Independent film-maker Mike Flanagan directs and writes this low budget chiller, which stars his partner Courtney Bell and features Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) in a small but crucial role. Flanagan's fourth feature, alongside numerous editing/writing credits for television, is an atmospheric tale of physical loss, familial ties and post traumatic emotional fallout wrapped up in an unsettling cross between a psychological crime drama and a fantasy horror movie. The end results may not be perfect, but Flanagan, his cast and tiny production crew of eight have produced a film with some genuinely creepy moments, first rate sound design and striking imagery that elevates it above the usual low-budget horror fare.

Tonally, Absentia is a Lynchian nightmare, filled with lucid dream hallucinations, oppressive, droning soundscapes, half-glimpsed monstrosities and off key, haunted characters populating an LA suburb where the most of unwelcoming of underpasses dominates its outer edges. Those drawn to the movie by its misleading cover, which evokes a graphic, bloody monster movie, will be either pleasantly surprised or sorely disappointed, depending on their preferences and/or expectations. Narratively, folklore clashes with contemporary urban life, realism is punctured by things from below, a la Lovecraft, and inner torments become frighteningly real for Trisha (Bell) and her ex-junkie, born again sister Callie (Katie Parker).

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Declaring her missing husband dead in absentia after seven years opens a Pandora's Box of memories, unresolved feelings and familial strife for Tricia and Cassie, and by extension for Tricia's new love, Mallory (Dave Levine), the detective assigned to the unsolved case. There's a psycho-geographical aspect to Absentia, with the residents of the suburb seemingly isolated from the city at large, the underpass that plays a key part in the film's narrative more a portal, physical and mental, than a passageway.

This is an LA where doors should be kept locked, strangers approached with caution and people and pets regularly disappear, consumed by the city and lost to their loved ones. The narrative structure as a whole may not be entirely satisfying, with a major plot point being introduced a little too cack-handedly, but in terms of mood, tension and general 'otherness' Absentia works a treat. Offsetting the fantastical elements, the fraught relationship between Tricia and the once wayward Cassie, and between Cassie and Tricia and Mallory as a couple, lends a downbeat, human drama angle to Flanagan's distinctive movie. The writer/director wisely resists any temptation to rely on CGI effects or to fully reveal what's behind the mysterious vanishings. Whether or not this was a budgetary decision, it works in terms of keeping an enigmatic, ambiguous edge to the story.

In a genre currently flooded with 'found footage' snore-a-thons, pummelling but vacuous torture porn and ill-conceived, half-cocked remakes, it's always a pleasure to stumble across a film and a film-maker attempting, successfully or not, to offer up an alternative. Like Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter), Flanagan's horrors are linked to the history of the surrounding environment the characters inhabit. They are presented to the viewer not through unrelenting graphic violence but through the inexorable, nagging creep of something lurking in the periphery, elusive and unknowable.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2012
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A woman's missing husband leads her and her sister into a series of terrifying events.

Director: Mike Flanagan

Writer: Mike Flanagan

Starring: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Doug Jones

Year: 2012

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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