Funded with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and shot on approximately three and a half total sets, Mike Flanagan’s new horror film Absentia, now available from Phase 4 Films, is an intense, haunting, and refreshingly terrifying new genre entry. It’s also a surprisingly wrenching and compelling example of modern low-budget filmmaking generally, with an amazing unknown cast, convincingly underplayed special effects, and a nerve-jangling, visceral undercurrent that will leave you quaking in your shoes long after it’s finished.
At the end of a painful and fruitless seven-year slog, Tricia is finally forced by financial pressures to have her husband, Daniel, declared legally dead in absentia, following his inexplicable disappearance shortly after their marriage. To help Tricia pick up the pieces, her sister Callie drives cross-country to stay with her for a few weeks while the paperwork is being finalized. Formerly a runaway and drug addict, Callie is now a born-again Christian, whereas Tricia is pregnant and romantically involved with someone new, apparently more than ready to move on.
Despite her resolve, Tricia is deeply shaken when she begins experiencing intense, lucid visions of Daniel in and around their home, a phenomenon which she chalks up to the stress of closing the book on his police investigation. But when Daniel physically appears one day in the street outside their house, bloody and disoriented but tangible, and spouting disjointed ravings about a vague insectile force that resides in the cement tunnel just outside their neighborhood, Callie and Tricia are forced to confront both the lingering emotional repercussions of his disappearance, and the lurking possibility that its dangerous supernatural instigator may still be poised and ready to strike.
Considering the generally meager resources at the disposal of the filmmakers, Absentia is an impressive creative accomplishment, both eerily unsettling in the moment, and deeply haunting after the fact. Aside from its strengths as a genre entry, it’s a powerful film purely from a dramatic and storytelling perspective. Horror films that swathe themselves in metaphor often end up awkwardly collapsing under their own weight, but the thematic resonances Absentia establishes are so open-ended and subtly played that they enhance the emotional pull of the narrative without once overpowering it.
Phase 4’s DVD lacks a commentary track, which is slightly disappointing, but it makes up for it with a comprehensive and entertaining 30-minute featurette that details the genesis of the project from start to finish, including story evolution and technical details (the film was made using inexpensive handheld DSLR cameras, shot mainly in director Mike Flannagan’s apartment, and launched as a Kickstarter project after actor Justin Gordon noticed a Tweet from Neil Gaiman hyping the service). Even if you’re not interested in Absentia itself, the documentary is a fascinating and rousing how-to chronicle of microbudget filmmaking. Deleted scenes, a trailer, and an original promo “camera test” for the film are included on the disc as well.
Absentia is entertaining, scary, and emotionally complex, and those are big enough accomplishments for any filmmaker, but factoring in its hectic shooting schedule, miniscule budget, and relatively inexperienced cast and crew, it’s a truly applause-worthy accomplishment worthy of singular praise and respect.