Absentia. 2011. Directed & Written by Mike Flanagan.
Starring Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Justin Gordon, Morgan Peter Brown, James Flanagan, Doug Jones, Scott Graham, Connie Ventress, & Ian Gregory.
FallBack Plan Productions/Blue Dot Productions
Rated R. 87 minutes.
I grew up on ghost stories, either from the books of Stephen King and R.L. Stine, or around the Scouts campfire on a journey into the wilderness. Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by ghosts, the macabre, all sorts of morbid stuff. As I get older, though I enjoy a gruesome horror, I’m more drawn by the subtle, quieter stories of terror. What’s more, the way the ghost story crawls out of the shadows of the past into modern day is of particular interest to me.
Absentia tells the story of Tricia (Courtney Bell), whose husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) went missing seven years ago, who’s pregnant now, trying to figure out how to live her life; keep searching for him, or give up, declaring him dead in absentia. She’s sort of falling in love with the policeman on the case. When her rehabilitated drug addict sister Callie (Katie Parker) arrives, things start feeling a little easier, they reconnect. But the nightmare’s far from over.
There are amazing bigger budget films with ghosts at the centre, such as The Others (still relatively lower budget compared to massive Hollywood productions at only $17-million); Event Horizon which I consider a haunted house movie in space ($60-million); Kubrick’s The Shining cost $19-million to make in ’79-’80; Beetlejuice, another one I love, cost $15-million in the late ’80s; and there are a bunch more. But with a budget of less than a million, Mike Flanagan crafted an atmospheric, haunting story into a quietly terrifying look at fear of the unknown, grief, and one of the best modern Gothic horrors of the 21st century, like a dark urban fairy tale.
From the start there’s a deep atmosphere, a definite mood. Introducing us to the sad story of these two sisters, one with her missing husband, the other trying to stay off heroin. But then we get to the urban terror, how Flanagan turns a familiar neighbourhood area – the bridge tunnel – into a genuinely haunting space. We’ve all walked through these sorts of places, living in cities and big towns, going under a road, from short to longer tracks stretching on in the dark. Here, they become fearsome, ghost-filled haunted house-like areas, only more claustrophobic and almost more unnerving being outside in the daylight, sitting there, waiting.
This sets up the urban landscape where Flanagan tells his Modern Gothic tale, of grief, of dealing with death and its unknown essence. The entire setup of Daniel being declared dead in absentia epitomises the fear of the unknown that we all have, even those of us who aren’t particularly worried about death; it’s always coming, for all of us. The realm beyond the tunnel is this unknown terror – of an unexplained death, of what comes after death, a literal embodiment of a scary, bottomless, existential void.
I’ve written a lot lately about the urban Gothic, particularly in film. It’s an interesting evolution of the Gothic genre. Because before that it was Southern Gothic, further back merely the Gothic. And these were very different than a story like Absentia, set amongst the sprawl of a city, suburban neighbourhoods, the urban spaces most of us recognise all too well. Urban Gothic brings all those old ghosts, the folklore, the fairy tales of a time before modernity, and postmodernity, into these new spaces. To see them interact as one unified whole is often an exciting experience.
How does a person disappear without a trace, a grown man, in an urban landscape? This is a central question at the heart of the film. Flanagan tackles the fear of death, yes, but it’s also the fear of disappearance in the social order, in the urban city centre, lost amongst all the other bodies, forgotten in the spaces between city streets, just beyond reach.
The fact the people taken into the tunnel aren’t sure people can see them anymore is symbolic of individual alienation in the urban world; they still exist, they’re still there, but they’re invisible to us, barely noises on the walls of the tunnel, and when people can’t see us anymore we become prey for the unseen, the unknown, unspeakable things below the surface. It’s here we see that old, pre-modern evil seeping into modernity, postmodernity, from an earlier time, paved over by asphalt and encased in cement, but just under the exterior, lurking in its supernatural power.
My favourite aspect of Absentia is the connection to folklore and fairy tales. When Callie first arrives to see her sister Tricia, she gives her a kid’s book for the baby: Three Billy Goats Gruff. This connects everything in a beautiful, fantastical circle. First, the bridge’s tunnel itself, reminiscent of the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale. In this sense, the unknown creature in Flanagan’s film is a version of this troll, taking anyone who gets too close, anyone who doesn’t respect its existence. Then there’s the offerings made near the tunnel, by Jamie Lambert (James Flanagan), trying to find his father Walter (Doug Jones). He kidnaps local pets to feed to the creature in that other realm. This is a parallel to the troll in Three Billy Goats Gruff, threatening to eat anyone who crosses the bridge; Jamie tries appeasing the creature as each of the goats do the troll.
However, in the end – unlike the happily ever after of fairy tales – Absentia finishes with the three goats (Daniel, Tricia, Callie) going missing. There is no happy ending. The troll here, the creature, is not knocked off its bridge, the terror lingers. And like the inescapable nature of death, the other world beyond our own continues taking people, swallowing them whole at will.
Not only one of the best ghost films since 2000, just one of my favourites period. Perfect for any Halloween season viewing. Turn the lights down, let yourself get creeped out. Just keep repeating: it’s only a fairy tale, it’s only a fairy tale, it’s only a fairy tale.