Absentia Netflix Streaming | Amazon Instant Video | DVD | Blu-ray
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan
Starring Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Justin Gordon, Morgan Peter Brown
Fallback Plan Productions
Run time: 87 minutes
Originally Released: March 3, 2011
A good buddy of mine made a passionate plea on Facebook for someone to watch a particular horror movie currently on Netflix Instant. His plea intrigued me not because of a plot description, nor because of an actor we like; but rather his comment that this horror film was completely cliche-free. In a world where even the biggest grossing horror films are filled to the brims with jump scares, musical cues, and special effects, I am fortunate to find and recommend Mike Flanagan‘s 2011 film, Absentia; or as I am now calling it, the “cure for the modern horror film.”
Courtney Ball plays Tricia. Seven years ago her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) up and disappeared. The film opens with pregnant Tricia walking through her neighborhood including the dark and creepy freeway underpass tunnel, replacing the tattered missing persons signs with “the last batch” of new ones. You see, you can’t declare a missing person dead for seven years, and the date is quickly approaching on Daniel. Tricia’s younger sister Callie (Katie Parker), fresh out of rehab, moves in to soften the blow and help her sister move on, perhaps with Detective Mallory (Dave Levine) who is the daddy of Tricia’s unborn baby.
Callie tries to kill time by going on morning jogs, usually starting through the tunnel across the street from Tricia’s home. One day Callie sees a frantically thin and mumbling man who appears homeless and sick. He tries to give her some assorted items and asks for “trade.” Soon the man’s trade is showing up in Tricia’s home under Callie’s pillow. A break-in? Or is there something more mysterious going on? Tricia meanwhile, is haunted by ghostly visions of Daniel (her psychologist calls them lucid dreams). Soon Daniel is declared “dead in absentia” and things can finally get back to normal for Tricia and Detective Mallory. Except their first date is immediately interrupted by a returned Daniel; thin, pale and looking like he escaped a POW camp in Hell.
Any other plot points would ruin the film. But the surprises for me were not so much in the film itself, but rather what was missing: the cliches. My friend Chris was right. Director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) somehow crafted a 90-minute gem of a horror film with none of the boring and tired go-to trademarks of the genre. Whereas a film like Annabelle or even the beloved The Conjuring rely so heavily on musical score to induce screams or jump scares to rattle the audiences, Absentia uses perfect restraint. The film is at the same time a supernatural ghost story, a tale of human loss and paranoia, and a Lovecraftian creature-filled descent into madness. It reminded me a lot of Lovecraft’s Rats in the Wall. Perhaps an alternate title should be “Rats in the Tunnel.”
Absentia deserves a better fate than sitting in Netflix horror queues. It should be a case-study in how to make an effective, scary, and moving horror film without tricking the audience. Horror at its core is about producing raw emotions and eating at the viewers’ nerves. That’s why Spielberg used John Williams Jaws theme early and then in that historic moment when the shark popped out of the water, there was eerie calm and quiet. John Carpenter used musical cues better than almost anyone in the genre, but that was when he was creating the cliches and paying homage to Hitchcock. It’s been nearly 40 years since Halloween. Films like Absentia prove that modern horror can and should move past the cliches. A lesser film would tack on a more paint-by-numbers ending fearing the audience “wouldn’t get it.” A lesser film uses schlocky special effects. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen at the box office, cliches sell tickets. Go out of your way to find and see Absentia. It is a terrific little movie.
Absentia is available for free on Netflix with a paid monthly subscription. It is also available for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as on Amazon Instant Video for a $4.99 rental fee.