Sage Bannick’s The Absent is an ambitious little slasher that tries some slightly new tricks with a fairly predictable story. Set in the high school world of a small town, the film is a good-looking, if oddly plotted slice of moody genre fun.
As a young boy, Oscar (later played as an adult by Denny Kirkwood) suspects his parents of plotting his death to collect a huge life insurance settlement. Naturally, the proactive child beats them to the punch by poisoning their waffles, immediately receiving 25 years in prison while his science-minded brother Vincent (real-life twin Bryan Kirkwood) becomes a handsome, much-loved biology teacher with soon-to-be criminal problems of his own.
We meet some of Vincent’s promiscuous students, including seemingly good girl Katie (Yvonne Zima) who harbors a serious crush on her science team coach. Like all the teenagers in this town, Katie turns out to be far less innocent than her age implies. Upon her request, Vincent leads Katie to his secluded woods cabin, where tragedy strikes twofold: the recently paroled Oscar smothers Katie with a pillow while, somewhat conveniently, a fire destroys all evidence of Vincent’s inappropriate romance. Sheriff John Jackson (a likable Samuel Ball) slowly–very slowly, despite a whole lot of hints–grows suspicious, especially when Katie’s friends start turning up butchered and Vincent’s behavior becomes more erratic.
The Absent has a strong not-quite-slasher spirit about it that marks its victims early on while still providing a few surprises. Most of the effects are refreshingly practical, freeing the kills from the typical CGI coldness so common in modern horror. It helps that despite a low budget, The Absent features stunning photography. There’s some interesting camerawork going on throughout much of the film, with unusual angles and an effective use of lighting, particularly against the dense Washington state landscape.
In terms of story, The Absent is a tad stretched. Although the whole cast (both young and older) act with enthusiastic spark, there’s no real main protagonist for the audience to get behind. Vincent proves his creepiness too early, and while his students, colleague Jennifer (Jamielyn Kane) and her sheriff husband all come off as likeable and believable characters, the script doesn’t give any of them a strong enough storyline to emotionally follow through the end.
Will The Absent give you nightmares? Doubtful. It succeeds at building tension but since we never feel too invested in any of the characters, a lot of the plot developments don’t necessarily feel as important as they should. Still, the film is a refreshing new take on an old genre that bravely dips into surprising levels of sleaze and gore. Bannick demonstrates a strong touch with his cast and camera that ultimately keeps you curious as any mystery should.
The Absent will play in select Washington theaters this fall, with a VOD and DVD release slated for later next year. For more information, visit the film’s official website at http://www.theabsentmovie.com.