Review: Absentia (2011)

Horror Movie Mini-Review by Zeus | 2014-06-19

Absentia (2011)

Horror movies often begin with the loss of a loved one, a powerful catalyst that forces the protagonist outside their normal lives, either physically (they have to move, e.g., to a haunted house) or mentally and spiritually (grief pries open psychic doorways best left sealed). But Absentia follows two sisters long after time has had a chance to heal their wounds, leaving only the scars of acceptance. In the lovely, wordless opening shot, a pregnant woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell), replaces faded missing person flyers with the last of a dwindling supply. It's been seven years since her husband Daniel disappeared without a trace. Today she will begin the process of declaring him dead, in absentia. Old wounds reopened, she begins to see haunting glimpses of Daniel, alternately sobbing in despair and stalking the house in angry, accusing silence.

Tricia's sister Callie (Katie Parker) is fresh off the bus to offer moral support. She's a charming girl next door with a troubled past, an addict turned born-again Christian, all about positive thinking and staying healthy. Her morning jog leads her through a scary looking tunnel at the end of the street, a street lined with notices for missing pets, and in Daniel's case, missing persons. One morning, Callie stumbles across a man lying in the tunnel (Doug Jones, man of a thousand latex faces). He looks half-starved and beaten up. "You can see me?" he asks, astonished. Understandably freaked out, Tricia runs home, but returns later that night to leave behind a plate of food, the Christian thing to do. This turns out to be a grave mistake, for no good deed goes unpunished. Strange gifts, little piles of copper antiques, appear closer and closer to the home. Then someone or something breaks in and leaves a treasure trove in Callie's bed.

Tricia calls in Detective Mallory (Dave Levine), who is furious with Tricia for not locking her door, especially in this neighborhood. Callie can tell there's something going on between the two -- her pregnant sister won't discuss the father, and has Mallory on speed dial. Dave Levine is like a young James Gandolfini, only without the hair or acting ability. The more the film demands of him, the worse it gets. There are scenes where Mallory is torn between passion and professionalism, but he just comes across as hulking and potentially abusive. The break-in is soon forgotten as Tricia signs documents declaring her husband dead. She meditates, successfully blocks him out of her mind, and finally takes Mallory on his offer to date out in the open. As they leave, Tricia glimpses Daniel one last time, but she's finally moved on. There's just one problem: Mallory sees him too. Daniel is as battered and malnourished as the man in the tunnel. He's terrified and can barely talk. Something had him, something that wants him back. He won't go in his room, he says, because it is in one of the walls. Then he looks Tricia in the eye and says, "You traded with it. I wish you hadn't done that."

Absentia is a low budget film, partially funded by Kickstarter, and it shows. It's a film of extreme opposites. Early on, there's an amazing jumpscare with Daniel that manages to shock and disturb, using only practical camerawork. But in subsequent appearances, the budget starts to show, makign it more and more obvious he's just a guy in a white t-shirt. The sound design is fantastic, with some of the best eerie noises I've heard in a horror movie, yet the score is a dreadful minute-long funeral dirge that plays seemingly at random, the kind of royalty free loop you'd find in Birdemic. Some of the acting is quite good -- the sisters are charming and natural, and whether they're arguing or reminiscing or just teasing each other about recently discovered religions, I could listen to them for hours. But the male actors are a different story: Mallory, Daniel, even Doug Jones! Which is weird, I know the guy can act -- his line delivery in Hellboy II put David Hyde Pierce to shame. But here he's a bit cheesy. The only male actor who delivered a convincing performance was the son of Doug Jones's character, who I would have liked to have seen more of. If only he was the one offering exposition, instead of Callie's mildly cringey, "Everything that's ever happened is linked to the thing this movie is about!" scene.

One of the main reasons I love horror is the sense of discovery. There's nothing quite like delving into some fresh mythology and learning the rules of a new monster. It's what made Alien such a treat, or books like Dean Koontz's Phantoms, which kept you guessing whether you're dealing with a serial killer, a ghost, a monster or what. Absentia is like that. Part horror, part drama, seemingly a ghost story one minute and a creature feature the next. Sadly, there's there's virtually nothing I like about the last twenty minutes, which casts aside the sisters to focus on Mallory, a character who just rubbed me the wrong way. Director Mike Flanagan recently expanded his short film Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man With the Plan into a full-length feature film. This movie could use a similar treatment. I'd love to see what Flanagan could do with a couple of rewrites and a budget in the millions, rather than the thousands. Despite its flaws, Absentia has an intriguing premise, an original mythology, and a strong relationship between two female leads, three things that earn it my solid recommendation. On a final note, never judge a film by its cover. The DVD art is terrible for so many reasons. Rarely has a movie been so betrayed by its marketing. No one who would enjoy a slow-paced character-driven horror drama like Absentia would rent that DVD (except out of morbid curiosity).

Review Score: 3/5.

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