Small budget horror films typically have an uphill battle. In a genre that often relies so much on effects, a lack of money often results in cheap sets and laughable monsters. It takes a smart director to know how to turn a production’s limitations into a strength, focusing on character and mood rather than gore. And in Absentia, they result in a somewhat flawed but unsettling sit.
Tricia is still coping with the unexplained disappearance of her husband some seven years earlier when her drifter sister, Callie, moves in. Tricia finally starts accepting the loss and begins the difficult process of declaring him dead in absentia. The nightmares she suffers intensify and devolve to waking hallucinations through the process. However, it’s only after the paperwork is finally filed–and Callie has a strange encounter with a derelict under a nearby bridge–that her spouse reappears much the worse for wear. And still terrified of whatever dragged him away so many years ago.
Fans of the current trend of jump scares and CG blood will want to steer clear of this one. Absentia is a slow burn, taking time to explore its characters and their reactions in as realistic a way as possible. While the pacing does drag a little at points (particularly off and on during the first third), the actors are good enough to keep the ship afloat. The horror element of the movie moves in by slow degrees and does a fine job of feeding off the character moments that came before it to deliver some truly powerful scenes.
Due to either design or its small budget (or both), Absentia’s monster is seen only in glimpses. However, its nature makes this entirely fitting and only adds to the tension. But the real creep factor comes not only from how it conceals itself, but through the hints of intelligence and long-term manipulation intertwined with the plot.
Absentia is the rare example of a subtle creature feature. The characters take precedence over the monster and are well written enough to care about, making their trials far more harrowing for it. Overall, it’s a disquieting experience that I recommend for the more patient, perhaps even literary, horror fan. But be warned, the ending to this one is as black as it gets.