10/13/12

Absentia (2011) Absence Makes the Heart Grow Colder

Absentia is a film that I started to watch a dozen or more times before finally making the plunge. I don’t know if it was the generic looking art of a screaming woman being dragged away or the legalese sounding title which looked out of place on a horror film, but it just didn't seem like the kind of horror that would appeal to me. However, after hearing about it for a while, and Netflix’s relentless campaign to suggest it to me, I relented and I am glad I did. There seems to be a new wave of horror that combines the bone chilling and the supernatural with a hefty dose of human drama. Stories of longing or loss pervade these films, and while some succeed in the balance (Exit Humanity), others (I’m looking at you The Tall Man.) feel more like a bait and switch than horror fare. While Absentia takes some time to get rolling, it is a film that manifests some genuine emotional moments nestled neatly with the notes of a creepy creature feature.


For the last seven years, Trisha (Courtney Bell) has been searching for her husband who mysteriously vanished from their home, but now she is starting to give up home. Starting the process to declare him dead in absentia, she welcomes the company of her wayward sister Callie (Katie Parker) who moves in with her. Callie has been in and out of trouble all her life and until recently was hooked on hard drugs, but now getting her life together means repairing her relationship with her pregnant sister. When Callie meets up with a homeless man in a pedestrian underpass, she takes pity on him and brings him soon food. This simple kind act brings Callie to the attention of the creature that lives in the tunnel. Just as Trisha gets the death certificate and embraces her relationship with Detective Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine), it starts to become clear to Callie that Trisha’s husband’s disappearance was no freak event or happenstance, but a part of a pattern that reaches back through the centuries of a thing that takes people.

For almost the first half of Absentia, except for a few zombie-like visions here and there, the film could pass as a drama about a pregnant woman, her drug addict sister, and their complicated relationship revolving around the disappearance of the husband. It is a credit to the performances of Bell and Parker that I became engaged enough in the characters to really be draw into the story. Absentia sets a particular tone, and the film gets terse as it moves from the drama into an area of supernatural science fiction. The creature is represented more by a sound, something like a jillion cicadas wanting to eat a face, and a few shadowed spindly movements which give both the impression of an insect and something that probably hung out with some Old Gods at some point. So it’s the kind of tale where no one is happy to begin with, and it’s just not going to get any better. That’s something to be aware of on the way into Absentia. If you don’t want to end up both creeped and bummed out, then this may not be the movie for you.

That’s not to say that Absentia doesn't run into its share of problems. While Bell and Parker have a great chemistry and being as they are supposed to be women around my age, I felt like they were realistic characters who I would expect to meet. Bell doesn't play Trisha as a wounded woman, she has recovered and is on the cusp of a new life. The same can said of Parker's recovered drug users. Both women are survivors and they feel like it. They also feel like sisters, and their chemistry is what saves Absentia from many of its faults. The only thing I felt like was strange about how the characters were built is that Trisha’s pregnancy goes unspoken about for a long time. It confused me to a certain extent because I was trying to figure out if she'd be magically pregnant for seven years or did she have her husband's little swimmers on ice. That portion of their characters and the anticlimactic revelations it leads to are the pair's only failing. In fact the pregnancy is really neither here nor there until the very ending of the film where it is exploited to shocking effect. 

There’s also a real drop off between the girls performances and their supporting cast. Other than Mr. Abe Saipan, Doug Jones, who shows up to impress in a minor role, the rest of the cast’s performances were also in absentia. The most painful is Dave Levine as the Detective who has obviously fathered a child with Trisha. Levine reads like a beat away from being Will Sasso, and his line delivery brought scenes to an absolute halt. His character should have been pivotal to the action in the film, but instead he seems pitiful and not in a good way. I can’t say much about his partner, played by Justin Gordon, other than he can really deliver the line, “I need you to file a missing persons report.” because he nailed the fucker to the wall every time.

Director Mike Flanagan clearly took budget issues and turned them into a plus for his film by judicious use of the creature as a device to move the action. All of the special effects worked, the two leads were pitch perfect, the film was tense, but something was missing. With a poor supporting cast and climactic scary moments which could be found in one of twenty films on Netflix, the moments that make the film interesting and different are overshadowed by the banal. Mounting tension is squandered, and effective camera work is diffused with silly notions. Flanagan is at work on another film now, unfortunately called Scare Dares, with Courtney Bell and Katie Parker again. While I would be interested to see the duo paired again after their work here, the title doesn't inspire confidence. That brings me back to the beginning again, and my hesitance to see Absentia partially based on its name. It’s true that you can’t always judge a movie by its title, but when it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, then what else was I supposed to do.

Bugg Rating   

2 comments:

  1. This movie blew me away...I forgave some of the less than stellar acting due to the film's budget. I think it would make a great double feature with either Troll Hunter, or the LAcentric, Entrance.

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  2. Excellent review. I really recommend it.

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