The Minimalist Power of Absentia

absentiaOn Sunday night, after browsing for a good horror movie on Netflix and Amazon, I took a chance on Absentia, and I’m glad I did. This indie film does a lot to combine creepy suspense with a few good jolts, using little more than an apartment, a tunnel, good acting and great writing.

The story centers on a pair of estranged sisters who reunite after the younger, Callie, gets out of rehab and moves in with Tricia, who is single and expecting a baby. Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years. She has finally given up on finding him, and is in the process of filing for a certificate of “Death in Absentia.”

The backstory and relationships are efficiently established through dialog and visual cues, along with subtleties of the acting, and it doesn’t take long to be drawn into caring about the characters. The first scares come early too. The missing husband haunts Tricia, and there’s some great tension generated by the psychological aspect of what she’s going through. These are sophisticated characters who would be at home in an indie drama, so it becomes unnerving to watch them grasping at the straws of rational explanations when the weirdness escalates. Tricia has good reason to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her, burdened as she is with guilt and conflicted about letting go of her lost husband, while Callie’s personal baggage comes packed with the questionable perceptions of an addict.

Much of the POV is through Callie’s eyes, and I’m eager to see what actress Katie Parker does next. Her girl-next-door good looks never undermine her emotional credibility, so that even in the one scene where she’s looking for monsters in little more than a long t-shirt, she manages to defy expectations and avoid cliché’. No small feat in this sort of film.

Another cool theme was the differing spiritual orientations of the two sisters. Callie has recently found Christianity in recovery, while Tricia is using Buddhist meditation to cope with the stress of her situation. Ultimately, neither watered-down worldview is adequate in the face of primordial evil (never mind the impotence of good old fashioned police work), and I enjoyed being ushered into a corner where terrifying superstition becomes the only sane perspective. An undercurrent of irrational dread drones below the reassurances of the therapist and detective characters, infusing the film with an effective Lovecraftian atmosphere.

At a time when CGI has come so far that directors of blockbusters can show us any monster in vivid detail, this Kickstarter funded horror flick reminded me that in horror, less is often more, and sometimes limits can be sources of power. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. When Absentia does show you something visceral, it’s often fleeting and out of focus, but never lacking significance, so that a little goes a long way. Especially at the end. Which is all I’m gonna say about that, because you should see it for yourself.

Highly recommended.

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