This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on June 9, 2015.
We Are Still Here continues the recent trend of independent horror films steamrolling larger studio efforts (see also: The Babadook, Starry Eyes, It Follows). It is framed as a classic haunted house narrative set in the Northeast during winter, ripe with several jumps, scares, gore, and kills. But, We Are Still Here adds inventive spins to these trademarks of horror rather than resting on what has worked before. Director Ted Geoghegan is out to prove that there is plenty of unexplored territory when it comes to horror and gore alike, and he succeeds in a big way.
The movie follows Anne and Paul Sacchetti, a middle aged couple moving into the country after the loss of their only son Bobby in a car accident. Anne immediately recognizes that there is something else in the house with them and assumes it is Bobby. Another couple, more familiar with the supernatural, is invited to join them for the weekend. It doesn’t take long for the house and the town’s ugliness and secrets to confront both couples.
Conceptually, this premise touches on a lot of familiar tropes. It’s easy to list the characters and elements established in the beginning of the film like a checklist of how to write a haunted house movie. Nothing about We Are Still Here feels like a checklist though. The script, also written by Geoghegan, inverts many of the classic trademarks and focuses on its own unique story to ground the movie. The result is revelatory.
One of the most significant changes upon classic formulas is the inclusion of a middle-aged cast. Only two younger actors appear in We Are Still Here and their screen time is limited to say the least. Both the dramatic and action-oriented roles of the film all center around actors over the age of 40. The dismissal of college students or young adults as the de facto protagonists is part of what allows Geoghegan to easily dismiss so many clichés.
The Sacchettis, played by Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig, are great. Their relationship and personalities feel comfortable and settled. Small interactions, like a small touch to the shoulder or half-spoken acknowledgement of the past, go a long way in investing audiences in these characters. Both Crampton and Sensenig are capable of providing more information with a shared glance or close up than a minute of dialogue. That bond makes for a strong emotional core, and one that makes the quiet final shot work exceedingly well.
The other couple, Jacob and May Lewis, represent a mixed bag. Jacob, played by Larry Fessenden, is a lot of fun as an ex-hippie, stoner archetype. He alters the dynamics of every scene he enters, but never devolves into caricature. May, played by Lisa Marie, rarely hits more than a single note though. She looks lifeless, especially when set beside Fessenden’s performance. Marie’s time on screen never becomes a distraction, but doesn’t add much value until the climax of the film.
It’s clear from the opening sequence of the film that the Sacchettis are in trouble. Geoghegan pulls a camera trick straight from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead as a lead to the title card. It’s a callback to one of the best horror films ever made, but also creates a sense of dramatic irony, separating audience awareness from what the character’s can observe. This irony is continued through much of the first act. The Sacchettis are not made to be willfully ignorant (like most teens in similar stories) because they cannot observe much of what the audience can.
Tight, effective editing helps to build this tension without ever making the threat obvious until it’s far too late to simply drive away in a car. Geoghegan also makes small tweaks to familiar shots. When a figure is shown standing in the background, he removes it by changing the camera angle after looking away. The figure is removed from our scope of vision rather than simply disappearing. Small changes like this are not only fresh, but increase the tension even more leaving the audience to question whether a smoldering frame is still hovering only feet away.
The town that surrounds the Sacchettis household is something from an episode of Twilight Zone, and makes for an eerie mood even when the household is left behind. Monte Markham as neighbor Dave McCabe delivers a deeply disconcerting performance. After almost fifty years in Hollywood, Markham is comfortable both toying with his peers on screen and delivering a blistering monologue.
As well as Geoghegan and the supporting cast builds tension in We Are Still Here, the monsters and gore really steal the show. When the ghosts appear, they are not coy about their intentions. They are very real and incredibly powerful. A few early appearances by the spirits in this house set expectations high for the film’s climax, which then exceeds these expectations considerably. When s**t hits the fan, it goes everywhere.
Bodies pile up in shocking quantities, and blood and viscera is applied in the same copious quantities of a Raimi film. The deaths are never dull though. Each new corpse is created in an inventive manner. There is thought and care (well, maybe care isn’t the right word) involved with the death of even characters who appear in a single shot. Everything from a possession to a particularly deadly flight of stairs are used to keep audiences twisting in their seats.
Geoghegan doesn’t revel too much in the gore though, avoiding the torture pornography aesthetic found in many studio-produced horror films like the Saw franchise. He provides just enough visual information to make what is happening clear, and then cuts away. It’s brutal, but not so brutal that most viewers won’t be able to enjoy the spectacle. This is a very careful balance, but it’s walked well here. When the death toll finally ends, the resulting sense of relief washes over you like stepping off of an amusement park ride.
We Are Still Here is a top notch horror film from start to finish. It embraces the genre, constructing an old haunted house narrative that feels brand new and playing on some of the great films to precede it. However, Geoghegan is just as interested in moving forward as he is in what has come before. The thrills and chills are inventive and capable of surprising new and old horror fans alike. It’s a tightly paced film that is bound to keep audiences twisting in their seats for the entire final 30 minutes. Even with all of that tension and gore, it’s a lot of fun.