I have posted a lot of horror movie reviews over the years, but not so many of late. I just haven’t seen very many films interesting enough to review. I am happy to say that I found one on Netflix Instant Watch: Absentia. This independent film was written and directed by Mike Flanagan. I hope he has more where this one came from, because it is one of the best horror movies I have seen in the last decade.
The film begins with a woman (Courtney Bell) replacing a weathered missing person notice on a poll with a fresh one that she pulls out of a large leather bag. Tricia’s husband disappeared seven years prior. Though she is in the process of applying for a death certificate and is in fact pregnant, she is clearly having trouble letting go. Her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker) arrives to lend moral support. Callie is almost but not quite drug free. These items of emotional baggage are the material which the fine cinematography and haunting score can work on.
In view from Tricia’s front stoop is the opening of one of those pedestrian tunnels that run under a highway. If you have ever walked through one, you may recall that they are ominous enough all on their own in broad daylight. Callie has brought a gift for the baby: a copy of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. In case you are wondering, that’s a clue.
I won’t reveal any more details, for this is one film that tells its story efficiently and effectively. An event that occurs about a third of the way through ratchets the story up to another level. It ratchets up again a bit later into full bore horror.
I have had an affection for spooky stories all my life. I am not alone, to judge by the volume of horror cinema produced each year. I like the tension produced by wanting and not wanting to see what is just out of sight. The film keeps this tension perfectly balanced all the way through.
I also like the way that a good horror films explores the architecture of human fear and the way that cultures have managed and exploited those fears. At its best, the horror genre affords new ways to see and map that architecture. Evolutionary psychology has noted that phobias form around things that tended to kill our ancestors. That is why we fear spiders but not automobiles or tobacco. A fear of tight spaces, darkness, and being dragged away not only haunted our ancestors but also haunted our ancestor’s ancestors. These are the stuff of fairy tales. Absentia is a modern fairy tale, as dark as the unexpurgated versions of those that emerge from the darkness of Europe and other places.
More than one character in the film articulates the modern view of such stories. In addition to being entertaining, they are one of the ways that we manage our fears of what we cannot predict and what we cannot secure ourselves against. That is a rational, scientific interpretation of the supernatural and it describes how things really are. I don’t believe in real demons or malevolent ghosts.
However, once you step over the line between world time and dream time, as you must to enjoy the story, the relationship between myth and rational interpretation reverses itself. In horror land, the rational interpretation is the lie that we tell ourselves in order to avoid facing very dark realities.
One very neat trick that the movie pulls is to give us different visual accounts of the same event. First we see something horrifying happen that leaves no doubt about the supernatural forces at work. Then a character will see in his or her mind how it might have happened a different way, with only ordinary forces at work. For a moment the viewer has to wonder which view is the real one; but only for a moment, happily. The rational interpretation is self-deception.
So long as you know the difference between fiction and reality, it can be enlightening to see what the world looks like the other way round. It is a useful reminder that reason and common sense are not the same things a knowledge, even if they are the best guides to truth and practice. It is certainly entertaining, if you like the spooky tale. Absentia is an almost flawless horror film.