A couple moves into an old house, hidden away in a New England town that harbours a wicked past, and where the locals are about as welcoming to newcomers as high schoolers in an ‘80s movie. There’s something in the basement cellar, and as the couple and their friends find out over the couple of days, the house has a life of its own. It is the perfect recipe for a haunted house delight, the cosy blend of small-town folklore and a claustrophobic location making for immense potential in chills on familiar grounds, if executed well. Director Ted Geoghegan is here to deliver just that; armed with a cast that fits easily into their archetypal roles and the fresh vision that only a new mind can bring, he seems to understand the qualms most people have with horror films. Taut in tension and smart in execution, We Are Still Here hits all the right notes without assuming to be anything more than what it is: a fun chiller to snuggle up with.
Paul and Anne Sacchetti have moved into a century-old house in an unnamed town where they hope to leave the past behind and begin anew. The recent demise of their son Bobby has taken its toll on both of them and the house does not seem to take too kindly to their presence. Of course this means they have displeased the spirits who haunt the house and will need to delve into the town’s bloody past. Of course Anne has a friend with psychic abilities who also happens to be the mother of Bobby’s roommate. Of course the townspeople speak in equivocation and stare with knowing looks. Of course all of these things happen, but what’s important, however, is how the director builds on these Americana horror staples to give fans joyful satisfaction. It is a story you’ve heard told a million different ways, but with a life unlike those crunched out by studio-houses and where the distinctive filmmaking quirks are apparent enough to strike a chord.
Perhaps the most important minutes of a movie are those right at the beginning, for they introduce you to the experience and lure you into staying for the rest of the story (at least the good ones do). This is something Geoghegan knows too well, it seems, for the only reason I decided to stay for the rest of the film was the simple yet effective opening, dripping with mystery and darkness. Inspired by Carpenter’s silent wide shots in The Thing, the images of the house and its surroundings reek of foreboding and seclusion; inviting us into the general evil that inhabits the film. On the whole, shots are cleverly placed to incite the most shocking reveals and the camera moved with voyeuristic creepiness to fully embody the invisible presence which has the house in its hold. The film especially excels in its composition of visuals and sound, aimed at reinforcing the sinister atmosphere of the story and adeptly maintaining a serious demeanour even in its campiest moments. And this is the film’s undeniable success: its constant refusal to be pinned down by its many clichés and embracement of the indulgent genre film that it is.
Despite its cookie-cutter character types and mythology, We Are Still Here handles the movement of the plot rather well; and as the film passes the half-way mark, all predictability is thrown out the window. If the first half can be described as a slow-burning build-up of the creeps, then the second one is a far wilder animal, drawing blood and screams aplenty. In a way, Geoghegan pays tribute to two contrasting schools of horror cinema in his work, where, although the story-broth is slowly brought to boil, the payoff is a graphic feast. There is immense attention paid to each kill, not letting gratuitous gore and glorified violence compromise the spell of the film, which proves necessary in light of the monster design. I’ve always maintained that unless the design of the entity is creative enough to be admired on its own, the tension of a horror film deflates on revelation. This is what worked so well for Jaws – despite the shark design itself being menacing – and The Babadook, and what became one of the many sins of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. It is a simple manipulation of the human mind – bread and butter for directors of horror – where the absence of a face or image to root our fears in lets the imagination run wild. While it cannot be said that We Are Still Here gives up the monster early enough to shake off all chills, the design is uninspired and towards the end, simply unintimidating.
The film is able to draw well-rounded performances from the entire cast, usually the weakest link in films of the genre. They are somehow able to remain grounded in reality, while slyly mixing in the taste of indulgent fun that makes guilty pleasure, quite reminiscent of the performances in The Visit last year. One scene in particular, the visit from the new neighbours, emphasizes with tongue in cheek the execution of overused stereotypes in this movie, that never feels overbearing and instead invites you to shed notions of reality and enjoy it just a little more. And while there have been films in the past that handled the irony and satire of generic horror with more nuance and better results (see Shaun of the Dead and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil), director Ted Geoghegan’s work here thrives in the comfort of familiar thrills and aesthetics, all the while making sure the tone is serious enough to prevent viewers from escaping its spell. Apart from the sinister small-town setting and expressive background score, this is largely owed to the believability of Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig in their roles as the unsuspecting couple. Taken as a whole, We Are Still Here blends the unique vision of its debuting director with ingredients from the now-stereotyped American folklore horror to give us an experience which if accepted for what it is, will reward its audience generously.