OCTOBER 2, 2011
I almost skipped Absentia, having not slept at all the night before (sans some dozing at the all nighter) and already having two valid movies to review for HMAD today, but I figured I’d watch it for a bit and leave if it wasn’t grabbing me. A damn fine decision as it turned out, since the film was pretty damn good (it won best feature for the festival, in fact) and introduced me to an actress named Katie Parker with whom I was instantly smitten, which is always a plus.
Now, it’s not just that she was attractive (and she was), but she had that rarest of qualities among actresses in her age group – the ability to “glam down”. At one point she plays an entire scene with a toothbrush hanging out of her mouth (except for when she spits out a glob of paste), which of course is hardly the most attractive thing in the world. But having seen so many horror flicks (even indies) that have these CW-ready girls who have perfect makeup and impeccable fashion no matter what their character is doing, it’s so refreshing to see one that can let her guard down a bit and play a scene as a normal human being – especially in a horror film that relies so heavily on relating to the characters and buying into their situation. She also swears like a champ, but not excessively so – again, she sounded like a normal girl of her age, instead of the overly foul-mouthed and thus fake sounding characters in Zombie’s Halloween.
Back to the reality of the film, for the most part it felt very much like a drama that used horror elements to tell its character-based story, not unlike the underrated The Eclipse from 2009. Parker plays Callie, the younger sister of a woman whose husband disappeared seven years ago and is now able to be legally declared dead (the title refers to the Latin phrasing for such an occurrence – “In absentia”, i.e. they don’t have the body but they do have enough legitimate reason to assume he has died). Callie has come to help her go through the rather painful process of filing the paperwork, as well as help her move to a new place so that she can finally start her life over. It’s quite heartbreaking to watch her go through the process; the first scene has her sadly (but familiarly) walking through the neighborhood replacing the faded/torn “Missing” posters with fresh ones, which reminded me of similarly quiet/sad moments from The Vanishing.
So how is this horror? Well, soon after Callie shows up we also start seeing the seeming ghost of the husband, the first of which is one of the most effect subtle jump scares in years as you gradually realize that the soft focus object in the background is not décor or a coat hanging on the door – it’s a person. Also, Callie discovers a mangled and bloody Doug Jones in the creepy ass tunnel near their apartment, who disappears by the time she comes back. Plus it seems someone has broken into their house and left a pile of old jewelry, which is just damned unnerving if you ask me.
Without spoiling much, the movie eventually switches gears and gets down to answering a few questions while raising new ones. The ending is a bit vague, at least I think it was – I was damn tired after all, so while I stayed awake for the whole thing (yay me!) it’s possible my brain didn’t process everything I was seeing. I’m pretty sure that writer/director Mike Flanagan was going for a sort of “Sometimes things just happen and you can’t explain why” scenario, with the more supernatural elements of the story being nothing but a depiction of someone’s mental anguish as they try to justify what happened (i.e. “It must be monsters!”), but if so then they should have dropped that final scene, as it seems to suggest otherwise (or hint at a sequel). It’s also one of those movies where we get characters theorizing about what they think happened, depicted with wordless scenes that show us these things even though it’s possible they never happened. Sort of like at the end of Brokeback Mountain when Anne Hathaway is telling the fake story about Jack’s death and you’re not sure if she knows the truth or not.
But either way, all that matters is that the film is very effective at creeping me the hell out. I have long been fascinated by kidnapping/disappearance stories thanks to watching Unsolved Mysteries and the like since I was 9 or so, in particular when it’s an adult as they don’t get the same sort of public aid that a child would, which bums me out (although it's probably because it’s possible that the adult merely chose to walk away from an unhappy life). There’s a missing poster up in the snack room near the exit to my building that I saw one night, and I was legit spooked all the way back to my car because I got it in my head that he was a fellow employee that got taken from the parking lot (I later learned he didn’t even work there and it happened hundreds of miles away). And that tunnel where most of the bad stuff goes down is just plain chilling to look at, as it’s tucked away a few dozen yards from a dead end street – you can just TELL it’s bad news by looking at it, even before the movie tells us so. And that it’s located not too far from where I live (somewhere in Silverlake or Echo Park, judging from its proximity to the Hollywood sign) makes it even creepier – and by that I mean I totally want to go find it and see if I can run through the tunnel when it’s dark out.
Hopefully with the film doing the festival rounds right now it will be picked up by IFC or a similar distributor in the next few months and released in time for Halloween next year. As it’s a very small film (not a criticism), I think it’s a perfect “at home” horror thriller, one that can unnerve even the most jaded viewer (obviously - *points at self*) and make them afraid to turn the lights out or check behind the shower curtain out of fear that something might actually be there. I just wish that recommending a horror movie because it managed to be scary while telling a good story with relatable characters wasn’t such a rare occurrence; Absentia succeeds because it gets what should be the most basic things right.
What say you?