Friday, March 27, 2015

Absentia

2011, Mike Flanagan (Oculus) -- Netflix

Ohhhhh, he did Oculus. Now I know why he got the budget and casting for that movie. Here it is just over 2 weeks later, and I am still thinking about Absentia, a very basic, low-budget horror movie with no faces at all. But it stuck with me.

Absentia is about a man who has disappeared, reported missing, and seven years later, his wife Tricia is having him declared death in absentia. She is not dealing well, still walking the neighbourhood replacing the posters and still has their room filled with his possessions. Her sister Callie arrives to help out, a sister who has been missing on her own terms for much of the past seven years, as a runaway and drug addict. But Callie has come to support her sister with the declaration and the coming baby. Baby? How did that happen? No, nothing spooky seven year conception, just normal mistakes (or not) made in the chaos of her husband's disappearance.

The movie focuses its horror specs on something mundane, a pedestrian tunnel that goes under the highway to a nearby park. It immediately made me think of Let Me In (the remake of Let The Right One In) and the vampire child hiding in its shadows, as well as another horror movie where hoodied thugs crouch at its entrance intimidating everyone who comes by, but whose title escapes me right now. Citadel ? In their purest form, even during the day, those tunnels always make people hesitate. Could there be someone in the shadows at the far end? If not someone, something?

Yes.

At first, we think the movie may be running the path of ghosts. The husband's eerie phantom appears to Tricia, seen only by her, in dreams and eventually during the waking hours. Stress? Probably. Ghost? Maybe. Meanwhile Callie is seeing her own ghosts, the homeless man (Doug Jones) found in the tunnel who we recognize immediately is not homeless at all, but someone returned from... somewhere. And the trinkets and traded items that appear out of nowhere. I loved, just loved, how the movie took a horror trope -- where something weird happens to someone and they keep it to themselves -- and turned it over. Callie calls the police, after finding the trinkets in her bed. The police investigate, but at the same time are trying to connect it to the husband's disappearance. Stress upon stress, and Tricia is seeing more phantoms until, one is not. Husband Daniel has returned.

Its been seven years. He is in the same clothes as when he left. He is battered, abused and malnutritioned. He is pale, deathly pale. Where has he been? Who had him? The cops are suspicious, but strangely don't ask the right questions. One is more suspicious than he has the right to be. And more protective of Tricia then he should. Daniel is traumatized, muttering to himself and withholding ... reasons. After finding he is basically healthy, they send him home.

Callie is even more suspicious, as she has been doing some research. Many many people have gone missing in this area. Some have returned, others are just gone. She does the full investigation trope on the Internet finding unrelated stories, global stories, but connecting them through... a nearby tunnel. And she adds in some myths and we get the origin stories behind trolls under bridges, as well as many other, "there are scary things in the dark crawlspaces". Of course, she is a drug addict so who would believe her?

This was the part that connected for me, that spun my brain off in so many directions. My go-to imagining for most horror stories, is to envision the RPG heroic side of things. What if someone came in at the last second, hunting down the serial killer, banishing the demon or tracking and killing the monster, because they are aware of such things. I imagined an organization that is tracking these events, has been for years, seeking out those weak spots in certain tunnels that allow the monsters to steal people and for some people to return, given the right circumstances. They have all the lore, all the needed weapons and have delved into the real dark tunnels beyond the ones connected to on our side. In a world where monsters are real, we need monster hunters.

Now for the even geekier part.

If we have always had a fear of tunnels, investing it into tales and myths of monsters in caves, mines and under bridges, what if we invested as much mythos in conquering those monsters? What if Beowulf and its lasting popularity is an attempt to solidify it in our collective minds, so the things beyond don't have as much ability to use tunnels against us? Without the fear, we are stronger. And what if someone in the 1960s decided it needed to be even wider established, and began working on a game where bold heroes would go into tunnels to defeat monsters? He wanted it so embedded in our psyches that the tunnel creatures would be weakened worldwide.  I think you know where I am going. D&D was a tool against a very real dark, and also, maybe a bit of a recruiting forum.

Yeah, thats the way my brain goes.

The movie itself takes a darker, blood tinted stance. There are no (successful) heroes. But it doesn't diminish Callie's heroic attempt. She faces the monsters, trying to bargain with them. Alas, all we get are more missing persons posters. The monsters are never revealed, the world beyond the tunnels never explored. The mystery and emptiness are all we are left with. Questions. Fears.