DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Absentia - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Absentia - Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

Absentia (2011) dir. Mike Flanagan
Starring: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Bell


By Greg Klymkiw

There are horrors - everyday horrors - that we all hear about. If we have never experienced them ourselves, all we can do is try to imagine what they must feel like. But that's all we can do. Imagine. When movies delve into the horrors we hear about everyday, the best of those pictures probably come as close as any of us would want to get to experiencing the real thing.

Perhaps the one thing that's worse than knowing a loved one has died - especially in a fashion of the most heinous variety - is the horror of a loved one disappearing without a trace. It's knowing the truth that offers the most meagre shred of solace, or at least, acceptance. Not knowing, though, is the real horror. It's what we imagine that could, can and would haunt us forever.

Absentia is a micro-budgeted independent horror movie that plays on these fears. Tricia (Courtney Bell) has lived for seven long years never knowing how or why her beloved husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Bell) has simply vanished. Time has healed many of her wounds, but even now, on the verge of awaiting a death verdict for her husband - in absentia, Tricia harbours feelings of heart aching sadness and frustration. Though her financial and legal affairs will have a clean slate once a death certificate arrives, she will always be haunted with never knowing the truth.

Though frankly, once the truth rears its ugly head, she is wholly unprepared for the horror to follow. This is especially draining as she has been attempting to rebuild her life - she's having a baby and is in love with a kind, gentle man.

Her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) arrives to assist her in coping with this loss and the impending arrival of the baby sired by her lover Mallory (Dave Levine), a detective who has been investigating her husband's missing person file for many long years. Callie is haunted by her own demons. She's a drug-addict in 12-step recovery mode. Tricia copes with her horror and sadness with both Buddhism and psychotherapy. Callie has found Jesus and jogging.

Together, on the cusp of a death certificate being issued, the sisters begin confronting a series of strange, creepy and decidedly horrific occurrences. I'm going to avoid being too specific. Seeing the movie with a fresh perspective (as I was lucky enough to do) is what will yield maximum impact.

In the 1940s, when RKO Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy, they hired the brilliant Val Lewton (producer David O. Selznick's former right hand man) to head up a new horror division to make them flush. Lewton employed a brilliant strategy. Up to this point in movies history, most horror was rooted in the past and had a fairy tale quality to it. Lewton decided that the real horror was in the modern world. Using supernatural backdrops with lurid titles such as The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People as a lure for audiences, Lewton told a series of mostly contemporary tales that dealt with everything from crumbling marriages, childhood loneliness, madness and, among other real-life themes, religious cults. He also felt that what scared people was what they couldn't see - that horror was found in shadows and darkness.

With Absentia, writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan employs a similar strategy in telling an often scary horror picture which, when it works at the peak of its powers, jolts us with what we cannot always see. What we DO see, WHEN he allows us to see it is numbingly terrifying.

Tricia is haunted by dreams - or are they? - of her husband appearing around virtually ever corner - emaciated and stricken with both grief and anger that she is finally "letting go". Callie, on the other hand, experiences strange appearances of weird people and strange noises in the mountain tunnel crossway just down the street from their Glendale home.

There is, finally an indisputable connection between the two sisterly experiences and as the picture edges along, we're suitably creeped out. The movie is so intelligently written, skillfully directed and magnificently acted that for much of its running time we're on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately, the narrative begins to spin its wheels in the final third and what could have been a great horror movie falls just short of that.

In spite of this, it's an effective and original approach to the genre and the film's subtle slow-burn is finally so horrifying that the flaws in the latter portion of the narrative are almost voided by the overall effect - one, I might add, that lasts long after the film is over..

In this day and age of torture porn masquerading as horror and John Hughes-styled teen romance pretending to be vampire/werewolf thrillers or worse, endless awful Hollywood remakes of great Asian scare-fests, it's nice to experience something so eerily, creepily quiet. It's not only what we don't see, but what we can't quite hear. The silence and deliberate pace renders more than enough scares and for some, it will be just what the doctor ordered to soil more than a few undergarments.

Absentia played at the 2011 edition of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It will soon be available on VOD and other home entertainment venues, but if you get a chance to see it on a big screen with an audience, you'll be in for an extra special horror treat.

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