A Review By Aaron AuBuchon
Amazon Prime Video, 2011
When we look back on the 2010’s and the genre films it produced, one thing that will be pretty obvious is how successful genre filmmakers became at blending the horrors of fiction and fantasy with the horrors of the real world, the living horrors that people wear like a second skin. Examples would be films like Belzebuth (2017), Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019). These are films with all the trappings and recognizable affect of horror, but ones that simultaneously explore personal and familial issues. A much earlier and far more independent example of that sort of vision was 2011’s Absentia.
Absentia is a retelling of a classic fairy tale set in modern-day Glendale, California. It has a monster that is mostly (and effectively) left to the imagination; a monster that is the cause of most of the horror. But what makes Absentia stand out is how much that horror isn’t focused on the immediacy of the horrific, it is focused on the horror of grief, of not knowing when it is okay to move on and start living your life again. Absentia is a film about how hard it is to live in the present when every moment of today is stalked and screamed at by yesterday.
Instead of dealing directly with the horror of death, this film deals with the horror of disappearance, which of course suggests death, but leaves open the tantalizing and often agonizing possibility of some other option. Tricia, (Courtney Bell) whose husband has been missing for seven years, decides to have him declared dead in absentia. Her sister Callie (Katie Parker) who has been maybe estranged, or maybe just incommunicado for years has had some sort of life turnaround and has joined her sister to help her deal with moving on. And here we have the point of the picture: even though she has had ample time, even though she has started a new relationship, even though she wants to move on to the next phase of her life, events conspire to make that impossible. In fact, events conspire to make her horror and grief so much worse than she had ever imagined possible, and the film makes it clear that she has already suffered considerably up to this point.
Absentia succeeds on just about every level. It has some really effective scares, which are set up and paid off with a breathtaking expertise for an inexpensive indy film. The performances are really solid, with standouts from Courtney Bell and Morgan Peter Brown as Daniel. But mostly, this film succeeds in delivering a hard gut punch. When Tricia sits with her husband’s parents and explains the unthinkable to them, and director Mike Flanagan lets that moment just sit for as long as it does, everyone crying and covered in pain and confusion you see something transcendent that the horror film often neglects: what of the horror of those left in the wake of tragedy?
Mike Flanagan would go on to make a variety of other movies, including the Oculus (2013) and the 2019 sequel to The Shining (1980), Doctor Sleep. But for all his eventual fame, his first feature Absentia is something very special: a thinking person’s horror film as well as a deeply moving (and disturbing) study of the predatory past and the deep chunks it can tear from the psyche.