ABSENTIA (2011): Indie Horror Done Right

Theatrical poster for ABSENTIA
Theatrical poster for ABSENTIA

In a recent “Bodacious Horror Podcast” from Gil & Roscoe, the discussion of “Oculus” (2014 — see my review) delves into the filmography of writer-director Mike Flanagan and centers for a while on his previous, independent, partially Kickstarter-funded “Absentia” (2011). Since I had a generally positive reaction to “Oculus,” I decided to check out “Absentia” on Netflix. Viewing this movie, it is easy to see why Flanagan got the opportunity to co-write and direct “Oculus” — using many of the cast members  (including the two leading actresses) from “Absentia.”

The general premise of this movie is ingenious in its simplicity. Many of us can name creepy locations that we’ve seen and/or experienced, but how many have written a good horror story-line around it? Flanagan found such a location, a freeway underpass for pedestrians in what appears to be the Los Angeles area of California. He created a screenplay around it involving a mysterious disappearance and California missing persons law. This concept is also notable because it allowed Flanagan to create a “four wall drama” — a movie shot primarily at one location — which undoubtedly cut production costs while also providing a tight focus for the film’s action.

Pedestrian tunnel used in ABSENTIA

“Absentia” tells the story of a woman, Tricia (Courtney Bell), whose husband,  Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), went missing seven years prior. Her footloose younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), has just arrived to help her with a life transition she is about to undergo. Tricia’s plan is to try to bring closure to Daniel’s disappearance by filing for a death certificate for him (“in absentia,” hence the film’s title), then moving on with her life.

Callie’s running habit (which is not her only addiction) acquaints her with a tunnel that allows pedestrians to cross a nearby freeway. Her experiences with the tunnel, starting with finding an apparently homeless man in it, grow increasingly ominous. Meanwhile, Tricia has been having what appear to be hallucinations of a threatening and frightening Daniel, which her therapist explains away as her own conflicted feelings about letting go and moving on.

After Daniel reappears, malnourished and semi-coherent, all of Tricia’s plans go out the window. However, his return is brief; Callie witnesses his abduction by an otherworldly being, but nobody (including the missing-persons detectives on the case) believes her. Her history of wanderlust and drug addiction make others see her as unreliable. This bias turns out to be very unfortunate for all concerned, as the force that took Daniel is hungry for more victims and is very aware of Callie and Tricia’s presence.

The creature in this film is heard clearly, but seen only in fleeting glances, which increases the suspense by causing the viewer to “fill in the blanks” with his/her own imagination. This also avoids having to show the entire creature on-screen, which would have increased Flanagan’s production design budget. Simple and effective music (by Ryan David Leack) underscores the mood of each scene and cues the viewer when a major plot transition is occurring.

Still from scene in which ABSENTIA's creature briefly appears
Still from scene in which ABSENTIA’s creature briefly appears

Another strong point of this film is its psychological horror. In addition to being cost-effective (which is especially important for indie films), the psychological approach taken in this film builds suspense and terror by rounding out the characters. The psychological status of each the major characters is both shown and spoken about. The mental effects of the major plot events are made clear to the viewer through the characters’ speech and actions. This reflects not only the quality of the screenplay, cinematography, and direction, but the performances of the cast members as well. A particularly apt example is  Morgan Peter Brown’s brief but impressive appearance (and disappearance) as Daniel.

This movie is highly recommended, both in its own right (as an outstanding indie horror joint) and as a preview to Flanagan’s “Oculus.” As a side note, readers are also encouraged to watch Flanagan’s 2006 short film, “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan,” as well. However, as Gil & Roscoe warn in their podcast, don’t watch it before seeing “Oculus” because of the risk of spoilers. Instead, see it afterwards to expand your Flanagan awareness.