What does it mean to be in absentia? Mike Flanagan, a tunnel, and a slippery little bug point us in some sort of direction.
*Danger, Will Robinson: Affiliate Links Ahead! For full disclosure, scroll to the end of this post!*
How many of you click away from this review because there's now a big ass bug on your screen? I would, and I drew the thing.
Speaking of which, if you're into this month's illustrations, I have an exciting announcement: The original pen and ink drawings for this #31DaysofHorror series will be available for purchase! Each runs 11x14 inches and is one of a kind. Starting this Friday, you'll find them in my artist shop in the Square marketplace. After that, I'll try to upload daily with a new piece. Should be a fun way for my horror fans to celebrate Halloween every day of the year - with art.
Now let's dig into one of the creepiest debut features I've ever seen: Mike Flanagan's Absentia.
Death in Absentia
The general definition of death is something we take for granted. It's easy: when you're dead, you're dead. Your heart stops beating, body runs cold, and the brain ceases to function. You're buried, cremated, or disposed of in some way. If you're lucky, your loved ones hold a funeral or memorial of some kind, and grieving begins. Dead. Gone.
In legality, however, none of that means a thing until the state says it does. A death certificate may be a flimsy piece of paper with a stamp or two on it, but it legitimizes the fact that you no longer exist.
There's a real power in that.
The concept behind Absentia is terrifying to me. After being missing for seven years, Tricia's husband Daniel is considered dead. Part of her duty as spouse is to file the paperwork that will make his death in absentia a reality. It's a psychologically traumatic choice, but also one that will surely bring about the type of closure (financially and emotionally) that you would require to go on with life.
Tricia is already envisioning her fraught and angry husband before she files. She has him declared dead, and he shows up outside the house.
There's something wrong with Daniel
He looks remarkably like the hallucinations she tells her therapist about - dark around the eyes, malnourished, altogether unhealthy. A trip to the hospital reveals he's been beaten. His level of paranoia suggests a mental illness severe enough to commit him, though Tricia takes him home for the night, waiting for his anxious and excited parents to arrive the next day.
Tricia's sister Callie - originally in town for moral support, now there for a hell of a lot more - is a former drug addict. At least we assume so by the way they speak tersely about clinics and her wine drinking. She has a metal lunch box she looks in occasionally and otherwise hides under the bed. When Daniel starts lurking in corners and talking about giant silverfish in the walls, it's safe to assume the contents of that box gets used. Or does it?
The constant questioning of everyone's mental state is part of Absentia's plan: to make sure that no one possibility is ever certain. Scenes where characters speak their desires or their ideas about what might have happened are illustrated by those actual scenes. Tricia envisions a reality where Daniel had amnesia, happily living a new life with a new wife - we see it. Detective Mallory wants to believe that Tricia has left town to camp, and be alone like she used to - we see that, too. But they're just ideas, as far as anyone can tell.
Creatures that whisk us away.
Callie is convinced that Daniel has been somewhere "not of this Earth," for the past seven years. Her brain (possibly drug addled) susses out a scenario where the tunnel down the street from the apartment is some sort of passageway. To what, she's unsure, but what she does know is the sheer number of missing persons who seem to be associated with it is astounding.
And she knows a homeless man named Walter, who disappeared there and left behind a pile full of metal pieces and coins.
Callie's research (if you've seen Flanagan's follow-up film Oculus, you'll know how much he likes the heavily researched portion of the show) points to a creature that exists in nearly every culture in every time period. A creature that in various mythologies "whisks people away," taking them from our world to somewhere else. Some middle ground, like Stranger Things' The Upside-Down, or wherever Carol goes in Poltergeist, that serves as a sort of purgatory-esque prison.
And like a lot of this type of mythology - be they trolls, elves, Wendigo, banshee, poltergeist, or "Egyptian insect demons" (that's obviously my favorite) - there's a barter option. At least, that's what Callie seems to think, as she walks herself to the tunnel and asks for a trade.
To be taken
When people are "taken" in Absentia, they are quite literally whisked away. Pulled from their feet, down stairs, out doors, around corners. What you never see is what's doing the pulling. This has a tendency, in the right state of mind, at the right time of night, to scare you good and hard.
For those a fan of horror's recent history of scary people standing still with their faces obstructed (The Ring, The Grudge, Blair Witch Project, Oculus, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Paranormal Activity, every single found footage movie), Absentia does that, too. Only it spends an equal amount of time letting us stare at their faces, too. Simple makeup, practical effects, and a very soft focus make faces and bodies in the periphery a very effective tool for genuine, earned scares.
The Fun Stuff
Silverfish. I dare you to not think about silverfish differently the next time one slithers up out of your drain.
Homeless man Walter is played by none other than Doug Jones, infamous character actor. And I do mean character actor, in that he uses his own body like a puppeteer would guide his marionette - bringing monsters like Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth), Abe Sapien (Hellboy), and Billy Butcherson (Hocus Pocus) to life. I almost can't believe that he so briefly appears in a tiny indie like Absentia. Then I think of the character and what's required of his body; he's the only choice to successfully pull it off. And they do.
On the wall of Tricia's psychiatrist's office, you'll see a mirror that looks mighty familiar (if only a little smaller).
If You Like It, Watch:
Insidious - I'm not the greatest fan of James Wan (Ok, I'm just not), but Insidious is often a great work of suspense. It also deals with another version of this otherworldly "interim" idea, here called The Further.
It Follows - A beautiful new film by fellow FSU Film grad David Robert Mitchell that I reviewed last year during #31in31, and I'm thrilled to recommend again. Absentia's Daniel reminds me a lot of The Tall Man (not to be confused with THE Tall Man).
Oculus - Mike Flanagan followed up this feature with this one (also reviewed last year). Superior in some ways (Karen Gillan really sells the heavily researched conspiracy fanatic), lacking in others (Daniel is far scarier than the mirror people). No matter what, it's very, very good and worth your watch.
Drag Me to Hell (Click for trailer)
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