“Absentia”

Absentia (2011) is a film that demands attention. Watching it while unpacking and cleaning, as I did, doesn’t give the film a fair shot. It is a subtle, slow-burning story; as a result of its pacing and heavy reliance on dialogue, I think I’ll need to watch it again to fully appreciate it.

Having said that, the film explores a number of themes near and dear to my heart, and presents a rather trite horror formula–generic ancient folklore, attested to in many cultures, turns out to contain literal, supernatural truth–in a sufficiently fresh and sophisticated way to hold my interest.

The story follows Tricia, whose husband has been missing for seven years, and her sister Callie, who has just moved into Tricia’s LA home. As Tricia fills out the paperwork to have her husband declared legally dead, she starts seeing ghostly images of her husband in her daily life. Callie, meanwhile, encounters a creepy vagrant on a jog through a tunnel close to the house. These seemingly unrelated events are, of course, related (this is a horror film, after all), and the reality behind them is quite consciously and explicitly culled from folklore of the Otherworld.

This is the part I like best about the movie, but is also, paradoxically, a weak point. It’s weak because it’s so obvious, so familiar. What horror movie hasn’t drawn on supernatural folklore? But it’s great because the movie is quite up-front about its use of folklore: Callie, desperate to understand the bizarre events that start unfolding around her and her sister, turns to that most powerful of research tools, the internet, and turns up a wealth of folklore from around the world suggesting that the tunnel nearby and the beings occupying it may be connected with an Otherworld (or “underworld,” as she puts it). Callie also implies that Tricia’s husband’s disappearance may be part of the “spirited away” phenomenon represented in many cultures.

The picking-and-choosing approach to folklore works here, mostly by virtue of the film’s refusal to yield to genre conventions. There is no violence, no gore, and only a few relatively minor jump-scares. The narrative is almost entirely dialogue-driven: most of it occurs in Tricia’s living room or bedroom, and the legal process of dealing with her husband’s disappearance is, for much of the film, a more prevalent theme than the supernatural events surrounding it. In this sense Absentia reminds me a bit of another great “courtroom horror,” The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The latter was effectively Law & Order: Satanic Crimes Unit. The former is Divorce Court X-Files. Both films are better than those names might imply.

I didn’t love Absentia, but I liked it very much–more for what it attempts to do, and what it represents, than for what it actually accomplishes. All things considered, it’s one of the better indie horrors I’ve seen, and this is especially interesting given that the initial funding for the movie, according to the official website, came from a Kickstarter campaign. The same website claims that the film was shot over 15 days. I don’t know much about film production, but that seems impressively short for such a polished movie. Sure, the acting was a little weak at times (particularly the wooden performances of the two police officers). But the two female leads, Courtney Bell and Katie Parker, are surprisingly believable, and I’d like to see more from them.

Absentia situates supernatural events in a familiar, folkloric context, but subsumes these events in the human dramas that distract people from the supernatural in the first place. It is about alienation and loss, ultimately, and like most good horror, it uses the supernatural as a device to show the emotional toll of these concepts in starker relief. Despite the heavy themes, the movie never feels bleak or oppressive: no obnoxious screen color filters are used, no jump-cuts or other hackneyed editing tricks (as far as I can tell, anyway), and a bare minimum of special effects. Unusually, for horror, its tone is light and even, in a sense, optimistic, as the ending, dark though it may be, retains the possibility for change in the future. Maybe. 80/100.

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