The Things Underneath: A Review Of “Absentia”

Absentia(We will be discussing Absentia on “Late Night with Lovecraft eZine” this coming Saturday night — details here.)

(This post written by Repairer of Reputations.)

There’s a ward in Tokyo called Sendagaya.  In Sendagaya there is a Buddhist temple with a cemetery attached.  The city wanted to build a road right next to the temple, through the cemetery.  Their solution?  Raise the cemetery up and put a tunnel for cars under it.  But some things are universal, like the notion that building tunnels under dead people is a bad idea.

It didn’t take long for the Sendagaya tunnel to become an urban legend which people visited in hopes of seeing the shinigami – the death gods – dragging some unfortunate soul to the underworld.

Visit the Sendagaya tunnel and you’ll get a fraction of the scariness that awaits you when you sit down to watch Absentia.

Absentia starts emotionally twisted up.  Trisha’s husband Daniel disappeared seven years ago, and Tricia (Courtney Bell), who is seven months pregnant, has decided it’s time to move on and declare Daniel dead in absentia.  Her sister Callie (Katie Parker), a wanderer with issues of her own, comes to stay with Tricia and help her through what turns out to be an emotionally grueling ordeal.  Tricia isn’t ready to let go and feels guilty about finding a new love, being pregnant and thinking that her husband is never coming back.  She’s been having dreams in which her husband accuses her of betraying him.  But are they real or only in her mind?  Callie helps as best she can, but discovers a pedestrian tunnel under a nearby hill and gets drawn into the strange happenings surrounding it.  Shortly after the paperwork certifying Daniel’s death is complete, and as Callie becomes more engrossed in the mystery the tunnel is becoming, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) mysteriously appears again and Callie believes something followed him.  Or is it Callie’s own secrets catching up with her?

One of the strengths of this film lies in its subtleties.  It plays on the gray areas between what we perceive and what actually is.  Because of this, the film has the distinction of being unmistakably Lovecraftian without the trappings most people use.  There are no Elder Gods, no ratty old books, and no malformed cultists hiding in the shadows.  This movie strikes at the very heart of Lovecraft’s style:  People stumbling through the dark, trying to combat something they can’t understand or even see.  The characters don’t know and, as a consequence, neither do we.  We can only fret and hope they make it.  The universe is a scary place full of things we don’t understand, and you never know where you’ll find a doorway to a part of it that’s not as nice as the one you’re from.

But Lovecraftian or not, this is a horror film, and horror films live or die on their scares.  So how does Absentia fare?  Very well.  The scares in this film are probably its greatest strength.  The director was careful in laying out the high-tension scenes.  The play of light and dark, the placement of the action, when those movements occur and how long the camera lingers are all choreographed to make you tense and uncomfortable.  These are not jump scares that hit you and then fade.  This is a slow turning of the screws by a trained torturer.

All that being said, Absentia is not a perfect movie.  While the dialog is well written, the plot is a little awkwardly arranged.  The film is pretty evenly divided up into two parts, the first part that’s not so weird and can be explained by mundane means, and the second part that is weird and not so mundane.  With the story writer/director Mike Flanagan had, it would have been pretty easy to have mixed the two together and made a film that was downright excruciating to sit through.  And because of the excessive evenness, the film is a little slow in the beginning.

And, as freaky as the tunnel scenes were, the scenes in the house, unintentionally from what I gather, smacked of Paranormal Activity in the way they were shot.  This elementary, put the camera here and wait for something to happen, approach is especially out of place when, five minutes before and five minutes after, the director shows us that he’s capable of so much more.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles in what is a wonderful film that keeps you guessing on every level.  We’ve all seen a ton of horror movies by this point, and we can all usually guess when and where a scare is coming.  You won’t be able to do that with this film.  Flanagan will get you.  And he has the marvelous ability to make us wonder about how he’s going to end the movie right up until we see it.

Toward the end of the film, the sisters have a discussion about whether or not it’s easier to accept a nightmare that seems impossible over the simple, mundane truth.  This reversal of Okham’s Razor is what drives this film.  Do we turn to the outrageous because the truth isn’t enough?  Or is the mundane truth what we use to shield ourselves from the things we don’t understand?  Either way, as Absentia would have us believe, the answer isn’t a pretty one.

(This post written by Repairer of Reputations.)

5 responses to “The Things Underneath: A Review Of “Absentia”

      • Sendagaya. I visited the temple and cemetery above it. Never thought anything of it. I assume it is the same one. The description is dead on. Maybe they do that a lot in Japan.

  1. I very much enjoyed the movie, and would not have seen it if Mike hadn’t posted about it. I pretty much agree with the review (particularly about how it’s Lovecraftian) but I would add that sometimes the acting and script were not convincing, particularly in the scenes between the scenes if you know what I mean. I also thought they were very smart to go with suggestive and creepy instead of overt monsters. Definitely worth seeing, and available for instant watch on Netflix.

  2. The sense of dread that the movie builds is fantastic. The first half scared the crap out of me, and the last 10 minutes were a perfect horror ending. Thanks for the suggestion, Mike!

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