Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
Every once in a while we get lucky. An indie project that we know very little about will arrive in the mail and, with the right balance of an intelligent script, completely natural actors, and a director who gets that we don’t need absolutely everything explained in minute detail, proceed to knock our socks off. Absentia is just such a film.
Tricia (Bell) is a woman at the crossroads. Her husband, Daniel, disappeared seven years ago, and she now finds herself pregnant by another man and ready to move on … and out of the house she and Daniel shared. The neighborhood has been steadily declining with petty thefts occurring on a regular basis in the surrounding homes, and Tricia knows it’s not likely to improve anytime soon. Her wayward sister, Callie (Parker), arrives as the film opens, eager to also put her past behind her and help Tricia with the process of packing up and having Daniel declared legally dead – in absentia. But it doesn’t go smoothly. It’s not long before Tricia begins having visions of Daniel (a very pissed off Daniel, menacingly portrayed by Morgan Peter Brown) lurking around the house, which her therapist brushes off as nothing more than lucid dreams due to her guilt and conflicted emotions about moving forward with obtaining a death certificate for her missing spouse.
Callie, too, begins seeing things in the spooky old tunnel that connects Tricia’s street with a nearby park. A man she assumes is nothing more than your typical homeless guy mutters nonsense about “them” being asleep, enabling him to get away, and asks her to get in touch with his son to let him know he’s still alive. The audience is only given enough background information on Callie — something about drugs and run-ins with the law — to make us wonder whether the things she’s seeing are real or just another fantasy in the long string of hallucinations she’s experienced over the past several years. Throw in Missing Persons Detective Mallory (Levine), whose concern for Tricia might be a bit more than mere professional courtesy, and we’ve got a tense, unnerving powder keg of a situation that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing as to what exactly is going on here. Callie starts putting the pieces together, but of course because of her history no one takes her seriously. Even we, the viewers, question the information we’re given, which is the beauty of Absentia: its ambiguity and willingness to leave a few question unanswered.
And that is all I’m going to divulge about the plot. As mentioned at the outset, Absentia came to me shrouded in mystery, and it should remain that way for you, too, as much as possible. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? Yes and no — and a whole lot more. Ancient urban legends come into play and mess with the characters’ (and the viewers’) heads. Writer/director/co-producer/editor Flanagan has accomplished what at times seems to be the impossible: crafting an indie film in such a way that its budget is mostly irrelevant. And that is because he understands the importance of the story. The characters actually speak dialogue as conversation, not the reciting of lines on a page. Nothing feels familiar or rehashed; it’s a breath of fresh air in the stale indie scene that seems stuck on found footage, weekend getaways gone awry, and home invasions (although there is a tiny element of that here, albeit not in the way we’ve been conditioned to think of it). When the opening credits began, I admit to some concern upon seeing that Flanagan served as his own editor, a situation that with young directors more often than not results in a film that’s a good 20 minutes (at least!) too long with scenes that drag on and on. But I have to say he kept it tight, kept it moving, and, most importantly, kept my interest for Absentia‘s full 87-minute runtime.
No doubt a large part of Flanagan’s success can be attributed to the excellent cast he assembled. All are basically unknowns (except for a pivotal appearance by the always great Doug Jones), and while the start is a little rocky with leads Bell and Parker finding their way and fine-tuning their chemistry, by the time the shit is hitting the fan, their sisterly bond is palpable … and extremely touching. The men are predominantly secondary players, but Levine hits all the right notes, and Justin Gordon as an additional detective on the case adds the perfect amount of authenticity to what could have been your basic stereotypical cop role. And they all look like you or I — regular people. In this era of hot-young-cast-a-mania, it’s a treat to see such real looking actors. Nostalgic even, like in the 1970’s, which Absentia qualifies as a throwback to. You know, back when plot and mood and atmosphere mattered, not CGI effects and big explosions or shaky cam and quick cuts.
As for the effects in Absentia, less is definitely more. And quite effective. Instead of stingers and jump scares, the chills are accomplished with subtlety and restraint … and a helluva lot of imagination. I also really appreciated the score by Ryan David Leack, which drew me in and made me hold my breath at times; however, the person I watched Absentia with felt the opposite. The organ music took him out of the experience and was a negative. A clear example of how subjective certain elements of a film can be.
One thing, however, that we can all agree on is that the thought of a loved one disappearing into thin air is horrific indeed, and Absentia does a good job of taking that idea and amping up the horror element to provide a film that’s both thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining to the genre crowd. Here’s hoping it finds distribution soon so that the rest of you can enjoy it as much as I did!
4 out of 5
Discuss Absentia in the comments section below!
American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Starring Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo
Directed by Colin Bemis
Recently I wrote up an article here on Dread Central which was basically an open letter to anyone who was listening called “I Miss Found Footage.” Well, it seems like someone WAS listening, as I was then sent the link to an all-new found footage film called Strawberry Flavored Plastic from first-time writer-director Colin Bemis.
The film follows the “still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” Basically, you could think of the flick as American Psycho meets Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep. That, or you could think of it as “Man Bites Dog in color!” However you choose to label Colin Bemis’ psychological thriller, just make sure you check out the film once it hits in the future.
As I alluded to above, the film is basically a found footage version of American Psycho. But that said, the film sports a twist on the charming serial killer subgenre that I have yet to see play out in any of the above-mentioned classics. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but I will say that the film introduces an element to the tale that spins it into much more of a character drama than a straight horror film. Not that there is anything wrong with that!
Truth be told, the film’s turn from serial killer flick into a layered character study might have been its kiss of death, but this slight genre switch is rendered a minor issue as the film’s central narcissistic antagonist is played by Aidan Bristow. Bristow is an actor you may not have heard of before this review, but you will hear his name more and more over the years to come, I promise. The guy gives (no pun intended) a killer performance as the film’s resident serial killer Noel Rose, and time after time surprised me with how chilling, charming, or downright vulnerable he chose to play any given scene.
Bristow’s performance is, in the end, the major element the film has going for it. But that said, as a fan of found footage, I was smiling ear to ear at first-time director Colin Bemis’ understanding of what makes a found footage suspense sequence work.
In Strawberry Flavored Plastic director Colin Bemis is confident and content to allow full emotional scenes to play out with the camera directed at nothing more than a character’s knees. Why is this so important? Because it keeps the reality of the film going. Too many found footage directors would focus on the actors’ faces during such emotional scenes – no matter how contrived the camera angle was. In this film, however, Bemis favors the reality that says, “If you were really in this emotional state and holding a camera, you would let it drop to your side.” I agree, and it is small touches like that which make the film feel authentic and thus – once the shite hits the fan – all the scarier.
On the dull side of the kitchen knife, the film does feel a bit long even given it’s short running time, and there doesn’t seem too much in the way of visceral horror to be found within. Again, graphic blood and gore aren’t a must in a fright flick, but a tad more of the old ultra-violence would have gone a long way in selling our main psychopath’s insanity and unpredictability. But all the same, the film does feature a rather shocking sequence where our main baddie performs a brutal home invasion/murder that puts this film firmly in the realm of horror. In fact, the particular POV home invasion scene I’m talking about holds about as much horror as you’ll ever wish to witness.
In the end, Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a must-see for fans of found footage and serial killer studies such as American Pyscho, Creep, and Man Bites Dog. I recommend giving it a watch once it premieres. If only to be able to point to Aidan Bristow in the near future and tell all your friends that you watched (one of) his first movies.
Lead actor Aidan Bristow turns in a star-making performance in Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a found footage film that plays out like Man Bites Dog in Color before introducing a new element to the charming-serial-killer subgenre and becoming more character study than a straight horror. Think American Psycho meets Creep.
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
We’ve all heard the old saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, I’m here to tell you that’s only partially true. It seems there is a third certainty that had been omitted from the original quote, “It is certain, if you enjoy a movie, at some point someone will remake that movie.” Now is the time when one of my favorite movies gets reimagined, “for an American audience”.
In the late 2000’s an explosion of “French extreme” horror films was released. Martyrs and or High Tension can often be found on any number of lists of the “most fucked up horror movies ever”. Unfortunately, the vastly superior Inside is often forgotten (as well as Frontier(s), but that’s a whole ‘nother rant). Now, ten years after it’s initial release, Inside has been Americanized. Don’t worry, we watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true? It’s the Who Goes There Podcast episode 148!
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Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View
Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as
17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?
What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.
Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?
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