★★★★ / ★★★★
Seven years after the disappearance of her husband, the very pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) had yet to fill out and turn in the requisite paperwork that would officially declare Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) dead in absentia. When Callie (Katie Parker), Tricia’s younger sister, arrived at Tricia’s doorstep, strange things began to occur in the house and around the neighborhood. At night, Tricia was terrorized by what could be Daniel’s angry ghost but she was convinced there had to be a logical explanation. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Absentia” was an independent horror film done exactly right, from its increasingly unsettling rising action to an ending that was a perfect fit to its storyline. Before the nicely timed scares were thrown on our laps, we were first given a chance to get to know Tricia as a both a woman in a state of extended grief and someone who deserved to move on with her life. When Callie asked her big sister how she knew it was time for Daniel to be declared legally dead, it was a special and sensitive scene. I was touched by the possibilities that ran in Tricia’s mind, one of which involved Daniel being a NSA agent who had no choice but to drop his life because his identity had somehow been compromised. I appreciated that the writer-director showed love for his characters prior to thrusting them in situations that led to dead-ends with more questions and no easy answers. By doing so, we grew to care for the fates of the sisters. They weren’t just bodies that we anticipated to get sliced and diced when they entered a pitch-black room. We actually wanted to see them unearth the mystery, perhaps struggle a little bit, and walk away once the malevolence had been dispelled. I so relished the build-up of bizarre details, like the sudden appearance of reported missing items and residents from the neighborhood who’d been gone for years, that I found myself shoving food down my throat in order to alleviate the tension. Though the film relied on more than a handful jump scares, none of them felt cheap because there was a variation in the scares. For instance, a certain positioning of a camera led us to believe that once a character turned around after looking around suspiciously, something shocking would be right in front of them. The director was aware of the conventions and it was fun waiting to see if he would fall to the trappings of the genre early on in the picture. If he ever did somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t know. I found myself so enthralled with what was happening, the technical details became less noticeable–as they should be unless done in such a way as to drive a point across. Furthermore, the film utilized flashbacks rather well. When we plunged into them, the scene unfolded quickly, but never manically edited, like looking inside a vivid nightmare that we desperately try to wake up from. “Absentia” was astutely written and directed with a keen eye: actively choosing atmosphere over splatter-fest, imagination over absolute.