The film opens to the sight of Tricia (Courtney Bell) pinning up posters in her neighbourhood, begging for information about the disappearance of her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown). She’s been doing this for the last seven years.
Now, with a baby on the way, she comes home to find her wayward younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) waiting on the doorstep. Callie has been off the rails in the past but, it seems, has grown up and found God during her years of travelling the world and living a Bohemian lifestyle.
Now, she’s landed to take care of big sis Tricia while she prepares for the coming of her firstborn – even if the father’s identity remains undisclosed.
The girls are clearly close despite their physical distance in recent years, enjoying an evening of giggly catching up and wine-drinking. Callie even persuades Tricia that, in light of her having been sent legal documents to sign away the fact that Daniel is ‘in absentia’ – legally dead on account of the length of time he’s been missing – she should now give up her search. The evening ends with Tricia burning her remaining posters.
However, Tricia is woken in the night by noises emanating from the cellar. Upon inspection, she encounters a very angry-looking Daniel. Or does she? He disappears again, just as quickly as he appeared.
The following night, Tricia awakes to find Daniel crouching over her. He screams, she jolts – and he’s gone again. Upon consulting her therapist, Dr Elliott (Scott Graham), he convinces her that these visions are "lucid dreams", brought on by the guilt of having brought her search for Daniel to an end.
Still, this doesn’t stop Tricia’s nightmarish visions, or the monstrous voice which roars in her head at inopportune times.
Meanwhile, Callie is having weird experiences of her own. She likes to jog on a morning, and this takes her through a nearby tunnel. It’s only a short tunnel, but it’s long enough for her to encounter the distraught Walter (Doug Jones, the faun in PAN’S LABYRINTH) during her first run. He’s dishevelled and begs for her help. Believing him to be a transient, she promises to return with some food the following day. When she does, he’s gone – but a neighbour warns her not to leave gifts in the subway …
Giving much more away really would be spoiling the experience. ABSENTIA is an unusually well-made horror that works very well if you go into it relatively blind. Don’t, for instance, read the review of it on the excellent Ain’t It Cool News site – fortunately I read it after I’d watched the film, and couldn’t believe how much they gave away.
Going into this blind was a joy. After 20 minutes I thought I had a handle on it. After 40 minutes, and the more pronounced presence of hired detective Ryan (Dave Levine) I thought I had it sussed in a different direction. Happily, I was wrong on both occasions and the denouement offered so much more than my initial conclusions could have.
Mike Flanagan writes and directs the film. His style is subdued and intelligent, focusing much more on characters than shock tactics. This pays off, as we invest in these people and grow to care for them, so that when the tension is turned up there’s a genuine sense of trepidation attached to it.
Atmospheric photography is low-key to the point of being almost insidiously creepy – the unrushed nature of Flanagan’s direction brings to mind that of Ti West (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL; THE INNKEEPERS). I also appreciate how the filmmaker credits his audience with enough intelligence so as not to need everything spelling out: the script is very strong in this regard.
Bell gives a fantastic performance, proving she’s much more than just a very attractive cleavage. Amazingly, she really was seven months’ pregnant during filming; she gives a rivetingly vulnerable, warm and fleshed-out performance regardless.
Parker has the feistier role, but is equally impressive. In fact, both girls are never better than when bouncing off each other – and, for once, here we get a modern horror film where the protagonists are likeable. This is perhaps the first American genre offering of the 21st Century where this has been the case. Seriously!
Accept its quiet manner (don’t expect buckets of blood or jaw-dropping FX, it’s all very restrained), its brooding score and sombre tone – the work of Douglas Buck also sprung to mind on occasion. Absorb the intelligent script that dares to examine the theme of loss a lot more closely than your average horror flick. Go with its twists and enjoy its nuanced performances. Despite a stupefying low budget of just $70,000.00 (part of which was raised by sponsors through Kickstarter.com), ABSENTIA impresses deeply.
Second Sight’s UK DVD is a region 2 encoded disc, offering the uncut film in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The picture is anamorphically enhanced, and for the most part offers a sharp and clean playback.
Some softness is evident in the odd interior scene and lighting is not always what it could be (inherent of the film’s shoot, I’d wager), but by and large this transfer plays without any undue distractions. Colours are somewhat muted, and that appears to be a stylistic choice on the director’s part.
English audio comes in both 2.0 and 5.1 options. While the placid nature of the film’s first third may suggest little need for the latter, it truly comes into its own as things gear up towards the jolting finale.
The disc opens to a spooky animated main menu page, from which you can access a static scene-selection menu offering inroads into the film by way of 16 chapters.
If there’s one disappointment about this disc, it’s that there are no extra features. A film as interesting as this deserves some.
Still, the film came as an unexpected treat and for that reason this disc comes recommended.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|
|see main review|