Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blogorium Review: Absentia

 There were a number of happy surprises for the Cap'n at Nevermore this year, but I'm giving the top spot to Absentia from writer / director Mike Flanagan. Why? Because had I not given this film a chance because of the horror film festival last weekend, I wouldn't have ever considered watching Absentia.

 It's not because the film doesn't sound interesting: Tricia (Courtney Bell) welcomes her sister Callie (Katie Parker) into her Los Angeles apartment at a critical juncture in both their lives. Callie has been struggling with addiction for years and is finally clean, and has come to support her sister as she finalizes papers to declare her husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) dead in absentia. Daniel has been missing for seven years without any trace of where he might be or what happened to him. Tricia is pregnant, possibly due to a subdued relationship with Detective Mallory (Dave Levine), who kept an eye on her during Daniel's unexplained absence. Finally ready to move on, Tricia and Callie discover something more sinister behind Daniel's absence, something ancient and unstoppable. But can the sisters save each other, themselves, or anyone else?

 Absentia begins as a domestic drama with a hint of "ghost story." Tricia, troubled by the thought of giving up on Daniel, begins to see his malevolent spirit when she sleeps and meditates, and he isn't happy about the direction she's taking without him. Had the film continued on this path, I guess it would have been okay, but thankfully the phantom Daniel is just that - a projection of Tricia's neuroses. Her meditation helps, as Callie's newfound Christianity helps her overcome demons... for a while. Nevertheless, there's more to the story than just Daniel, and as we slowly learn what happened to him (and a number of other people), what a tunnel under the highway might have to do with it, and the factors that prevent anyone from believing Callie when the truth manifests... ah, but I'm saying too much.

 One of the pleasant surprises of watching Absentia was not knowing where things were headed. I had a good idea that it had everything to do with the tunnel, and was silently making "Death Tunnel: The Tunnel That Eats" jokes while the plot slowly unfolded. Fortunately, there's more to it than just that - the plot drifts away from strictly a horror film and heads in a "fairy tale" direction midway through. It has a kicker of a final shot, very good performances, and some great atmosphere for a low budget film. And I probably never would have given it a shot.

 Why? The poster / cover / artwork does Absentia NO favors at all. I see a lot of artwork for horror movies I've never heard of before, and the one above really turned me off. For starters, it really does make the film look like ghosts dragging someone (I guess that could be Callie, but honestly I wouldn't have guessed that without putting photos Katie Parker side by side with the poster) into the Death Tunnel. It's the kind of poster that sells a different kind of movie than the one I saw, and it frankly didn't make me want to watch Absentia.

 Sure, it's (no pun intended) gripping, but it looks like the poster for Filth to Ashes Flesh to Dust, so much so that I forgot they were for two different movies until I started looking into Absentia. I have no idea what Filth is about, but the same "being dragged / trying to escape from something horrible" artwork did nothing for me. Absentia's looked like a "haunted torture porn" film, and I was happy not to think about it again. In fact, when I went looking for Absentia's poster, I found two more that are more reflective of the film's tone (foreboding with a touch of horror "action"). They aren't as exciting, per se, but they made me rethink initial conceptions I had when I saw the "catchy" poster for the first time.

Well, my rant about misleading artwork took up more of the review than I'd planned. Absentia is a rather effective, if leisurely paced, horror film with a heavy dose of "fairy tale" in its menace. There's plenty of opportunities for Absentia to go one way and instead it goes in another direction, ending with an appropriate and satisfying (if inevitable) conclusion. Bell, Parker, and Levine are all very good and the film never feels hindered by its budget (around $70,000, funded in part by Kickstarter). In fact, its strengths come from what you don't see but simply hear. When it comes out, I hope the poster above isn't the cover you see on DVD shelves, but if it is, overlook what feels like a generic horror flick and settle down for a pleasant surprise.

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