Dark Sky Films
Editor’s note: Our review of We Are Still Here originally ran during SXSW 2015, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD.
Genre legend Barbara Crampton should probably stop accepting scripts that introduce her character approaching a new home – think You’re Next, Castle Freak, Chopping Mall (okay, not a house, but they were planning to spend the night!) – because it most likely means her character is in for a rough and nasty ride. I don’t actually want her to stop of course as that means we might have lost the latest entry in this very particular “Crampton comes home” sub-genre, the tightly atmospheric and legitimately scary We Are Still Here.
Paul (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (Crampton) have moved to a small New England town in an attempt to move forward after the death of their grown son some months prior. It’s a remote house, nestled in a winter landscape blanketed in snow, and almost immediately the still-fragile Anne feels their son’s presence inside. It’s comforting and curious, and while Paul doesn’t necessarily believe it he welcomes their more spiritually enlightened friends, Jacob (Larry Fessenden) and May (Lisa Marie), for a weekend of drinking, reminiscing and maybe the occasional seance.
Unfortunately for them all, some supernatural squatters have other plans.
Writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s feature debut drops viewers into a very familiar situation before slowly twisting our expectations in creative and bloody ways. It’s a haunted house tale with an interesting cause at its core, it features a fantastic abundance of wet, messy gore and it accomplished a rare feat – it made me jump. Three times.
The bereaved couple settle in to the house, and aside from the infrequent bump in the night and ghostly whispers everything seems fine. A local electrician fares less well after being attacked in the basement, and other visitors share similar fates, and each new incident reveals more and more of the ghastly beings at work here as well as their motivation. Unlike far too many movies about haunted houses we can actually see these entities, and they are highly effective. They’re nothing less than the unholy offspring of The Fog’s ghostly pirates and the glowing embers of an orphanage burned to the ground.
The film has some rough spots – none are mood killers, but they’re unfortunate all the same – mostly due to dialogue that probably would have benefited from another rewrite or two. Casual conversations feel out of place, observations feel unnecessary. There’s some dodgy camera work early on too including a scene that shows Crampton having to visibly avoid the camera to reach her mark, but they’re exceptions in an otherwise attractively-shot (by cinematographer Karim Hussain) film. And while most of the cast does strong work Marie’s performance sticks out slightly as something of an underachiever.
In contrast to the occasional clunky bit of dialogue other parts of the script, most notably the handful of exposition scenes, are intentional and work with a wink and a nod to the genre. A neighbor (the great Monte Markham) arrives and within seconds is telling the new homeowners (and viewers) about the house’s tragic “history,” and we laugh at the blatant cliche of it all but remain engrossed in the tale being told. Geoghegan also shows respect for the power of silence as evidenced in an early scene of Anne exploring their new basement. She looks around, flashlight in hand, and just misses nightmarish glimpses that we catch.
Composer Wojciech Golczewski adds to the atmosphere of the cold isolation outside and haunting terrors inside with a score that remains effective even as it avoids being obtrusive. It’s quiet and often deceptively beautiful as it lures us towards more bloody mayhem. That atmosphere is especially impressive as much of the film’s scares take place in daylight or brightly-lit rooms. When’s the last time you’ve seen a seance scene play out in the afternoon between two adult male characters?
We Are Still Here is familiar in many ways, but a clear love for the genre and a ridiculously bloody third act go a long way towards making it a memorable entry in the haunted house canon. Geoghegan shows his knowledge and wit without forgetting to embrace the horror of it all, and he delivers old-school terrors without the need for stylized reminders or ironic appreciations. And it’s worth saying again that the damn thing made me jump – and I don’t ever jump.
The Upside: Legitimate jump scares; solid and plentiful practical gore effects; strong atmosphere; shows love and affection for genre; Monte Markham
The Downside: Some rough dialogue; Lisa Marie’s performance