Studio: Phase 4 Films
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan
Producer: Morgan Peter Brown, Mike Flanagan, Justin Gordon, Joe Wicker
Stars: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon, James Flanagan, Scott Graham, Doug Jones
Two sisters discover that a strange tunnel near their home may be connected to a series of unexplained disappearances.
Recovering junkie Callie comes to California to reconnect with her sister Tricia as Tricia puts the finishing touches on putting her past behind her. It has been seven years since Tricia’s husband Daniel inexplicably vanished near the gloomy tunnel underneath the highway across the street. Tricia is now pregnant with another man’s baby, making the timing even more appropriate for moving on to a less uncertain future.
Except that the tunnel is not quite as ready to let go as the sisters are. It turns out that Daniel is not the first person to go missing inside its walls. Strange whispers hint at an age-old entity lurking within. Its purpose is unknown, but its pull is undeniable. And when the moment that Tricia wished would happen for seven years finally takes place, it comes with horrifying consequences for everyone involved.
“Absentia” is a monster movie without a tangible monster, evoking tension from psychological dread rather than from visceral shocks. The way it weaves this atmosphere is through a demonstrable restraint that is almost maddening in how it purposefully refuses to bowl over the pins it puts in place for establishing horror.
Early in the film, there is a bathroom scene featuring Callie brushing her teeth in front of a shower curtain. The eye cannot help but fixate on the fabric as it looms ominously behind her in shot after shot. The angle changes, yet nothing happens. The curtain flutters subtly, but nothing jumps. Callie at last moves in for a slow peek behind, and still she finds nothing.
“Absentia” creates textbook setups for jump scares like this and then makes the moments even more unnerving by deliberately not pulling the trigger. It is a technique sure to make unhappy campers out of viewers who require the immediate payoff of a physical jolt. But what is actually taking place by never thrusting that anticipated hand from the shadows is that “Absentia” plants the notion of a threat always lurking silently somewhere offscreen. Because the visual fright hasn’t happened yet, it could happen at any time. That the creature and the film have this kind of unnatural patience to toy with everyone inside the movie as well as those watching it is what makes the feeling deeply unsettling.
With only one or two takes to get a scene in the can due to time constraints, and with the majority of the cast having never acted in a feature film before, the edges of inexperience are often visible on the performance side of “Absentia.” The acting engages regardless, with Katie Parker as a noteworthy standout for the way she captures a Jennifer Carpenter-like tomboy charm. Yet rarely are there many moments where the cast truly melts into character and you can forget that what you are watching is acting.
But what is remarkable is that the portrayals do not suffer from an inability to believe that a particular actor is a seasoned police detective, for instance. The performances are so committed and so earnest that they still connect the emotional beats laid out through intelligent dialogue and plotting. The material itself and the spirit behind its presentation more than make up for the missing finesse, and the lack of refinement ceases to matter in the wake of a mood that grips so tightly.
“Absentia” should be required viewing for any aspiring micro-budget filmmaker. Inventorying available assets first, and plotting how to craft a project around what one has in hand, is hardly a novel concept in independent film. And that is exactly what writer/director Mike Flanagan did when he took the tunnel across the street, an idea suggested by his brother, and then convinced family and friends to push past the limits of previous experience to create an exceptional Lovecraftian thriller.
Too often in genre filmdom specifically, ambition impedes realistic goals and a movie goes too far while trying to achieve impossible results. Finished products are forced to resort to corner-cutting measures and special effects distractions best described as unconvincing, and that is a charitable adjective. “Absentia” is a movie made for a five-figure sum because that is all the money they had, yes. But it turns out to be all the money they needed, too.
This is how a movie with passion and purpose makes the most out of limited resources. By concentrating on strong scripting and well-plotted design that can outmatch the restrictions of its performers and production scope, “Absentia” never steps outside the reach of its modest capabilities. And the quietly creeping chiller that ultimately takes shape is successful and effective because of that fact, not in spite of it.
Review Score: 80