Writer/director Mike Flanagan has been killing it for the horror genre lately, between his solid follow-up to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, and his Netflix shows The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. It’s safe to say after honing his craft with earlier features like Oculus, Hush, and Gerald’s Game, he has carved out a place for himself in the halls of creepiness with a style of his own. He has come a long way from his first spooky film Absentia.
When a long-grieving woman finally pushes to move on with her life, her husband who has been missing for 7 years suddenly reappears on her doorstep. Where has he been all this time? How did he get back? Why can’t he answer any questions? Well, the reasons in the film are unclear, but I can tell you the real reason. The budget itself was in absentia.
The time/money/support available at the time was not enough for Flanagan to fully realize this dream. Fans of his will be able to identify his signature framework lurking beneath Absentia. Unfortunately, the film falls flat. There is a monster that never gets shown, a tunnel where people disappear but is never explained who, why, or how it is happening, and sibling drama where the performers don’t hit any high marks. Usually one of these things can be present in a well-received movie, maybe two, but in Absentia, all signs ironically point to nowhere.
If the creature is a metaphor and the terms of the disappearances are enigmatic, then the dramatic relationships must be layers thick with gripping performances. If the characters are one dimensional, then that monster better be outstanding. A frightening and unique creation that is not necessarily shown in broad daylight, but needs to be ever-present. One way to make a story work when the characters are unable to explain what is happening to them is to have the stakes always escalating. The audience won’t care about specifics if you are constantly upping the ante.
Absentia is a neat idea, but is a victim to its one-note symphony. The instruments all blend together and are subsequently lost to the void. Not bad for a first foray into the macabre, but nothing stand out enough to make it worth recommendation. I would be all for Mr. Flanagan coming back to bolster his early work with a much larger supply of resources to see if it would make a big difference. Until then, Absentia can remain in its eponymous black hole.
2 lost souls out of 5
BONUS REVIEW (MM 2018)
NIGHT OF THE COMET
What would you do if everyone disappeared overnight? In Night of the Comet, on the eve of a once in a lifetime cosmic occurrence, two sisters lock themselves away for different reasons. It just so happens that they are protected from an extinction event by their steel abodes. In the morning they emerge only to discover most of humanity has been turned to red dust, save for a few dangerously ghastly survivors. Night of the Comet has the same ambience of Chopping Mall, even borrowing a lead actress, making the two a perfect combo to watch when you are craving 80’s nostalgia. It’s cheeky, light-hearted attitude and simple but solid premise make it an easy one to take in.
4 malevolent meteors out of 5
BONUS REVIEW (MM 2019)
The Lighthouse is the psychological second effort of new, hip arthouse horror director Robert Eggers (The Witch). After disliking his first film I was willing to give him another chance starting with a clean slate. What I got from The Lighthouse was more barely intelligible language, commendable acting from Robert Pattinson (Twilight, Good Time) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, The Boondock Saints) but poor metaphorical “story”, and a greyscale painting in motion of two salty seadogs doomed to gradually become unhinged. This movie is all about the dark, damp feel and not about travelling in any one direction with the plot. Substance will always trump style on my rubric. I suppose when comparing newly emerging genre auteurs, I am being filtered more towards visionaries like Ari Aster. I won’t be looking forward to Eggers’s next project.
2 blinding beams of light out of 5