Many film fans and filmmakers have recently expressed a desire to go back to the basics, aesthetically speaking, insisting that what you don't see in a horror film is scarier than anything conjured through CGI. They argue that smaller budget films are often more effective than tentpoles because financial restrictions force the filmmakers to be creative when devising ways to provoke an audience into fear.
A beautiful example of this theory in practice is Mike Flanagan's 2011 film Absentia. It treads some of the same ground as Flanagan's more recent Oculus, in which a family is tormented over the years by a haunted mirror. In Absentia, the object in question is a tunnel connecting a Southern California subdivision to a nearby park.
Tricia's husband Daniel vanished seven years ago. No body was found, and after much anguish, she decides to have him declared dead "in absentia" for both legal and personal reasons. Her sister, Callie, a former runaway and drug addict, visits Tricia to help with the process of moving on and moving out of her apartment to begin again. Tricia his also pregnant, and offers no clues as to the identity of her unborn child's father, but she has embarked on a tentative relationship with Ryan, the cop in charge of Daniel's missing persons case.
Just as things seem to be progressing in a positive direction, Daniel shows up, both physically and psychically damaged, with only vague, nonsensical ideas of where he's been for the better part of a decade.
So much of Absentia's frightening aura comes from unreliable narrators: Tricia because she has lucid dreams of a black-eyed, enraged Daniel; Callie because, although she claims to be sober, she's still surreptitiously using drugs (though we don't see her in the act); Daniel because he speaks of a thing in the walls that's trying to get him.
When awful things start taking place in Absentia, we don't actually see them, only hints of them. Sounds and movements out of the corner of the eye; people who appear out of the shadows but aren't really there; a homeless man in a tunnel, begging for help and raving about nameless creatures. Such occurrences could easily be explained away.
There are a lot of typical problems in Absentia: flyers for missing people (including Daniel) and pets are pasted on telephone poles and there have been a series of petty burglaries in the neighborhood. We see these things so often they barely register with us anymore. Then there are the more personally upsetting, but still commonplace misfortunes: unpaid bills, legal paperwork, troubled marriages, broken families, single motherhood and addiction. Finally, there are fantastical issues that plague the characters: the alleged existence of a city underneath the ground, where humans are kidnapped by a monster with skin like a silverfish.
Gazing into the abyss
In Absentia, all of these events are connected. Furthermore, the gravity of these various tragedies shifts from banal to otherworldly and back again before the characters-or indeed the audience members-are aware that such a shift is taking place. Trying to explain it to someone who can't or won't understand - much like Callie does with Tricia - is met with disbelief. "It's easier to embrace a nightmare," says Tricia, "than to accept how stupid - how simple - reality is sometimes."
But what if the answer is both a nightmare and reality? Much like the tunnel that connects the characters to the horrible thing that holds sway over them, Absentia occupies that liminal space between reality and unreality. Was the silverfish crawling in the sink just a bug or a harbinger of something worse? Is Daniel a paranoid schizophrenic? Did Tricia imagine his appearance or was he truly there? Was Tricia spirited away by the thing in the tunnel or did she cut herself off from the grid to start her life over again?
There's a scene in the film where Tricia and Callie are turning out the lights to go to bed, and Callie hears a noise. The camera cuts to a shot of Tricia, staring into the black nothingness of her living room. But instead of a void, there's a monster in there that literally takes her away. We never see the monster, but Tricia's absence is as palpable as its presence. Later Tricia scrawls, "beware the things underneath" on a note she leaves for Ryan.
This liminality is what makes Absentia genuinely terrifying. It feels like the events in this film could happen to anyone, even us. If that happened, then who would believe us? We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives in a way; our experiences and prejudices color our perceptions of what we see. We can never totally be sure of our own objectivity and that sure scares the hell out of me.