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Absentia (2011)

Phase 4 Films
DVD Released: 3/13/2012

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/22/2012

Ostensibly, all horror films attempt to be scary. (Empirical evidence shows this to be untrue, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt.) Most horror movies cast too wide a net and either attempt to thrown in too many potentially scary things, or, more often, choose a topic which is simply too vague or thin. (Sure, we all fear being stabbed, but a movie needs something else.) The best horror movies zero in on one or two frightening ideas and then run with them. Absentia has made the interesting choice of doing just this, as it brings us a scary notion and a creep location. But, can it make anything out of these two topics?

Absentia introduces us to Tricia (Courtney Bell), a very pregnant woman whose husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), has been missing for seven years. With the aid of police detective Mallory (Dave Levine), Tricia has completed the paperwork to have Daniel declared legally dead. Her sister, Callie (Katie Parker), a recovering drug addict, comes to visit, having traveled the country, going in and out of treatment. Attempting a fresh start, Callie jogs every morning and takes the tunnel which leads under a nearby hill. While returning home through the tunnel, Callie encounters a very gaunt man who begs for her help. She takes the man some food, but he's disappeared. The next day, Callie notices some jewelry at the entrance to the tunnel. This starts a series of events which will rock Tricia's world, just as she's getting her life back together. As Daniel's fate becomes evident, Tricia and Callie realize that something supernatural may be happening.

This movie is a great example of the DIY spirit which can still inhabit independent filmmaking. At least four of the actors appearing in the film also served as producers and some of the financing to make the movie was raised through an on-line campaign. The movie was shot on HD using a small crew and cast, but it rarely has a shoe-string budget feel. And with an estimated budget of $70,000, that's saying a lot.

And, for a while at least, Writer/Director Mike Flanagan makes that money well-spent. The first act contains some undeniably chilling moments, as Tricia feels that is being haunted by Daniel. His pasty visage appears in several shots, and these either provide jump scares, or come across as genuinely eerie. Of course, we, the viewer, don't know if this is actually happening or if it's simply Tricia feeling guilty about trying to put her past behind her. However, in the middle of the film, the focus shifts from Tricia being haunted to her literally living with a walking-dead person. At first, this shift feels like a good plot twist, but the movie then becomes very bogged-down and slow. Things pick back up again in the third act when Absentia becomes somewhat of a monster movie, and the finale contains a shocking blow.

So, in short, Absentia is inconsistent. Granted few movies maintain their momentum throughout, but this movie features a frustrating amount of stops and starts. I applaud Flanagan for attempting to give a low-budget horror movie character development, which is something which we rarely see, but at times the movie focuses too much on the relationship between Tricia and Callie when it should be moving the story forward. Is the tension between them necessary? Of course it is, but Absentia wanders a little too far into Lifetime Movie territory at times. This is ironic, as Flanagan shows a real flare for suspense and horror and really have put as much of that into the film as possible. Again, the early scenes of Daniel suddenly appearing are jarring and there are some great scenes in the third act where something is stalking the sisters. Staying within his budget, Flanagan makes great use of light and dark, and we know that something is out there in the blackness.

If nothing else, Flanagan should have given us more of the tunnel. If you've ever walked through something like this, especially if it's poorly lit, then you know just intimidating it can be. What if someone is in there? What if someone enters from the other side? We get a little bit of this in the beginning, but the movie then turns away from it. This aspect of the movie is the most ingeniously original part of the film and we should have gotten more of it. As it stands, we are left with a movie which has some creepy and suspenseful moments and touches on some interesting subjects, but never stays grounded long enough to live up to its potential. (The movie contains a few too many "What if?" questions and not enough answers.) As it focused on actually being scary instead of just trying to make a quick exploitation buck, Absentia is one of the better low-budget horror movies which I've seen lately, but, like Daniel, I felt that something was missing.

Absentia clearly had no money left over for camisoles on DVD courtesy of Phase 4 Films. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing no intrusive grain and no defects from the source material. The use of HD has rendered a crisp image which only goes soft in a few places. The colors look good, but a few shots are too dark. Artifacting is kept to a minimum. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Stereo and surround effects are put to good use in some key scenes, most notably those where it's clear that something else is in the house with Tricia and Callie. Placing these effects in the appropriate speakers helps to create a sense of space and definitely heightens the tension.

The Absentia DVD contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY featuring Writer/Director Mike Flanagan, along with actors Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levin, and Doug Jones. Next is a second COMMENTARY with Producers Morgan Peter Brown, Flanagan, Joe Wicker, and Justin Gordon. The DVD contains four DELETED SCENES which run about 5 minutes. Three of these are quite brief and the longest one is the most interesting, as it examines what it must be like to come home again. "Absentia: A Retrospective" (33 minutes) is a making of featurette which contains many comments from the cast and creative team, who discuss the story and the characters. They then talk about how the project came together and what it was like to work together. There is then an in-depth examination of how the movie was funded and the production process. "Camera Test Teaser" (1 minute) is like a short trailer which was made to see how the camera worked in low-light. The final extra is the TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long