Absentia (2011) directed by Mike Flanagan is moody, low budget horror film that, instead of relying on cheap “jump scene” scares or gallons of fake blood and gore, works slowly and quietly by gradually building up the tension in the story – a story that doesn’t follow a predictable horror movie pattern. For about the first half of the movie, Absentia works like a ghost story but makes a surprising and discomforting turn in the end.
Daniel Riley is missing – has been missing for seven years. His wife, Trisha, has finally come to the point where she’s willing to accept this and is starting to move on with her life and she is finalizing the required paperwork to have him “declared dead in absentia,” a tedious, but necessary part of the process in her dealings with the insurance company, and other legal matters. To help her as she is processing this major event, and to help her with her pregnancy (something Trisha isn’t entirely comfortable talking about) her younger sister, Callie has come to stay with her.
But Trisha and Callie begin to suspect that Daniel might not be dead – that there might be something worse than being dead.
Much of the fearfulness of this film is in that the characters are all able to develop plausible stories in order to convince themselves that the truly terrifying things that they are experiencing aren’t, in fact, terrifying after all. They explain and rationalize. But we know (and we suspect that they themselves know) that these rational explanations are paper thin. They tell themselves that the ghostly appearances are just hallucinations or lucid dreams stemming from Trisha’s feelings of guilt about having to declare her husband dead. Trisha couldn’t have seen what she said that she saw – it must be the result of her heroin use. As characters in scary movies often say, “There has to be a rational explanation,” and in Absentia these rational explanations are … almost convincing. But not quite.
And it’s that –not quite- that leaves the viewer on edge, especially as the story get increasingly strange. It begins much like a ghost story, but makes a left turn and we’re left scrambling for a new explanation, a new way to plausibly deny what we know cannot really be happening.
For a low budget movie, Absentia is surprisingly effective. There is an awkward realism in the not quite professional quality of the actors. As a preacher I was intrigued by inclusion of religion in this film. Stable, married Trisha is portrayed as having adopted certain aspects of Buddhism for comfort in dealing with the absence of her husband – and for decorating her apartment. Callie, the wild-child younger sister, has, to Trisha’s surprise, converted to Christianity. I would have liked to have seen this aspect of their lives developed a little more, but what is there is interesting.
At the end of the film there are still several unanswered questions – but, at least in this case – I prefer that. What makes Absentia scary is that our explanations are weak and fragile, paper thin rationalizations that just barely manage to soothe our fears. One strange noise, one half glimpsed movement in the shadows may send us screaming again.
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