When we look back through the annals of film history twenty years from now, it's hard to say what exactly will mark the current moment—hindsight is 20-20, as they say. Maybe this era will be remembered for the schlocky superhero movies that seem to come out every week, or perhaps it will be the rise of Oscar-bait dramas so saccharine they become almost self-parodies (I'm looking at you The King's Speech). Maybe it will be the proliferation of documentaries through online streaming or the legitimization of online and television media as respectable places for big-name directors and actors to find themselves. We are at an interesting crossroads in the history of the moving image, and it's hard to tell without using a crystal ball what will and won't influence our collective future.
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Producer: Travis Stevens
Writers: Ted Geoghegan, Richard Griffin (concept)
Cinematographer: Karim Hussain
Editors: Aaron Crozier, Josh Ethier
Music: Wojciech Golczewski
Cast: Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden
Premiere: March 15, 2015 – South by Southwest
US Release Date: June 5, 2015
US Distributor: Dark Sky Films
One of the small currents flowing in the film history pool is the quiet resurgence of horror as a genre with viable aesthetic and intellectual heft. Horror has never exactly left—violent scare pictures (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, The Human Centipede) have long been a mainstay of box office profits—but now it feels as if intelligently conceived horror, work with artistic merit and a sublime level of focus on aesthetics, is making its way back into theaters. With films like Under the Skin, The Babadook, and It Follows, we are seeing a return to credibility for a genre that has long languished at the bottom of the cinematic food chain. Ted Geoghegan's debut feature We Are Still Here has some aspects moving in the direction of respectability.
The story follows Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig), a middle-aged couple that has recently lost their college-age son to a car accident and who decide to move from the city out to rural Aylesbury, Massachusetts—a town that incidentally takes its name from an opaque reference in an H.P. Lovecraft story. (Aylesbury borders the town of Dunwich, the site of Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror.) In an old-fashioned horror setup, their new house shows serious issues of haunting—the floors creak with menace, things open and close or fall over mysteriously, and strange figures seem to lurk in corners. Townspeople come to visit and warn them of their peril.
Perhaps most telling of all is the basement, whose crumbling stone foundation has holes that lead somewhere terrible and which is always extremely hot and smells of smoke. Anne connects these anomalies to a vibe she gets that their deceased son Bobby is trying to contact them from the other side. Toward that end, the couple invites some vague friends of theirs who have ties to the occult to spend a weekend in the country.
The setup is fairly conventional, as are the scares: blackened-looking zombie types live in the hot basement and appear and disappear, killing at will with their scorching touch. The backstory is relatively vague—the house is a former mortuary and the owners were driven out of town for selling the bodies—but the presence of the zombie beings is genuinely unsettling, with their scorching heat adding something to the verisimilitude of their terror. It's easier to imagine what it feels like for one of these things to grab you when you hear the crackle of singeing flesh. The most we glean about their origins are vague intimations that “the house needs a family” and that these beings are somehow in service of a greater evil, but they are certainly skin-crawlingly scary.
The script, however, leaves much to be desired with the majority of lines way too on the nose. Instead of speaking in sentences the way people do, these characters speak their bare emotions outright. There is no self-consciousness or doubt, no jealousy or disdain, these are just characters speaking lines that could be considered plot summary. “Whatever’s in that house wants you to think it’s Bobby,” says a member of the occult-experienced couple, literally summarizing a minor plot point. Much of this dialogue feels lazy and uncreative, and breaks that cardinal rule taught in creative writing classes—show, don’t tell. Yet Geoghegan’s direction is surprisingly adept, well-paced, steady, and creepy as hell. This is the kind of horror film that makes you worry what may be crawling up silently behind you while you’re distracted by the movie.
The fundamental issue is the central conceit (which is not so different from The Amityville Horror) that there is some undesignated evil immanent in the house. What that force wants or doesn’t want is never articulated or even guessed at, it’s just consistently referred to in clichéd terms as evil, darkness, or a bad feeling. But with no investigation into the nature of good and evil, calling this unknowable thing evil is basically nonsense. While the idea of an entity whose decisions exist beyond human understanding is appealing, it’s a hard thing to pull off. Geoghegan’s surface-level script gives the impression not of a godlike force of chaos and destruction, but that Geoghegan didn’t bother to think about what this manifestation would want. It remains just a thing that happens to the Sacchettis rather than something that they seek to understand. (In fact, our deepest revelations into this thing’s motives come from a series of newspaper headlines inserted behind the closing credits.)
That said, the acting is impressive, led by veteran scream queen Barbara Crampton, whose horror provenance leads all the way back to Re-Animator (1985) and Chopping Mall (1986). One particularly impressive scene features an Exorcist-like possession performed with restrained intensity and careful facial contortions by Larry Fessenden. In fact, We Are Still Here shares a lot with 80’s horror. It uses almost exclusively practical effects whose gruesomeness rivals even body horror masters Carpenter and Cronenberg—the sheer quantity of blood splattered on the walls must have been a delight for the special effects crew. But this isn’t the next step in the evolution of horror cinema. If anything, this film is a throwback to an era in which horror wasn't quite so maligned.