The Quarantine Stream: 'Absentia' Is Early Evidence That Mike Flanagan Is A Great Horror Filmmaker

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The Movie: AbsentiaWhere You Can Stream It: ShudderThe Pitch: Before he made Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald's Game, Hush, Oculus and other modern horror gems, director Mike Flanagan made Absentia, a partially crowdfunded horror movie that looks like it's held together with a few dollar bills, spirit gum, and some hopeful prayers. And yet, somehow, it's still unsettling and emotional and emblematic of much of what we see in his later, larger projects.Why It's Essential Quarantine Viewing: Absentia is not Mike Flanagan's first movie, but it's certainly the one that announced to the world what kind of filmmaker he would become. Produced for only $70,000 (some of which was raised on Kickstarter), it's the kind of debut where the confidence behind the camera compensates for the lack of polish in front of it. Everything that would define Flanagan's future movies – specifically his knack for melding terror and raw emotion – is present here.

It may take a few minutes for you to get used to just looking at Absentia. It's clearly a low-budget movie, looking like the kind of project that would screen alongside a Duplass Brothers movie at a film festival. Put bluntly: it's kind of an ugly-looking production. But once you ease past the film's lack of polish, you find yourself drawn in. First, by the characters. And later, by the deeply sinister and horrible situation in which they find themselves snared.

The basic plot synopsis included alongside Absentia gives away the film's big reveal, which occurs deep in the story. And while this hook is necessary to lure some viewers in, this is the point where I suggest you don't read any additional blurbs and go in blind. All you need to know is that this film follows two siblings: a recovering addict who has come to stay with her older sister, who is just about to file the proper paperwork to have her missing husband, who vanished seven years earlier, declared dead. If not for the spooky tunnel down the street, you could easily think this was just a dark drama about grief and sisterhood. Because Flanagan's smart, pitch-black script takes a long time to let the hammer drop. And it drops hard enough to shatter the worlds of both sisters.

When I interviewed Flanagan before the release of Doctor Sleep last year, he told me he couldn't make Absentia today. He's a different man now: older, a bit wiser, and more hopeful. Unlike his most recent work, which melds blood-curdling horror with the ongoing suggestion that people can always find a way to escape darkness, this film pulverizes its lead characters. It spends its running time slipping the knife into them, letting hope leak out so slowly that we don't realize it's run out until it's too late. The final 20 minutes transform into a living nightmare, a dizzying and quietly depraved journey into the bleak unknown that suggests bad things happen to good people because the universe is a hellish place.

Perhaps that's what's most interesting about Absentia nearly a decade after it was released. Not just that Flanagan's voice feels uniquely him, but because it showcases how an artist can change as a person and how those changes can be reflected in a voice that feels consistent even as it evolves. Flanagan has been accused of being a sentimental filmmaker, and I don't think he'd deny that. That's what building relationships and having children and imagining a future for people you love can do to you. It's certainly not a bad thing. But Absentia finds the finest new horror director of the 21st century before he grew up. Before he knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. And boy, it sure is bleak. And it sure makes for a good movie.