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Mike Flanagan’s ‘Absentia’ (2011) – An Ambitious Debut



Review: 'Absentia' (2011) - An Ambitious Debut

Even if you don’t recognize his name, chances are you’ve screamed during one of Mike Flanagan’s projects. Over the past decade, Flanagan has created an untouchable track record in horror, and with each entry in his filmography, the writer/director’s profile has risen considerably. Three separate Flanagan movies were released in 2016 alone, with Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil each receiving considerable critical acclaim. What’s even more interesting is that each had a remarkably different scope and style, while still fitting within Flanagan’s filmography and sharing his signature panache.

Whereas other horror directors might struggle to fit three great movies into one decade, Flanagan’s 2016 was somehow topped by each subsequent year. In 2017, he did the impossible by releasing Gerald’s Game, based on a Stephen King book many had argued was unadaptable. He didn’t just successfully translate the story to the screen; Flanagan created an incredible standalone horror movie filled with serious tension and satisfying payoff. What’s more impressive was Flanagan’s adherence to the story’s single location. A majority of Gerald’s Game takes place within one room, with Flanagan’s direction sustaining a serious suspense throughout.

In 2018, Flanagan pivoted toward long-form television horror-drama, releasing his “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix. The series, based very loosely on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, is still one of Netflix’s most popular horror titles, leading to a sequel series to be released later this month. The story follows the Crain family, besieged by ghosts and portrayed by one of the better ensemble casts in recent horror history. Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Katie Siegel, Timothy Hutton and Lulu Wilson ground the story with a believability that makes the characters feel like a real family. Eagle-eyed viewers have a lot to pick through with this one, because “Hill House” is packed with hidden ghosts and Easter Egg scares.

The Haunting of Hill House

While some might be satisfied to rest on their past successes, Flanagan followed all of this with his biggest home run so far in 2019, again bringing a King story to life with Doctor Sleep. Easily one of the most intimidating horror properties in existence, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep was a sequel to his legendary, genre-defining The Shining. But what made this new project so uniquely menacing to filmmakers was the outsized legacy of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick production that adapted its predecessor. So Flanagan had his work cut out for him. Not only was his movie an adaptation of King’s book, but it also had to reckon with the near mythical status of Kubrick’s The Shining. Flanagan did the unspeakable, creating a movie that balanced and synthesized these disparate works while also working as its own damn good movie.

But where did it all start? Can these unbelievable blockbuster feats be traced back to their humble roots? For the answer, one need only look to Absentia, Flanagan’s feature length 2011 debut. Sure, the guy had some short films and some student films before that, and his work as an editor attached his name to many household titles prior to that year, but Absentia is as good a place as any to see the birth of a horror legend.

To describe Absentia as low-budget risks mislabeling the movie with a stigma that conjures images of cheap blood and hoaky actors. But the truth of it is that Absentia was made for a listed $70,000. While other filmmakers might’ve chased low-grade gore effects, Flanagan instead chose to anchor his movie with a strong story, and actors he could trust to deliver it in a believable way.

Absentia 2011 Still

Callie (Katie Parker) returns home to her grieving sister’s side after some hard years on the road. Her sister Tricia (Courtney Bell) is finally coming to terms with the fact that her long-missing husband may never return. It’s been seven years since he disappeared, and after doing everything she can to find any trace or clue, Tricia is ready to file for her husband’s death certificate, declaring him dead in absentia.

As Tricia struggles to live her life, her husband Daniel appears to her in a series of ghostly hallucinations. Here, we see the younger Flanagan really beginning to flex his scare muscles. Already, he has the instincts to not overly-rely on jump scares, instead choosing to creep his audience out with tension and atmosphere. That’s what makes Absentia such an enjoyable viewing experience for anyone familiar with Flanagan’s later work; every one of his movies is different from the others, and they all grow out of Absentia. Right here you have the convincing family drama that would grow to form The Haunting of Hill House. So too can you see the roots of Ouija: Origins of Evil with Flanagan’s adeptness for putting the supernatural onscreen. And just like he would later utilize incredibly effective cameos from Henry Thomas in Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep, Flanagan gets some serious mileage from Doug Jones in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in Absentia.

What begins as a stark, barebones family story slowly reveals itself as an otherworldly tale based more so in myth. Without spoiling anything big about the story, I will say this: Whatever you think has happened to Daniel, you are absolutely not going to expect the truth. Instead of revealing any further details, I recommend checking out Absentia. Whether you’re a Mike Flanagan completist, or even if you’re just looking for a proper place to start, this is the place, and now is the time.

His series The Haunting of Bly Manor is set to debut on Netflix October 9th, 2020.

The Haunting of Bly Manor Art