Writer/director Mike Flanagan is currently the “hot name” in horror these days thanks in large part to the critical and commercial success of this year’s Oculus, and what the heck? Despite my contrarian streak I admit I enjoyed that flick quite a bit myself, so when I noticed that his debut feature, 2011’s Absentia, was available on Netflix instant streaming, I decided to give it a go. Might as well see how genre’s new “golden boy” got his start before his big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game comes out, right? What I found was nothing like what I was expecting — in point of fact, it was quite a bit better than that.
Unlike the supernaturally-based “haunted object” storyline at the heart of Oculus, Flanagan’s first film is equal parts slow-burn character study, moody and atmospheric urban horror, and Lovecraftian “ancient elemental evil” mindfuck, and he transitions between the ought-to-be-conflicting subgenres smoothly and seamlessly as we follow the doomed trajectories of our principal characters, sisters Tricia (Courtney Bell) and Callie (Katie Parker). Tricia’s about-to-pop pregnant, and Callie’s arrived in the seedy, run-down part of LA her sis really should get the hell out of in order to settle down and play aunt for awhile after years of aimless drifting and hard-core substance abuse. There’s just one little wrinkle — Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years, and she’s struggling with having him declared “dead in absentia.”
Did I say one wrinkle? Sorry, there’s more. The two sisters are following different spiritual paths, with Callie on a Christian trip while Tricia dabbles in Buddhism, but neither seems to be working in terms of quelling their inner demons entirely. Tricia is haunted by images of Daniel, her aforementioned presumed-dead husband (played by Morgan Peter Brown) and is unable to give herself fully to her new quasi-boyfriend, a police detective named Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine), even though she’s about to have his kid, while Callie, for her part, still keeps a box of heroin-injecting “hardware” under her bed. Plus, she seems oddly drawn to the decrepit, heavily-graffiti’d tunnel near their apartment, despite the fact that she keeps hearing plaintive cries for help and ominous insectoid scurrying echoing along its cavernous concrete walls.
Tricia eventually starts making some progress — she makes plans to finally relocate to a better part of town and goes on a proper “date” with her cop boyfriend — but then Daniel shows up again, near death, babbling on and on about something that “lives underneath,” and all bets are off. That’s as much as you’re gonna get from me as far as plot specifics go.
Admittedly, it takes awhile for Absentia to really get rolling, and if you’re not one for detailed surveys of the emotional wreckage that loss leaves on the human soul, this may not be for you. Me? I’m a bit of a sucker for understated melodrama, so I was digging it. And once the shit really does start hitting the fan, well — does it ever. Flanagan knows how to play his audience like a fish on a line, and he hooks you on his bait, reels you in slowly, and then yanks that line good and hard at precisely the right time. It’s not terribly clever or unique, to be sure, and you know you’re being played — but it’s extremely effective nevertheless.
So, yeah — I guess it’s pretty easy to see why horror aficionados feel that our guy Mike is somebody with big things ahead of him. He’s got a fairly impressive, if short, track record behind him already.