To an optimistic horror fan, there is nothing more exciting than seeing a new theatrically released film but an up-and-coming director that is actually good. We can revisit our classics anytime our hearts start to bleed, but catching a whiff of new talent reminds us that the genre is far from dead.
I felt that way after watching Mike Flanagan's Oculus (for more on that, head over to my podcast, The Feminine Critique for Episode 41). At first glance, this seemed to be a simple evil mirror movie and while I don't necessarily have a problem with those (see: Candyman, Poltergeist III) such a concept didn't exactly rock my world. But for those who have seen Oculus, you know that it's a far deeper, sadder story about a family torn apart by abuse. I was curious to see if his first full-length film had the same skill.
Quick Plot: Seven years ago, Tricia's husband Daniel vanished leaving no trace behind. Whether he's dead, amnesiac, or derelict, Tricia has finally decided to officially move on by legally declaring him dead by absentia. She's also seven months pregnant with another man's baby and slowly trying to move out of a pretty but poverty-ridden neighborhood in sunny California.
To help out, Tricia's younger sister Callie comes to visit. Callie has her own baggage, having spent several years as a drug-addicted runaway before cleaning up her act and finding God (and a jogging routine).
Both sisters experience some mysterious unpleasantness as Daniel's death certificate looms. For Tricia, her guilt at writing off her husband has caused terrible nightmares and the occasional day vision of a tortured Daniel trying to harm her. Callie has what seems like more physically sound issues when she bumps into a creepy homeless man in the ominous nearby tunnel pass.
The fact that he's played by perennial genre superstar Doug Jones is obviously a tip-off that something is not right.
To go into any more detail of Absentia may rob the viewer of the right first-time experience, so I'm about to get spoilery. For those who prefer to protect their movie chastity, know that I liked but didn't love Absentia. It's a solid recommend without the enthusiasm of my thoughts on Oculus.
Let's get down to it:
One of the strongest aspects of Absentia is how it sets up a handful of mysteries at its onset. In addition to the BIG question of Daniel’s whereabouts, there’s the identity of Tricia’s baby daddy, the contents of Callie’s box, and the question of the mystery’s man’s “trade” all in the air, as if the film is one giant puzzle composed of smaller ones. Considering we spend a good 45 minutes or so wondering about Daniel’s fate, these added questions (some answered faster than others) helps to further add to the tense uncertainty in the full narrative.
The downside is that it doesn't all pay off in a way that will satisfy most viewers. Initially, I was somewhat let down by the mystery still left at the end of the film, but as a few days have passed, I've found myself reconsidering. We don't fully understand what has been menacing these characters, nor we do learn the fate of any of our leads. It's frustrating to one extent, but when you think back to Tricia's speech to Callie early in the film, it's also rather poetic. For seven years, she spun different scenarios for Daniel. Now, that fate has passed to her new lover.
Much like Oculus, Absentia is a far richer film than it seems at first glance. Where Oculus took a simple "evil object" story and used it to explore the nature of a child growing up in an abusive home, Absentia does something similar with the limitations of how much we can ever really know a person. It's not quite as sharp as Flanagan's next bigger budgeted film, but it clearly demonstrates the director as someone with a rather fascinating depth. In the meantime, it’s also a rather haunting little watch.
Not only does Absentia feature genuinely strong performances, but it gets massive bonus points for getting them from people that look like real human beings
There's a lot to commend in Flanagan's screenplay dialog, which gives us a clear picture of the events without resorting to forced exposition
That darn REC-inspired cover art
In real life, Doug Jones seems like an insanely delightful, enthusiastic, and talented performer. But if you're ever in a movie with him, it's probably best to avoid his presence at all times. Nothing good ever comes out of it
But seriously, this is another reminder that Doug Jones should be king of all things
Absentia is departing its comfy Netflix Instant Watch spot, but it's still well worth sitting down with in old-fashioned physical media form if that's what you're left with. This isn't a perfect film, but it's a strong, unnerving, and new story told with great skill by a man fast shaping up to be The Next Best Thing in modern horror.