We Are Still Here (2015)
Dir. and written by Ted Geoghegan
Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden, Monte Markham
Following the death of their college-student son, Anne (Barbara Crampton, RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig, UPSTREAM COLOR) move into a modest New England home which for some not-at-all-suspicious reason was quite a bit of a bargain and has stood empty for exactly 30 years. Well, it’s not very long at all before ghostly shit starts to go down and the camera is always ominously peering around the shadowy, dirt-floor basement which clearly predates the modern facade. Anne, deeply depressed over her lost son, suspects that maybe his spirit has followed them to their new digs, and asks “spiritualist” couple Mary (Lisa Marie, parts in all of Tim Burton’s movies from 1994 to 2001, when he dumped her for Helena Bonham Carter) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden, frequent producer, sometimes-director and occasional actor playing “that weird looking guy”) to come spiritual it up and see if they can’t contact the kid’s ghost. But we already know that the spirits in the house are anything but friendly; they’re a scary-looking family of burnt-up charcoal corpses with a penchant for eating the living. And they are not taking kindly to strangers living in their old digs.
Here’s the thing: this is a fuckin’ great one. It would be a pretty great one even if it was just what it appears to be at first: a creepy ghost story with some nicely-designed and imaginative makeup, a great cast, a deliberate pace, and a classical film style. But it’s a bit more than that. Writer/director Ted Geoghegan (a frequent writer/producer, directing for the first time) has genuine ambition here, gradually adding unexpected wrinkles to the story while keeping the whole thing grounded in solid fundamentals. It’s a fairly intimate tale, but it has the distinct sense of a director getting more and more excited with each new idea he can add to the pile. That kind of breathless embellishment can be an exhilarating experience even if it drifts into unwieldy chaos, but it’s especially so here because of how amazing well it all ends up holding together. This is a film which starts off as a particularly well-made haunted house yarn, but builds into something wholly unexpected, neatly wedging in at least two other horror premises --either of which would be a completely respectable hook for a whole movie-- in the process.
The result is a very unique horrorshow which elegantly blends modern indie horror (with its emphasis on serious performances and moody atmosphere) and 70’s horror (set in 1979 and shot with that era’s static, un-color-corrected photography) and good old fashioned 80’s bloodbath fun (the finale has some gore worthy of Lucio Fulci). It is a delicate balance, to say the least, but WE ARE STILL HERE somehow pulls it off; mostly, I suspect, because Geoghegan seems to simply have an intuitive understanding of the mechanics of each of these subtly different flavors of horror. The obvious comparison to make in terms of that intuitive understanding is Ti West, whose 2009 HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (which shares a producer with this one) is such a perfect embodiment of 80’s Satanic-Panic-era horror that it ceases to be imitation and simply transcends time and space to actually become an 80's movie. But I’d like to suggest a somewhat bolder comparison: Tarantino. Not in terms of the dialogue or Tarantino’s particular fetishes, but in his uncanny ability to absorb disparate styles of trash cinema so deep into his psyche that they can emerge in unlikely combinations and still seem natural and appropriate -- not like cheap pastiches, but as intuitive stylistic choices to tell a particular tale. That’s how WE ARE STILL HERE feels; even as you can’t help but note the deliberate potpourri of styles, it never feels fragmented or deliberately referential.
A big part of what holds it together are the performances; everyone’s great across the board, carefully straddling the line between serious drama and jovial horror movie hokum. Crampton and Sensenig are real standouts, though, giving a palpable sense of devastated loss to their characters, and creating the fundamental tension in the film through the way they individually deal with their loss. Everyone else plays things a little more broadly, though still with enough nuance that they stay firmly grounded in the real world and don’t spiral off into cartoonishness. Marie and --especially-- Fessenden have a lot of fun with their hippy-dippy spiritualist characters, but the solid emotional heart generated by the two parents underpins everything with a genuine care that most horror movies with such an obvious devotion to delivering the genre goods wouldn’t bother with. Geoghegan doesn’t belabor the point --and stringently avoids anything cloying-- but he also recognizes that a core of real pathos gives a center of gravity to everything else, makes it more tense and involving. I like this guy. He also wisely avoids over-explaining the movie’s somewhat complicated mythos, giving you everything you need to draw you own conclusion about exactly what’s happening with the various plot strands without larding things up with a bunch of clunky exposition.
Simply put, this was one of the most unexpectedly pleasant surprises of the whole season. Heartfelt, brutal, but often quite a hoot, WE ARE STILL HERE feels like something of a miracle; at least at first blush, this seems like everything one could possibly want in a horror movie, a sample platter of every trick in the horror playbook --from icy dread to sharp creature design to wanton splatter-- all executed with rare skill. I’ll want to see it again before I unequivocally declare it a modern classic, but no matter its staying power, there’s no denying it’s an immensely pleasurable ride and an astonishingly assured directorial debut. Genuinely tense, unpredictable, and a hell of a lot of fun, this is exactly the sort of thing I watch these movies to find.
Also, did I mention Larry Fessenden plays a hippie spiritualist? I could watch a whole series about his character alone. He needs to team up with Lin Shaye from INSIDIOUS, and if possible the ghost of Zelda Rubinstein. I’m too impressed with Geoghegan’s imagination to want him wasting time making sequels, but to whoever it was that directed that unlooked-for DTV sequel to THE PACT, you’ve got yourself a new mission in life.