For Mike Flanagan’s birthday, we’re celebrating his first feature “Absentia”, an underrated masterpiece that laid the groundwork for his future work.
I can remember vividly the first time I watched Mike Flanagan’s Absentia. It was the spring of 2014, and I was a sophomore in college. In my spare time I would watch horror movies to fill up the hours between classes when I had nothing else really to do. I couldn’t complain because I loved cuddling up in my blankets and going through Netflix for something to watch.
I happened upon Absentia one evening. I hadn’t really heard anything about the film or Flanagan, who at the time only had Absentia and Oculus under his belt. Absentia, even back then, reflected everything I thought horror should be.
Flanagan has since made many more wonderful projects, while sticking to his clear and concise creative principles that he laid down while making Absentia.
Horror is an extremely human genre.
At its core, there should typically be humanity, a thread that causes the tale to strike fear in us at a deep level that we originally believed impenetrable. There should be a sense of realness and relatability, which often serves to ground the even more fantastically frightening elements of horror. With Absentia, Mike Flanagan is telling us a very human story.
At the center of the film are sisters, Callie and Tricia. Callie is a born again Christian and former drug addict who is coming to help her sister through her most unusual and difficult time. Seven years prior, Tricia’s husband Daniel went missing without a trace. Tricia is preparing to file paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia. However, bizarre events related to an underpass not far from Tricia’s home begin to disrupt the sisters’ lives even more.
It’s an interesting dynamic and predicament, one that’s uncommon, but the characters’ relatability helps make it all seem fully real.
Callie is loveably messy, a good and decent person who has struggled greatly in the past and wants to right her former wrongs, all the while aiding her sister. Tricia is struggling to find inner peace amid her guilt. Tricia’s storyline gets more complicated with the fact she is very pregnant with another man’s child — the detective who has taken over her husband’s case to be exact.
Tricia constantly has terrifying stress-induced nightmares involving her missing husband. She’s a realistically conflicted person.
It’s this idea of humanity that Flanagan has carried with him throughout his career.
From the Russell siblings in Oculus, to Dan Torrance and Abra Stone in his latest creative effort Doctor Sleep, Flangan’s horror is rooted deeply in the idea of the human experience.
Grief, loss, addiction, anger, obsession, and so much more come alive under his masterful direction. The characters aren’t flat, two-dimensional beings; they’re people who stay with you long after the story has ended. His greatest feats are making characters that haunt our thoughts with their own humanity.
Flanagan’s not interested in creating pretty characters who are superficial. He brings the real and raw and messy alive, and he does it with the utmost empathy and heart. Some of his characters aren’t easy to love, but there are people out there that aren’t.
When you go into one of his works, you’re going to feel the gamut of human emotion that isn’t limited to strictly fear. He’s not just trying to scare you. He’s trying to make you feel something and step outside of your own experience and into the world of someone else.
Flanagan’s deep emotional intelligence sets him apart and, quite frankly, ahead of the pack.
Callie and Tricia’s dynamic roundness is something else that struck me. It’s not every day you come across a man creating female characters with the same care that is typically afforded to male characters.
Flanagan’s Callie and Tricia aren’t caricatures or a played out male fantasy. They’re fully delineated people who are given the respect that they deserve from their creator.
He’s not afraid to delve into the mind of women, and he does so with extreme success — because women aren’t just tools to further a male narrative in his works. They’re living, breathing being with their own inner worlds and hang ups. Flanagan creates some of the most compelling women, and he puts them front and center.
Tricia and Callie were the start of a long line of interesting and complex women that stand on their own.
In Oculus, it was Kaylie Russell. In Hush, it was Maddie Young. In Before I Wake, it was Jessie. In Ouija: Origin of Evil, it was Alice, Lina, and Doris Zander. In Gerald’s Game, it was Jessie Burlingame. In The Haunting of Hill House, it was Olivia, Shirley, Theo, and Nell Crain. And in Doctor Sleep, it was Rose the Hat and Abra Stone.
It’s one thing to create one film that boasts such lovingly written women, but Flanagan has made it the cornerstone of his entire oeuvre.
Flanagan has an eye for brilliance, and that’s evident in the actors that he chooses to work with. Courtney Bell, who portrays Tricia in Absentia also appears in Oculus and Before I Wake. Catherine Parker, who portrays Callie in Absentia, went on to appear in Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House, and Doctor Sleep.
There’s not an actor that feels out of place in his pieces, and everyone wholly gives themselves over to their roles in a beautifully collaborative effort. There’s a good reason why we see many of the same actors in his works. Good actors want to work with good directors. And Flanagan gives love and attention to actors who are often underrated and underused.
Absentia is truly an exercise in technical expertise as well.
I think having a smaller budget often pushes filmmakers into creative and interesting places that exorbitant Avengers-level budgets don’t. That’s not to say a large budget is a bad thing, but to make a truly good film on a small budget is an art in and of itself.
Some of the best and most inventive horror ever has been created on micro budgets, and Mike Flanagan’s Absentia is no exception to that. The film was made for around 70,000 dollars and is a testament to the fact that you can make a movie that is technically sound, looks amazing, has great acting and a compelling story for very little.
Flanagan continues to be able to make fantastic films on modest budgets with flair and expertise that movies with much larger budgets lack. If you want your mind absolutely blown, watch or rewatch Hush with the knowledge that it was made for around 1 million. Now that’s talent and innovation at work. It also happens to be one of the best lit horror movies I have seen in the past ten years, because it takes place in the dark mostly, yet you can clearly see everything.
There’s nothing like finding a creator out there that speaks to you on so many levels and keeps you engaged, project after project.
Mike Flanagan has been that filmmaker for me since my first viewing of Absentia. It’s been a pleasure to watch where his career has gone over the years, and I have been an eager passenger on his journey — eagerly consuming everything he creates and always finding more to love.
I often joke that Mike Flanagan is one of the few men who hasn’t let me down, but it’s not really a joke. I have never been let down by any of his creative visions and find myself revisiting them again and again. Every new film or series feels like something historic in the making. I get the sense of watching a modern horror master on the rise.
All I can say is, keep making these beautiful, heartfelt, and terrifying creations, Mr. Flanagan. I’m going to be right there to cheer you on every step of the way.
And if any of you readers haven’t had the chance to watch Absentia, it’s now streaming on Shudder. I highly recommend it, but you probably could have guessed that much.