We Are Still Here

feat-wash
Release: 2015
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Screenplay: Ted Geoghegan
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden, Monte Markham, Michael Patrick Nicholson, Kelsea Dakota, Guy Gane, Elissa Dowling, Zorah Burress
Country: United States


If horror films have taught us anything, it’s that you should always be suspicious of a really good real estate deal. is that house a gorgeous vision of Victorian craftsmanship on the market for peanuts? Don’t buy it, unless you plan to use it as a place to which you invite a group of apparent strangers with the promise that if they can survive spending one night in it, you’ll give them a million dollars. And if you’ve recently lost a loved one in some set of tragic circumstances, well you really need to just move into a relatively new apartment complex or something — preferably one not built on top of an old cemetery or gateway to hell. Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) are practically begging to be harassed by malevolent spirits when, shortly after the death of their son, they move into a remote house with a price that seems too good to be true. And they get exactly what you’d expect.

For most of its run-time, We Are Still Here delivers few surprises but plenty of chills, executing formula with skill. Anne and Paul are haunted by the loss of their son. Anne thinks she hears the voice of their dead son. They are visited by a couple friends. And then people start ending up dead in and/or seemingly possessed while horrifying, charred apparitions stalk the floorboards of the otherwise lovely farmhouse. None of this is unexpected, but it’s effective because the film is not trading in winking self-awareness. We Are Still Here is a “simple” haunted house story that is perfectly happy being a haunted house story, with no need to cloak itself in ironic distance or rely on tiresome nostalgia for its appeal. Instead, there’s commitment to the material and an earnest desire to scare, rather than simply shock, jolt, or reference the familiar. By the time we get to the part where the Sacchettis are on the road to uncovering the sinister secret that has infused their house with supernatural danger, we feel we know what to expect and that, if we get no more than that, it will at least be delivered in a competent fashion. Which is when the movie decides its going to throw you a curve ball.

I like everything about We Are Still Here, but what I like most is the implication in its story, the deeper, darker evil lurking behind the evil we thought was the film’s real menace. But the vengeful ghosts lurking in the cellar — they’re just the tip of the iceberg. there is something far worse and far more complex going on, and the story this film tells us is, it turns out, merely a story of one of the symptoms of what’s happening, rather than the actual cause. In a time when films are obsessed with explaining every detail, with providing an origin story for every character and a reason for every action, We Are Still Here taps into one of the things that makes folk horror most effective: the idea that world is much older than we realize, and that there is evil much more ancient than anything we’ve yet learned to fear or comprehend. Behind our rituals, behind or legends and campfire tales, is a more primal terror, one that we rarely see and then only in fleeting glimpses, a shadow of the shadows but something far worse than the more intelligible nightmares we usually face — the smoldering revenants of the dead, for example. Although never addressing it directly, We Are Still Here is ultimately about the unseen things that terrify the things that give us nightmares.

One of the basic tenets of folk horror, at least how I define it, is dropping a character into the middle of a situation or culture with a long and complex set of beliefs and mythologies that the character does not know or understand. Under such conditions, even the most innocuous of interactions can take on a sinister characteristic — the too cheerful shopkeep, the mechanic who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the sun, the local schoolchildren who chant seemingly innocent songs, the locals who stop what they’re doing and all stare at you in unison when you walk into the bar. OK, that last one is sinister regardless of how familiar you are with the surroundings, but the point is folk horror excels at turning its protagonists into outsiders by forcing them to deal with an unfamiliar culture.

The wariness grows as the characters catch glimpses of strange rituals or odd behavior or, in the case of We Are Still Here, begin to uncover the secret of a house that seems positively crawling with supernatural threats. But the immediate threat is rarely the real threat. Folk horror always has its roots in something much older than humanity, and vengeful ghosts from the early 20th century are newcomers compared to the real danger. But as was often the case in Lovecraft, that real danger is too big, too ancient, too incomprehensible, to be anything more than hinted at. At the end of We Are Still Here, a supernatural threat has been confronted, but what lurks behind it is only addressed in the vaguest of terms. We may have cured one of the symptoms, but the sickness remains. There’s more to this story than ghoulish Dagmar family, more to it than the increasingly confrontational townsfolk, more to it even that this house that has so often been the site of suffering. It is this barely hinted-at horror beneath the horror that makes We Are Still Here such an effective film, and one that is interesting to analyze.

Director Ted Geoghegan is also the writer, and he obviously puts a lot of work into the screenplay. The past couple years have contained a lot of films purporting to be throwbacks to a previous era of film (or “a love letter to,” a description I loathe), and We Are Still Here has sometimes been lumped among them. It’s not a completely unfair assessment except that such designation is usually applied to films that slavishly attempt to recreate something without really putting much thought into it beyond wanting to provide fan service. We Are Still Here doesn’t fall into this trap. If it is reminiscent of a bygone era of horror, it’s only by virtue of taking the genre seriously, rather than as something to be satirized or something that is little more than a collection of references to previous films. t also evokes a period in time without falling back on tired tricks that have become all too common in modern “retro horror” — no faked scratches and hairs added to the print, no faked audio flaws, no faked missing frames.

We Are Still Here certainly contains some references to horror’s past – especially Lucio Fulci, whose films The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, and House by the Cemetery seem the most often visually referenced in this film. But Ted Geoghegan and his crew aren’t out to simply recreate Fulci or provide a catalog of sight gags and easter eggs for fans to recognize. It references, but it is not a pastiche. It is more important that the film be true to its own story, and We Are Still Here exists for its own reasons and succeeds on its own merits. And while it isn’t shy about its influences, it’s not beholden to them either. Fulci’s ghouls usually operated in a world that sacrificed any sense of logic on the altar of “nightmare logic,” where incidents did not necessarily follow a sensical path and where people did not necessarily behave like actual humans. We Are Still Here isn’t a dream, though; it’s folklore. The fiends in We Are Still Here are no less supernatural in origin, but they operate in an otherwise realistic world populated by people who behave in a more or less realistic fashion. The tone thus stands with one foot in the surreal horror of Europe and the more clinical, reasoned horror of the United States and Britain. But again, ultimately, We Are Still Here is more than the sum of its influences. It will be remembered not because it was a throwback to Fulci and to the better, creepier horror films of the 1970s; it will be remembered because it’s really good.

Central to We Are Still Here‘s success is the commitment of its cast to the material. There is no irony here, no winking self-awareness. And no teenagers (well, not really). The heart of the film is Barbara Crampton, who became a horror icon after memorable roles in two Stuart Gordon-Brian Yuzna Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator and From Beyond, though those are by no means her only notable contributions to the genre. Here playing a middle-aged woman tortured by grief — as well as by the occasional phantom of a burned corpse — who is forced to confront a darkness far beyond anything she could imagine, Crampton flexes considerable acting muscle. At times, her delivery is awkward, but I thought it worked for a character who was shattered by grief and only just attempting to return to some sense of normalcy. Although the normalcy doesn’t last for long. It’s one thing to be a “scream queen,” but it’s another thing entirely to be believably panicked and terrified. But when Barbara Crampton’s Anne Sacchetti is scared, you believe it. When she’s emotionally distraught, you believe it. And when she has to rise to the occasion and defend herself against threats both supernatural and more physical and visceral, you believe she’s able to do it.

She’s accompanied by a professionally competent cast of mostly people her own age (which is mostly my own age), including Lis Marie and Larry Fessenden as two slightly batty but well-intentioned friends the Lewises, with a fondness for weed and new age occult mumbo jumbo. Along with Andrew Sensenig as Paul Sacchetti, they form a quartet of relatable, likable, imperfect friends. The movie takes time to let them breathe, to let viewers get to know them. That means that when the horror kicks in, the movie is all the more effective for having bothered to get us invested in the characters rather than presenting us with cardboard cut-outs or over-the-time assholes and hoping to pile on enough gore or jump scares for us not to worry about it. We Are Still Here doesn’t shy away from either gore or shocks, but it doesn’t rely on them. Rather than trading on “you love watching bad things happen to awful people,” it draws it’s value from the more meaningful “you hate watching awful things happen to good people.” The only concessions to youth are Michael Patrick Nicholson as the college-age son of the Lewises and his girlfriend Daniella, played by Kelsea Dakota. But even there, the film eschews the tendency of horror to draw its younger characters in broad, usually grating strokes.

On the opposite side from our protagonists are two sets of villains. The most memorable are the Dagmars, previous inhabitants of the house and, it turns out, just one in a long line of terrible things that have happened to the people who make the mistake of moving in. Realized with a combination of practical effects and CGI — restricted mostly to small details, where it’s most effective — the Dagmars make for memorable, creepy monsters. Just as dangerous to Anne and Paul are the requisite creepy locals, though what motivates them remains unclear to all but a few (and even those in the know seem to grasp only the most superficial aspects). As frightening as murderous ghosts can be, the film’s most visceral moment of fright comes when the townsfolk turn on the Sacchettis with a breathtaking bloodlust that briefly transforms the film into a work of survival horror. The film’s build to its manic finale isn’t rushed, but it isn’t slow, either. It’s a steady build from hints to outright horror and, finally, to a desperate, hopeless struggle during which the film’s prior restraint makes its climactic gore and horror more effective (in that regard, it reminds me of the original Tobe Hooper.Steven Spielberg Poltergeist). By the time the truth is, well, not exactly revealed but certainly hinted at, the film has left one fair exhausted in the way only a good horror film can.