DVD Review: Absentia by Garrett Collins

Dir: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon

The Film: We live in a very interesting age in the world of horror. It is almost impossible not to see a modern film come out which doesn’t contain some kind of homage or storyline from a film that we, people in our 30s, grew up with. This is why it makes me happy to report that the storyline to Absentia is one of the most original film concepts I have seen come down the pike in quite awhile. It contains elements from a story I grew up reading called Billy Goats Gruff, yet not an overbearing amount that a casual viewer can say it ‘rips it off.’ This is an ambitious project, and it is admirable that filmmaker Mike Flanagan was able to get the film made at all. But, ambition does not make up for quality. So, while one can admire the ambition, questions arose within me in the days before watching it if this movie was even any good, and if I would give it another whirl on a dark and stormy night.

The film’s set-up is very well done. After a very ominous first few frames of seeing some missing posters being put up, we are introduced to our two protagonists. Two sisters who live on opposite ends of the life spectrum. One, Tricia (played by Courtney Bell), is a 6 months pregnant widow who just wants to live a normal life. Having finally come to grips on the fact that her husband is not coming back after missing for 7 years, she just wants to settle down and raise her child right. Her sister Callie (Katie Parker), on the other hand, is a recovering drug addict who has come to help Tricia get prepared for these new parts of her life, as well as helping her move. These are two rather likable characters (which can be attributed to the writing of Flanagan) and the natural flow of their first conversation really endears you to them. As the film’s plot starts to unfold, (such as how the detective who has worked on the case is really involved), so do
events around them. And, it isn’t until Tricia officially files absentia papers (meaning that the person is not present to defend himself, therefore officially deeming him missing for good) that the strange events (including those surrounding a tunnel near their home) really come to fruition.

While Absentia was most definitely made on the cheap, its storytelling and ability to get a good scare or two (I cringed more at this than any Paranormal Activity film) doesn’t give it a cheap feel. It’s really more of a journey. And, Flanagan’s storytelling is so good that when Doug Jones shows up (yes. THAT Doug Jones) it’s not a ‘look who it is’ moment. His appearance (albeit brief) is one of the scariest moments in a film that does have its fair share. Flanagan’s direction makes scenes like random visions of Tricia’s missing husband (pay attention or you might miss one) and an especially creepy scene involving a shower curtain, come fully to life. And, again…the budget was never on my mind during these scenes. I also liked the way we see the characters unwind. One with meditation (Tricia) and one with religion (Callie). The imagery and questions that arise during and immediately following the moments these scenes are onscreen are
just a couple of the things that makes this much more than just another low budget horror film. It’s one that is begging us to be on their side. And, it worked for this reviewer.

Now, Absentia is by no means perfect. Although I admire Flanagan’s conclusion of what exactly is in this tunnel, I think this is where the budget kind of gets in their way. The imagery kept me on my toes, yet the instances when the main creature is involved (especially involving a scene when one particular character gets taken) could really have been stronger given some more money. And, like all horror films, some people and their, shall we say, decisions, did not ring true with me at all, and I found myself yelling at the screen at one time or another. But, these are some rather small complaints, and Flanagan’s direction in this thing really shows me that the guy will be a force to be reckoned with in horror (one particular shot of a hand reaching for a character that is outside while he is still in the tunnel really jolted me). Bravo to all involved.

The DVD 
Audio/Video: Absentia is presented in 480p (upscaled to 1080p) – widescreen. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and it also includes a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, too.

Extras:
* 2 Audio Commentaries (cast and production)
* Absentia: A Retrospect
* 3 Deleted Scenes
* Camera Test Teaser
* Regular Trailer

Absentia: A Retrospect is a 32 minute featurette that contains the prototypical interviews with the cast and crew involved with the production. One thing that came to mind while watching it was just how many hats everyone had to wear during the making of this film. Almost every one of the cast was also either a line producer, or producer. It is amazing how all that hard work paid off for them, as the very end of the featurette there is a recap of how many awards the film has won at festivals and such. It is also of note that director Flanagan makes very clear that he wanted to make his film different from all the torture or sadism films that have come out the last few years. Again: Bravo for doing something different. It’s also interesting to note that they focus a lot of attention on the funding they received from donations to a site called Kickstarter. While trying to entice people to fund their film, the filmmakers made some hilarious promo videos.
They worked, because they ended up receiving over $23,000 in donations.

There are also 3 deleted scenes highlighted on the disc. None of which deserve any recognition with the exception of the third, which I really have no idea why it was cut. It features more interaction with almost all the characters involved in the film, and combined with the score was a pretty powerfully portrayed set of circumstances.

Teaser and Trailer: While the trailer shown is a standard trailer (which highlights things such as awards it had won and positive quotes from certain people around the net), I enjoyed the teaser because it was basically a test run of inside the tunnel highlighted using the camera they were planning on using to shoot the film. It was shot a full two months before the script was written to try and get funding. Needless to say, it was pretty creepy and well done.

Cast Audio Commentary: I am always surprised when a small production like this gets a commentary. This film gets two. This particular one contains members of the cast (including Doug Jones himself) and they all speak about the normal things such as how they got involved in the project and compromises they had to make during the production. All of this stuff would have been interesting if the music track didn’t overlap what they were saying. In addition, they were speaking over each other half the time making everyone tough to understand. Skip it.

Production Audio Commentary: This one is a bit more structured, with three members of the production (including Flanagan himself) speaking about how Jones got involved, and a rehash of how Kickstarter got involved. While this one has a bit of music kickback as well, it covers most of the same information from the other track. Yet, I would say take a listen to it because the cast track gets to be grueling to listen to, and this one includes additional interesting trivia (for example: the death certificate shown in the film is actually Michael Jackson’s death certificate, with alterations made to match the character it is describing. This is because it was the only one in LA that is readily available on the internet to nab). It was also interesting to see that one of the scariest images of the film was done by simply using two sticks found on the ground right before it was shot. Talk about guerilla filmmaking!!

Overall Rating

Reviewed by Garrett Collins

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