disappeared seven years ago, but Tricia dutifully tears down the old signs and posts new ones. These dialogue-free moments teach us a lot about her character from minute one (she's desperate and pregnant with a baby other than her husband's), but the terrific subtlety is interrupted by a simultaneous montage of Tricia's sister, Callie (Katie Parker) coming to town.

We get lots of fades to black, lots of lingering shots on objects that may or may not be important--in short, a lot of what Sean Cunningham refers to as "film school" nonsense. In fairness, a good chunk of the imagery turns out not to be nonsense, but we don't learn that until much later on. The issue I have is Flanagan's pretentious assertion that he's making An Important Movie Full of Really Meaningful Imagery.

When Tricia returns home, she finds Callie at her doorstep and invites her in. The initial exchange between these two actresses had me really scared. Would the whole movie be this stilted, awkward, and dull?


At almost precisely minute five (as I recall), Absentia's quality turns on a dime. That's not to suggest that it's perfect, but it comes damned close. The change is so jarring that I wondered if Flanagan had allowed one of his friends to write and direct the beginning of his movie as a favor, or to pay off some kind of debt. I'm sure that's not the case, but something's definitely wrong there.

Callie has resurfaced after years of failed attempts at drug rehab. She's come to help her big sister move out of the apartment she once shared with Daniel. Tricia is on the verge of having him declared legally dead in absentia, and sees this as the perfect opportunity for a clean break from her old life. One minor complication: Daniel keeps popping up in waking visions, either yelling at her or silently screaming. Callie catches glimpses of him, too, and begins making a connection between the apparitions and the eerie tunnel at the end of Tricia's street.

Jogging through the tunnel one afternoon, Callie meets a sickly, battered man slumped against the wall. He introduces himself as Walter (Doug Jones) and delights in the fact that Callie can see him. Later, she returns with some food, but finds no trace of the stranger. She leaves the container at the tunnel mouth and heads back to Tricia's--where, waiting for her on the doormat, is a pile of keys and jewelry from what appear to be several different eras.

Another collection of baubles finds its way into Callie's bed, prompting her and Tricia to call the cops. Enter Detective Mallory (Dave Levine), a gruff but sensitive hard-case who happens to be the father of Tricia's baby. He instantly suspects Callie's story, based on things Tricia has told him about the family's black sheep, as well as a recent series of thefts in the area.

Going further into plot details would be unfair. Suffice it to say that Daniel doesn't stay in the background, and the strange occurrences surrounding the tunnel go from creepy to deadly as Callie's curiosity deepens.

Absentia isn't a wholly original film. Students of horror will recognize homages to Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street and the original Hellraiser (not the least of which is Parker's resemblance to Ashley Laurence)--the most obvious inspiration being It by Stephen King. The key to Flanagan's creative success is that he takes some of the strongest elements and themes from those genre classics and weaves them into a new horror-movie mythology that's also a fresh take on a children's story (I'll leave you to discover which one).

He also plays with audience expectations as to when and where the scares will come from, and how they'll be delivered. Through camera tricks, misdirection that has additional misdirection woven into it, and a steadfast commitment to not showing us a monster (seriously, fuzzy background images and shadowy limbs are all we get), Flanagan drives the focus of the terror back to the sisters. It is ultimately their secrets and inability to forgive each other for bad decisions that sucks all the good out of their universe and seals their fate. The fact that there's an otherworldly creature living down the block is practically a coincidence.

My two big issues with Absentia, besides the opening, are Detective Mallory and Callie's overnight expertise in extra-dimensional physics. Let's start with Mallory. As a character, I'm fine with his being Tricia's baby-daddy. It's apparent that he's nuts about her, and that he's a standup guy. But I just don't buy the actor playing him as a detective. Levine looks like Mad TV's Will Sasso doing his Steven Seagal impression--a big guy putting on a tough act with a plastic badge swinging from a lanyard. I would've had no problems with Levine being just The Boyfriend instead of The Cop Boyfriend. As it stands, Justin Gordon does a marvelous job playing Mallory's partner, who ends up taking over much of the detective duties later on, anyway.

Next, we have a comical (unintentionally, I'm sure) scene in which Callie describes the cause of all the disturbances and mayhem. I can't get too deep without spoiling things, but the phrase "dark matter" enters the picture, and I just couldn't swallow her becoming an expert on monster lore in a few short hours of Web surfing.

I should note that this is my only knock against Callie. As played by Parker, she has the potential to be this generation's Nancy Thompson or Kirsty Cotton--a reluctant heroine whose strength and sass mask insecurities that may be her undoing. Watching her character take the narrative reins from Tricia was a real thrill, and I can't recall the last movie I saw with such a ballsy yet natural focal shift.

Absentia is a fine example of what a small but dedicated group of talented artists can do on a shoestring budget. Shot in fifteen days for about $70,000, the film has as much definition and polish as any studio picture--and more imagination than the last ten horror movies I saw in the theatre. In an era of expensive remakes and cash-cow sequels, it's refreshing to see Flanagan put his stamp on the genre (much as Neil Blomkamp did with his pennies-on-the-dollar sci-fi opus, District 9 a couple years back). Absentia is a highly entertaining reminder that awesome horror movies don't need gross-outs or jump-scares to be effective; they just need characters, story, and atmosphere that get under our skin.

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