I think it’s pretty widely agreed now that Mike Flanagan is one of the most qualified candidates for a new “Master of Horror,” right? Two others would be Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, but they only have two movies each to go by. Flanagan has more evidence on file. I know it’s a title previously reserved for the guys we read about in Fangoria when we were growing up, and here I’m nominating three guys I’m older than. Time is a bastard. But we need fresh blood. The Masters need heirs.
I didn’t review them, but I thought HUSH and GERALD’S GAME (both not-on-DVD Netflix exclusives, unfortunately) were good. I think DOCTOR SLEEP is truly great, and will likely be near the top of my best of the decade list. But of the one’s I’ve seen so far his true masterpiece is the TV series The Haunting of Hill House. I’m a guy who generally doesn’t give a shit about ghost stories, and has a hard time keeping up with TV shows, but I found that series absolutely captivating, deeply moving, and at times really fuckin scary. I didn’t even need the ghosts to show up very often, honestly. I was so into the characters. As thrilling as the climax was, I was kind of sad to get to the last episodes because I just wanted it to keep going.
DOCTOR SLEEP and Hill House have many themes and elements in common, despite being adapted from unrelated books. And since they’re his biggest and most expensive to date, they’re kind of like the ultimate Mike Flanagan films. Both could be described as sprawling – they have multiple time periods and locations, some giant sets, large casts, great FX and a type of high level cinematography I love with very complex and effective camera moves (including long takes). So I really didn’t know if his first feature ABSENTIA, which had a $70,000 budget raised partly on Kickstarter and was filmed mostly in his apartment in Glendale, would seem that much like what we now know is a Mike Flanagan film.
Yep, it does! It has the intense focus on character and emotion. It has a close but sometimes troubled relationship between siblings. It has very good performances. It has the story that takes its sweet time revealing what’s supernatural about it, and is all the better for it. It has the rules and mythology that seem very thought out but cryptic because they’re not at all spoon-fed to us. It has the scary old place (though this time it’s not associated with a childhood trauma for the characters). It has a former addict trying to stay sober (though this time it mainly seems like a reason for people not to believe her about what she’s seen). It even has a part where somebody’s reading some kind of Stephen King comic book, an homage to a future collaborator.
It’s the story of Tricia (Courtney Bell, “Cello Girl [uncredited]”, STEP UP 2 THE STREETS) and her beloved vagabond sister Callie (Katie Parker, Poppy Hill in Hill House), who has come to stay with her for a while. Tricia is very pregnant, but alone, and emotionally vulnerable because after seven years her missing husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown, “Grief Counselor,” OUIJA) has finally been declared dead in absentia.
So there’s no reason for her to think it’s supernatural that she keeps seeing him. She feels guilty about moving on with her life, about accepting that he’s gone, and also about going on an official date with Detective Mallory (Dave Levine, OCULUS), the cop that’s been on the case for several years, who we have noticed is flirtatious and protective of her. So she’s, you know – haunted.
Callie seems to be the troublemaker of the family, the restless wanderer, but she’s a caring person, she hasn’t been using for a while, and she seems genuinely capable of helping her sister through this. But she starts seeing weird things too, mostly when she goes jogging through this weird pedestrian tunnel under the freeway right by the apartment. She sees a babbling skinny guy (marquee name Doug Jones from the Mac Tonight commercials) laying there, he seems to be injured, but she takes him for homeless and doesn’t know how to help him except to come back later with food. And then she starts finding watches and bracelets and things that seem related to a string of petty thefts the detective told her about.
Callie attributes her bringing the food to Christianity. I like the touch that the sisters don’t seem to have been raised religious but have found solace in different ones, and sort of lovingly tease each other about it. Callie finds Tricia cross-legged on the floor with some incense, meditating, and asks, “How’s the Buddhist shit?” She says it great.
The ghosty business in the movie is not religiously based – it’s more tied to folk tales. The way it’s explicitly connected to (SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH) the The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a little much for me, but the implication that there’s some kind of tunnel troll, that accepts some kind of trade, that looks like an insect (specifically an earwig!), but that we never see, is pretty cool.
To me the only serious weakness is a couple off screen horror moments where the sound effects are too chintzy to take seriously. These should be big scares, and they come off completely silly, but by that time I was more than willing to follow Callie’s religion and be forgiving of it. There are other similar moments that do work, and seem like charmingly low budget versions of the type of gags Flanagan will be doing later with the Bent Neck Lady and stuff. While I acknowledge that he’s great at that, it’s never what I’m looking for in his work, so maybe that helped me to enjoy this one.
It’s also one of those movies where they’re all (with the exception of Doug Jones) unknown actors, who have mostly just done shorts and bit parts in the years since, and you marvel at how natural their performances are. I think it’s because Flanagan had to deal with new actors instead of experienced Hollywood people that the two main cops, Detective Mallory and Detective Lonergan (Justin Gordon, BEFORE I WAKE), seem more like real dudes that would be cops than like the cool ones in movies. I thought they both had a very authentic way of asserting their masculinity, Mallory in a protective way and Lonergan in an overcompensating way. (One complaint: Lonergan overdoes the gum-chewing.)
Parker is very good, and even pretty much pulls off the silly turn when she has to tell her sister all the things she’s learned through research about murders and missing people in the neighborhood over the past 100 years (like nobody would’ve made this connection before!). But the real MVP is Bell, who listens to that whole presentation, looking at her with big, sad Melanie-Lynskey-esque eyes that say, “how much longer can I listen to this?” And then she says, “I love you” in a way that means “I still love you now that it’s clear you are completely insane.” She seems so real through all this, which makes all the traumatic stuff she has to go through with her missing husband, and a painful conversation she has to have with his parents, devastating in a way you just don’t expect in these semi-home-made kind of movies.
Another thing: it’s a rare novelty to see a movie where the main character is pregnant, but the movie’s not about that and you don’t see the birth or the baby. I guess there’s this and FARGO? Also it never looked like padding to me, so I wondered if she was actually pregnant. But I figured if she was they probly would’ve had a bare belly shot to show it off. Anyway, I’m surprised she hasn’t done much since this, but I look forward to seeing her in two of the three Flanagans I haven’t seen yet. ABSENTIA proves I shouldn’t skip any of them.
As of this writing ABSENTIA is available on Shudder, which is how I saw it.