Indie horror-thriller offers an offbeat premise and above-average character writing in its tale of a Los Angeles neighborhood whose residents are prey to an invisible menace.

Effective indie horror-thriller “Absentia” offers an offbeat premise and above-average character writing in its tale of a Los Angeles neighborhood whose residents are prey to an invisible menace. Too short on graphic content for mainstream horror fans, Mike Flanagan’s feature could eke out a niche theatrical release a la “House of the Devil” by appealing to more discriminating genre tastes, though primary exposure will be in home formats. Phase 4 Films has picked up Stateside VOD and DVD rights.

Tricia (Courtney Bell) is a Los Angeleno whose Glendale ‘hood appears pleasant enough, but is apparently unsafe, and not in the usual city ways. Apart from burglaries, an unusual number of pets — and a few humans — seem to routinely disappear. Among the latter is Tricia’s husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), who vanished without a trace seven years ago. Now she’s finally trying to put that behind her, not just by starting a new life — she’s heavily pregnant by the police detective (Dave Levine) still assigned to the missing spouse’s case — but by having Daniel legally declared dead by absentia.

Unfortunately this largely symbolic gesture triggers alarming visions of a husband enraged at such abandonment, first in nightmares, then all too often appearing during Tricia’s waking hours. A psychiatrist says these “lucid dreams” are simply a subconscious reaction to guilt over giving up any hope of Daniel’s return, but they certainly seem more than that. Meanwhile, her younger sister Callie (Katie Parker), after several years in and out of rehab, has arrived to help out with the imminent baby.

It’s Callie who first notices something amiss in the short pedestrian tunnel nearby that links the neighborhood with a park. Jogging there one day, she finds a desperate, bloodied man who expresses surprise she can see him, deduces that must be because “It’s sleeping,” and begs her to contact his family. Turns out the name by which he identifies himself is that of another long-missing local man. When someone presumed dead actually returns — wearing the same clothes he disappeared in and showing signs of physical abuse — he can only say, “I was underneath.” And “the underneath” now isn’t going to leave any of our protagonists alone.

Pic perhaps errs in never providing even a climactic flash of that predatory alternate dimension (or whatever it is), and more literal-minded horror buffs will frown at Flanagan’s refusal to offer more than the most fleeting, partial glimpses of the creatures who rule it. A little more payoff wouldn’t have hurt, and a little less of Callie’s late yakkety monologue about global supernatural beliefs would have been a good idea.

Still, “Absentia” is very creepy, non-formulaic and more grounded in relatable personalities than the usual horror film filled with hottie victims and other stereotypes. A neat touch is Flanagan’s interweaving of glimpsed wishful-thinking scenarios loved ones imagine for the missing. Perfs are very strong, production package modest but utterly assured, with Ryan David Leack’s score particularly good.

Absentia

Production

A Fallback Plan Prods. presentation in association with Blue Dot Pictures of a Brown/Gordon/Flanagan production. Produced by Morgan Peter Brown, Mike Flanagan, Justin Gordon, Joe Wicker. Co-producers, Joe Hollow, Kevin I. Kale, Jason Poh. Directed, written, edited by Mike Flanagan.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Rustin Cerveny; production designer, Liz Bradley; music, Ryan David Leack; sound, Richard Ragon; assistant director, Drew Shirley. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, May 14, 2011. (In Another Hole in the Head Film Festival.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, Dave Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon, James Flanagan, Scott Graham, Doug Jones, Connie Ventress, Ian Gregory, Mark Dumonski, Elizabeth Adwin.

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