Monday, 1 October 2012

Absentia



Imagine a really good episode of the X-Files extended to feature length - but Mulder and Scully never turn up. Instead, ordinary people have to cope with an extraordinary menace as best they can.

That's it, really, you don't need to know more...

Well, all right then. Absentia is an independent horror movie with no big stars, written and directed by one Mike Flanagan - a name to watch. It's a remarkably effective film, not least because - for me at least - it gets to the core of genuine horror. There is precious little on-screen violence here. Almost everything that happens does so in the context of ordinary people trying to live their lives happily, securely, normally - and being thwarted by something so strange and menacing that it can't possibly exist. Except that it does.

The film begins with Tricia, a heavily-pregnant woman, replacing old 'Missing' posters on telephone poles. It emerges that Megan's husband Daniel vanished seven years earlier, and she is about to have him declared dead in absentia - hence the title. At this crucial juncture Tricia's younger sister Callie turns up. Cue much discussion of Daniel's disappearance, and Tricia's pregnancy. It becomes apparent that the father of the baby is Detective Lonergan, who a few years ago took over the Daniel Riley case and become part of Tricia's life.

This would in itself form the basis of an interesting drama. But things are already spiralling into weirdness because Tricia is having visions of Daniel as a menacing ghost. Lonergan wants Tricia to move out of the neighbourhood, because it has a bad reputation - though not for normal crime. Then, when Tricia goes jogging through an underpass to the nearest park she encounters what seems to be a homeless man who insists on some kind of 'trade'. He offers her an impressive collection of keys, which turn up later in Callie's room, as if by magic...

Then Daniel Riley comes back. He is still wearing the clothes he had on when he vanished, seven years ago. And he has - according to X-rays that reveal small bones in his gut - been living off animals. Possibly dead animals...

Without going into more detail, Absentia offers a neat and at times nasty range of shocks that, while sometimes resorting to visual cliché, never seem tired or banal. There is one point when the worst aspects of TV sci-fi come to the fore, with a rapid and frankly strained attempt to explain what's happening in terms of advanced physics. But much more effective than that slight slip is the way the book Callie has bought for Tricia's baby suggests what is happening to the disappeared. It's The Three Billy-goats Gruff.

This film genuinely frightened me. I was afraid simply because I was home alone after watching this film. This doesn't happen often. The only other films that have put the wind up me to the same degree are The Grudge (the original Korean film) and The Mothman Prophecies. The latter, in particular, has the same 'vibe' as Absentia, because in both cases the menace seems at once new and somehow archetypal. But that's by the way. It's a film worth seeing.

And here's a different trailer.

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