‘Absentia’: The Cure for the Common Horror Movie

'Absentia' (Photo: Phase 4 Films)

I don’t scare easily. Especially when it comes to horror movies.

It’s been years since a movie truly creeped me out beyond the “scare jumps” of most mainstream horror films. That is, until I saw “Absentia.”

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Absentia” was one of last year’s most celebrated indie horror films, and this week it premiered on XFINITY On Demand. Without revealing too much, the plot revolves around two sisters named Tricia (Courtney Bell) and Callie (Katie Parker). Tricia’s husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) has been missing for seven years. Although she’s tried to move on (she’s even pregnant with another man’s child), Tricia has resisted having her husband declared dead in absentia in hopes he will return.

When her estranged (and troubled) sister Callie moves in with her, Tricia takes the leap and finally closes the door on her past. But that’s when the women start seeing things. Horrible things.  Impossible things.

“The thing I think is the coolest thing about our movie is that you’re gonna find out just how effectively you can scare yourself,” Flanagan told me in a recent interview. “We try to give the viewer just enough visual cues and ingredients so that they can actually build their own monster in their head. It’s a neat little movie that invites you to terrify yourself.”

Made for a paltry $70,000, “Absentia” is a minimalist work of art. From its tepid, mournful score to its light-handed use of special effects, the film relies heavily on psychological torment to chill its audience. This film is not a slasher, nor is it packed with the gore and guts of the big studio films. If you’re looking for blood, you’re looking in the wrong place.

“We always knew we didn’t have a budget to show anything that mainstream horror audiences would expect, so we had to create that sense of dread some other way,” Flanagan explained. “And I’m thrilled that it worked. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about having that kind of intense discomfort throughout the movie.”

I was one of those uncomfortable people, inexplicably unnerved by this little indie film. It stuck in my stomach in a way I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. It aroused memories of childhood fever nightmares where vivid reality and terrifying fantasy are indistinguishable, where you’re scared of something you can’t see and almost nothing makes sense.

One of the major triumphs of “Absentia” is its refusal to spoon feed the audience. There are no easy answers, there are no tidy resolutions and there is no “Scooby-Doo” moment where the monster turns out to be the high school janitor. The ambiguity is deliberate, frustrating, and very, very effective.

“For me, the scariest horror concepts are the ones that are clearly metaphorically dealing with a universal fear,” Flanagan said. “You can read them literally and say, ‘Yes, this is a movie about zombies in a shopping mall,’ or you can read it using the metaphor and be like, ‘This is all about consumerism.’ And it’s really disturbing to me to see this metaphor play out. We’re striving for that.”


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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