I probably shouldn’t “spoil” this review right out of the gate like I’m about to, but — I kind of enjoyed director Jimmy Loweree’s 2013 “found footage” indie horror Absence (available via Netflix instant streaming, in keeping with our little theme for the month here), but I don’t know why. So maybe sitting here and yakking about it (so to speak) for at least a few minutes will finally clue me in as to why I liked it. Or maybe not. We’ll just have to see.
Certainly, by all accounts, I probably should havehated the thing, or at least been indifferent to it. Yet another “mockumentary,” yet another “bad shit happens at a cabin in the woods” story — I mean, the cliches here are just endless. Furthermore, the screenplay for this film, which was co-authored by Loweree and Jake Moreno, doesn’t strike me as being terribly well-thought-through. It’s like they started with an idea and then kinda didn’t know where to take it. Yeah, “found footage” flicks are notorious for that in general since by their very nature they don’t have to explain anything (in fact, doing so kinda ruins the illusion), but it’s really blatant here — and it’s probably worth pointing out that this is also by and large a bloodless film ,with pretty much no violence to speak of until right at the very end , and even that’s tame stuff by modern horror standards.
So what, then, is there to like? The characters? Ummm — not really. The guy with the camera, Evan (played by Ryan Smale) is a typical film school asshole who, like our ostensible videographer in Crowsnest, which we reviewed here a few weeks back, has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s an insufferable prick who richly deserves to die a slow and painful horror movie death. His sister, Liz (Erin Way) just had the fetus she was carrying disappear overnight (more on that shortly) and basically spends the entire film in a catatonic, shell-shocked state. His brother-in-law, Rick (Eric Matheny) is a one-dimensional “protect-my-wife-at-all-costs” square. And his new girlfriend, Megan (Stephanie Scholz) is an Ivy League-educated blank slate who appears to be only mildly interested at best in Evan (which, granted, is still more than he deserves), and only then because there’s nothing else to do in her sleepy little northwoods resort town.
Obviously, putting the four of these people together in a cabin while Evan films the proceedings for a documentary project on how sis is dealing with her loss is a recipe for a seriously annoying time.
And let’s talk about this supposed “loss” for a moment, shall we? The opening info-dump scroll at the outset of Absence tells us that theft-by-cesarean-section now accounts for fully 20% of all “missing children” cases every year. Which is, of course, bullshit. I’ve never heard of it happening, ever. Neither have you. And neither has anyone in the unnamed town our protagonists live in, because they all think Liz cut the fetus out of her all by herself because she just didn’t want to be pregnant. There’s no evidence to support this theory — hell, there’s no evidence of anything happening at all apart from the fact that she went in to the hospital with a near-term pregnancy and woke up in the morning with no bump in her belly whatsoever — but that apparently hasn’t stopped the incessant “whisper campaign” against her from gaining steam, and they’re all headed up to the woods precisely to get away from all the rumors and ugly stares.
Anyway, once they’re all safely ensconced at their mountain retreat, a whole lot of nothing happens. Evan and Rick argue all the time and turn every situation into some macho idiot dick-measuring contest. Liz sits around and just kinda watches it all. And Megan starts showing up from time to time to partake in all the “fun” before flaking out and turning into a total bitch at the end. Seriously, that’s not even a statement of opinion so much as an accurate “quick recap”-style accounting of events. Unlikable people in an uber-cliched setting doing very little, if anything at all, in front of a constantly-running camera. This flick has all the makings of one big snooze-fest. And yet —
You do get the feeling that something seriously nasty could happen at any time, and that no one is safe. Hell, eventually some freaky shit does happen, and even though it’s relatively small-scale in nature, we’ve been locked up, metaphorically speaking, with these same four people for so long with so little taking place that when the shit finally hits the fan, it doesn’t need to be big to feel big. There’s a quiet, unassuming power to that — almost like being lulled into a false sense of security only to realize it was all bullshit and, hey, everybody’s fucked. Gotcha, suckers!
Maybe it’s all a con. Maybe Loweree succeeds in setting the bar so low that we’re reasonably impressed when he eventually gets around to throwing things into a slightly higher gear. If so, hell, more power to him. Other filmmakers should emulate the hustle he’s pulled here, because it really does work. With 30 minutes to go I was prepared to write off Absence as the most pointless time-waster I’d seen in quite awhile. By the time it was done, I was actually pretty glad I’d seen it.
Does all that add up to a “thumbs up” from this armchair critic? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that this is a good case study in how to get your get your fat out of the fire and rescue a floundering film with a solid third act. No because — well, you really have to be patient with this one. Absence is a definitely a flick that will reward your patience (as long as you’re cool with accepting tantalizing hints about what the whole thing’s about rather than actual explanations), but you do need a lot of it. A whole lot, in fact.
So you’ve been warned. If you’re in the mood for a slow-burn, character- driven psychological horror — albeit one populated with characters you probably won’t like — then by all means, give it a go. But if you want something that gives you more by way of solid story “hooks” and genuine scares and maybe even some good, old-fashioned gore — then you’d do well to give it a pass. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure, and I didn’t even acquire it until the movie was nearly over, but I have to admit that I walked away from it reasonably impressed, and in the — errrrm — absence of anything more than that, a qualified recommendation is the best I can give it.