Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VIII): Absentia (2011) dir. Mike Flanagan

Logline: Seven years after her husband vanished without a trace and with his death now having been declared in absentia, Tricia (Courtney Bell) is finally beginning to move on with her life, despite feeling haunted by his absence. She's pregnant with her first child, involved in a new romance, and reconnecting with her long-estranged younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker). But when her husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), appears bloody, malnourished, and traumatized on the street in front of their home, Tricia's life is once again thrown into confusion and turmoil. Where has Daniel been for the past near decade, and what does his disappearance have to do with the large number of missing persons in the immediate area over the past century? The answers lie within the walls of a dark cement tunnel, underneath the reality we perceive, in a fantastic hell of unearthly origins.

Analysis: Absentia is a film about loss, grief, and the ghosts of past shames haunting us in the present. It's a film about sisterhood, family, and sacrifice. Perhaps strangely, it's also a film about the cruelty of a greedy bridge troll. Well, as we learn, it looks a little more like a silverfish than Shrek, but a troll nonetheless. Fortunately, the film's emphasis isn't placed on exploring the wickedness of a fairy tale monster, but on examining the sad lives of the gruff goats the troll gobbles up in his hunger. Though the film takes the Norwegian fairy tale "Three Billy Goats Gruff" as its partial inspiration, we're left to experience the alternate version, in which the goats fail to outsmart their adversary. We're watching the previous goats, the ones who attempted to cross the bridge before the fairy tale proper begins: the goats whose lives gave the troll its reputation for voraciousness.

These are battered, broken characters, hobbled by their addictions, mistakes, and regrets. Tricia has lost seven years of her life searching for and mourning over her lost husband, whom she never really loved to begin with. (They were high school sweethearts, we learn, and their marriage was a rash and unhappy decision.) Callie has been adrift for most of her adult life, struggling with drugs and doomed romantic relationships, all while alienating herself from her family and loved ones. Both seek solace through various methods (Tricia through rounds of therapy and meditation; Callie through religion), but both cannot escape their demons (Tricia is haunted by visions of her accusatory husband; Callie keeps her emergency stash in a jewelry box beneath her crucifix). Their lives are not happy ones, and just when things begin to look up (the sisters reconnect, a baby is on the way, a romance is in bloom, a new house is being hunted for, a fresh start is on the horizon), life kicks them off the figurative bridge into the muck: Daniel returns and then disappears once more, Callie starts using again (or at least everyone assumes-- and always will assume-- she has), romance is ruined, plans are scrapped, and trust and faith evaporate.

The film's tagline proclaims, "There are fates worse than death." True: there's always life. What option do Tricia, Callie, and even Daniel have but to absent themselves from their situations, to retreat to a realm that's not quite death but far from the disappointments of earthly existence? In their turns, all three are spirited away to a subterranean nether realm, existing beyond the laws of matter and possibly time. But, you might be asking, isn't this all the fault of that greedy troll and his famous appetite for those who wander onto his terrain by mistake? Surely these three weren't asking for their grim fates. Ah, but a counterargument: consider how easy it is for those characters who remain to justify away the absence of those missing, to imagine the hundred reasons they would have to simply disappear. When Callie attempts a trade with the troll for Tricia and her unborn infant, we might commend her selflessness for offering up herself first, instead of the customary neighborhood pets. But is it selflessness of selfishness? Is Callie envious of her sister's tortured quasi-oblivion? It might seem the cruelest trick when the troll spits out only Tricia's unborn fetus in response to Callie's offer before collecting its flesh bounty from her, but perhaps it's not a trick at all. Perhaps Tricia is precisely where she wants to be, absent from the pains of the past seven years. And as for Callie, it's telling that our last image of her in the film is a tranquil one, shot from behind and through the strange perspective of the realm she now inhabits, looking out into what she used to know as her cursed reality. We see that her new keeper has its insectile arm draped lightly over her shoulders, as if in comfort.

Technical Merits: Absentia is a testament to the potential effectiveness of horror on a limited budget, With over a third of its production funds crowdsourced from a Kickstarter campaign, the film didn't have an inordinate amount of money to play around with, but writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan sure makes the most of his pennies. Unable to afford lavish special effects to create the film's eerie subterranean netherworld or its mammoth insect overseer, Flangan and his cinematographer choose to employ suggestion and subtlety (those oft forgotten tricks of the trade) in those spots of the film where visual horror is necessitated. The dreary digital sheen of the film's mid-level high definition video is made an aesthetic asset rather than a mark of its financial inferiority: its startles us with its placement of an ancient, folkloric evil within the context of the mundane contemporary world and the digital lenses we now more often than not glimpse it through. 

This is what budget horror cinema should look and feel like in the current decade. That Flanagan was able to accomplish so much with the pocket change (relatively speaking) that he had for Absentia, and then turn in a glossy, Hollywood-esque followup with (in Hollywood's terms) a paltry $5 million for his next feature, the excellent Oculus (2014), should shame most other horror filmmakers out of the genre. You know what else cost $5 million? Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), which was funded and produced by Blumhouse Productions, just like Oculus was. It shouldn't be, but it's like comparing rotten apples and blood oranges. The rotten apples should start paying attention to the superior fruit.

Relevance: Absentia is a candied house of horrors for its viewers. As we approach it, the film gives off the sickly sweet appearance of a character drama. We imagine we'll get up close and personal to the lives of our principles, tasting the bitter outer layers of trauma and hardship before our taste buds hit the saccharine redemption at the center. Ah, but we are mistaken, for this is a witch's candy house, and as we wander inside we discover the horror locked in the basement: the endurance of the scarier fairy tales and folklore against the progression of time, sugarcoating a Lovecraftian realm of supernatural, subterranean terrors and torment. Our mouths taste sour before we're pushed into the oven, off of the troll's foot bridge, into Grandma Wolf's gaping maw. We've been tricked. The film ushers childhood bedtime stories and nightmares into horror's contemporary era, but its revisions of these interchangeable tales we dimly recall from our youth are only surface-level. (A bug for a troll isn't much.) To truly frighten us, it knows that it need only tell us the tales again.

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