This has been a good year for women in horror, with notable performances from Caity Lotz in The Pact, Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers and Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace in Prometheus all helping to nudge the genre a little further away from the leering depths of the Noughties' torture-porn cycle. Absentia, a Kickstarter-originated DTV offering from writer-director Mike Flanagan, continues this welcome trend, providing substantial lead roles for Katie Parker and Courtney Bell as sisters reunited in a house in the L.A. suburbs, trailing their pasts behind them. Callie (Parker) is a former drug addict who's recently reemerged from rehab; the heavily pregnant Tricia (Bell), on the other hand, has been on her own ever since her husband went missing seven years ago. Signing the death in absentia papers is meant to lay hubby's ghost to rest for good, but for a variety of unnerving reasons, this closure keeps being postponed: Tricia is having persistent visions of a shadowy male figure coming back to claim her baby, while Callie becomes obsessed with the underpass across the street.
The latter subplot is key to the suburban naturalism Flanagan fosters: Absentia largely resists the sudden jolts that have become a multiplex horror staple in favour of quiet materialisations that are all the more disconcerting for being so matter-of-fact. We're lulled into believing Tricia's spectres are just the projections of a troubled mind - until, on the night of her first date with the cop who's been pursuing her, one turns up that plainly isn't, and suddenly the sisters find themselves dealing with a presence, not an absence. Flanagan goes even further than The Pact's examination of sisterhood: both Callie and Tricia appear as real women dealing with unreal (but not unthinkable) events, and their anguish at the mistakes they've made, when it surfaces, is palpable. The film has evidently been assembled on a shoestring, yet every element, from Ryan David Leack's spare, atmospheric score to Flanagan's own sharp, instinctive editing, does its darnedest to hold your interest in what's already a compelling story. The ending holds to the kind of ambiguity forever floating around missing-persons cases, which may be an issue for some, but much of what's gone before is very promisingly concrete: it does the most of any movie since Irreversible to establish the underpass as a site of depthless modern menace.
Absentia premieres on Film4 this Monday night at 10.45pm.