It’s the not knowing that causes the most pain. This is why it takes so long to accept that our missing loved ones might be dead. It’s been seven years since the disappearance of Tricia’s (Courtney Bell) husband Daniel, an event she finally has decided to accept, and she prepares to declare him dead in absentia. Her sister Callie (Katie Parker), a former addict, appears at her Glendale home and stays with her as they file Daniel’s death certificate and seek a new home for Tricia. Tricia suffers nightmares. Her doctor interprets them as stress and guilt.
One morning Callie jogs. In a tunnel she meets Walter Lambert (Doug Jones), gaunt from hunger and surprised that she can see him. Walter begs her to contact his son. She runs away but returns with food. The tunnel is empty. Later, Callie discovers a pile of metal objects on Tricia’s doorstep and assumes Walter left them. She places them at the tunnel entrance, where a man depositing a trash bag in the same location warns her not to leave them. When Callie investigates later, she learns that Walter was declared dead in absentia several years ago, and that his son claims he was taken away by monsters.
The objects show up in Callie’s bed. Detective Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine) arrives when Callie calls the police and chastises her and Tricia for keeping their door unlocked. (It turns out that Mallory and Tricia have begun a relationship). Anxious, Callie relapses into drug use as Tricia finally signs Daniel’s death certificate. As she prepares to enjoy a date with Mallory, Daniel appears in front of their apartment. Bloody, barefoot, and severely malnourished, he tells them that he has been “underneath,” and expresses terror at the mouth of the tunnel near Tricia’s house.
Writer and director Mike Flanagan keeps Absentia’s premise small, but its scale allows the movie incredible tension as it progresses. It helps that he initially avoids shooting the picture as a horror movie, opting instead for natural lighting and a drab color palate. He extends this naturalism to his actors, who strive for an ordinariness that borders on routine. Parker especially is good as Callie; she is not Kathy from The Monster, but someone whose life was overtaken by addiction and is now trying to get better. One could almost mistake Absentia for an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story as viewed by Dogma 95 hangers-on, especially during the first scenes when Tricia and Callie reunite. Such things catch Absentia’s audience off guard. Better still, Flanagan only turns up the horror atmosphere by degrees, even when the first dreams frighten Tricia; like a frog in a pot slowly boiling, the characters do not realize what kind of picture they are in until late in the movie.
Absentia surprises, too, by incorporating elements of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. For a movie that maintains its focus on quiet, emotional elements, the inclusion of something supernatural might seem out of place. But Flanagan incorporates all of these elements into a well-constructed tale, and never loses sight of his characters.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A member of the Turkey City Writer's Workshop, his work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Tell-Tale Press, Skull Fragments: A Skelos Sampler, Rick Klaw's Rayguns Over Texas!, Nova Express, Moving Pictures, Her Majesty's Secret Servant, and Revolution SF. His film column "Watching the Future" appeared each month at Hugo Award-winning SF Signal.
He lives in Central Texas.