One wonderful quality of the horror genre is that the form offers creative filmmakers the opportunity to create a successful and scary work of art even without benefit of a significant budget. Scares can be eked out in all kinds of ways -- visually and narratively -- and only a thoroughly uncreative or lazy sort needs to rely wholly on special effects, make-up, or big name performers.
Absentia (2011) is one recent horror film that accomplishes a great deal with very little. The film was made for 70,000 dollars, an extremely low budget, but it nonetheless boasts significant psychological impact. Days after a screening, I’m still dwelling on the film, and its well-developed atmosphere of dread.
Directed by Mike Flanagan, Absentia is the tale of a woman named Tricia (Courtney Bell) who -- after seven years -- is ready to officially declare dead her long-missing husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown).
One day, long ago, Daniel left the house, and vanished completely.
Now, Tricia’s sister, a troubled woman named Callie (Katie Parker), comes to visit and help Tricia – who is several months pregnant by a police detective, Mallory (Dave Levine) -- through the difficulties associated with “closure.”
It isn’t easy, because Tricia has been afforded no clues whatsoever about her husband’s final disposition. A montage reveals to us several of her whimsical fantasies. Perhaps Daniel was a Federal agent whose cover was blown. Perhaps he was injured randomly and developed a form of amnesia that has kept him away…but happy.
Or perhaps he was killed outright, and his body has just never surfaced.
Tricia doesn’t know the answer, but she struggles to deal with the huge question-mark dominating her life and preventing her from fully engaging in her future. Even impending motherhood hasn’t been enough to take her eyes off the baffling, inexplicable past.
Did Daniel disappear because of something she did? Did he leave because of their marital difficulties?
In the background of this personal and family crisis stands a significant local landmark of sorts: a non-descript, narrow tunnel.
It is embedded in a small hill just a few doors down, and runs beneath a big California freeway near Los Angeles. Callie jogs through the tunnel on a daily basis, and there’s something subtly unnerving about the location.
One day, Callie meets an emaciated man named Walter in the tunnel. He begs her for food, and she mistakes him for a drug addict. Feeling guilty, she brings food to the tunnel, but sees no sign of Walter. She sets down the food and leaves it there.
This is an act with repercussions.
Finally, just as Tricia has signed her husband’s death certificate put the tragic past behind her, Daniel unexpectedly emerges from the tunnel, bloody and confused. He is bewildered that other people can “see” him, and doesn’t remember exactly how long he has been gone.
But Daniel mumbles about an “underworld” and a strange, monstrous creature there, one that resembles “an insect.” The police don’t believe his strange story, but something certainly seems to have followed Callie home from the tunnel. Daniel is worried for her, because, he says, the monster may have “fixated” on her…
Although it is only eighty-seven minutes long, Absentia – about five or so minutes in – sinks into this near-hypnotic drone and it remains, unswerving, at that pitch for the duration of its running time. I’m not certain how to more accurately describe this particular vibe. It’s not that the film is boring; quite the opposite. It’s that the film seems so authentic, so true -- due in part to the performances of the two leads, Parker and Bell -- that you find yourself completely involved in their lives, and the dark mystery they must countenance. The movie puts you into the rhythm of their day-to-day activities and holds you there.
Because of this mesmerizing, low-key, immersive quality, the film is able to generate, on at least three occasions, extremely effective jump scares. They are ones that, with all my experience watching movies, I didn’t see coming. Like Gregg Holtgrewe’s Dawning (2009), another low-budget horror film I admired, Absentia develops an overwhelming sense of encroaching, amorphous dread.
In other words, you don’t know exactly what it is you’re scared of. All you know is that you are, indeed quite scared. After Absentia ended, for instance, my wife declared that she didn’t much care for it. But then, a few hours later, she admitted that she still felt unusually anxious and unsettled, but wasn’t sure why. She finally attributed these emotions to the film itself; to the aura of creepiness it meticulously creates and – somewhat miraculously -- sustains. She then revised her opinion of the film upwards.
In my case, I appreciate the unexpectedly accomplished performances by the actresses playing the sisters, as well as the dialogue between them because it plays as absolutely real and natural. There are moments here when these characters discuss their lives, their feelings, and their history together, and you might swear you were listening in on a real family…your own family. Absentia feels unexpectedly and disturbingly real in the dimensions of the human relationships.
Because this is a low budget film, you must know going in that you aren’t going to see much of the “monster,” and make your peace with that decision. Absentia is scary not because it features a great monster, but because it obsesses on a very real quality of human life: We don’t always know why things happen.
We don’t always have ready-made answers for tragedies that we experience.
Absentia involves, in a very compelling sense, human lives shattered by mysteries without apparent resolution. The film also concerns the fantasies we erect around our lives in order to protect ourselves from those inexplicable moments. I admire very much, how Absentia takes these occasional narrative dead-ends into fantastic, well-edited montages; montages that suggest – in mere moments – entire lives lived in an alternate fashion.
I mentioned above Tricia’s whimsy about what became of Daniel. At film’s end, we see how another person who has also lost a loved one attempts to create an alternate world where that person is okay…just in a different, perhaps better place. But for this person, the fantasy doesn’t hold; it doesn’t stick. He doesn’t have faith, as it were.
On another level all together, Absentia seems to concern a literal Hell here on Earth, one where human beings are the tortured playthings of Lovecraftian-like “others.” Although Callie unearths ample evidence of these creatures’ existence, the rest of the world just goes on and on, willfully denying the truth. Because Callie has a history of drug use, it is easy to deny her story too, I suppose.
At film’s end, Callie makes a horrible discovery in the tunnel when she asks the “creature” to trade her for the life of someone else she loves very much. What it delivers to her in that dark, dank, night-time tunnel is, for lack of a better word, scarring. It’s a gruesome, horrible revelation, and one that, in essence, kills any sense of hope about human life and the possibility of a happy ending. At this point, it’s clear that everyone the audience has invested so deeply in is going to go into that tunnel, only to disappear, only to “break” those left behind.
But I suppose that’s the point. The tunnel is very clearly metaphor for our lives in this mortal coil. We are all going to have our day there, eventually, and our loved ones are going to dream – fervently and desperately -- that we are in a better place.
Abundantly dark, deeply disturbing, and wholly nihilistic, Absentia is an accomplished low-budget horror film, and one that may haunt your dreams (and waking thoughts…) for a good long while. There's no light at the end of this tunnel, but plenty of terror...