WE ARE STILL HERE Review: That ’70s Scare
I cut my horror movie teeth when I was a 1970s pre-teen. That diet consisted mostly of late-night b-grade fare, with a weekly feast of Creature Double Feature offerings on Saturday afternoons. (Almost all of it was on glorious UHF, by the way.) The selections, dating from the ’40s to the ’70s, were heavy on monster movies, Hammer films, and haunted house tales. While the ’80s would usher in the slasher golden era, and while some subgenres of horror have since gone on to grizzly heights, the creepy, chilling, atmospheric horror of my youth has always held a special place in my movie-lovin’ heart. We Are Still Here, from writer and first-time director Ted Geoghegan, takes me back to that time and place.
Set in New England in what appears to be the 1970s, the film opens with middle-aged couple Paul and Anne Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton, respectively) moving to a new home in a rural area. Haunted by the premature death of their adult son, the couple hopes to get away from too many reminders and heal.
Anne struggles to let go, though, and her sorrow is only exacerbated by little goings-on in the house – a rolling baseball, a picture of her son that seems to fall for no reason – that might be explained away … or they might not. Anne clings to hope that the physical happenings are evidence that her late son is spiritually present. She’s half right. The events are of a spiritual nature, but their son isn’t causing them. There are spirits in the house – spirits embodied as burnt, smoky, ashen figures of eyeless humans – and as the Sacchettis quickly discover, the spirits aren’t happy.
It didn’t take long for We Are Still Here to transport me back to Saturday afternoons in the ’70s. The aesthetics laid out by Geoghegan’s love of establishing shots of secluded locales, combined with Karim Hussein‘s soft, almost dream-like cinematography, is a real throwback to a long-gone era of horror that is ripe for some sustained homage. (I dare say what It Follows does for invoking the vibe of the early ’80s, this does for that ’70s feel.) The comparisons don’t stop there.
The narrative is well-considered. This is not a case of a film being built around clever scares that were dreamt-up first, nor is this a case of a film leaving the evil mostly unexplained and existing “just because.” There is a backstory to the spirits that haunt the Sacchetti house which is explained during the film and then later fleshed out during the closing credits. That latter detail is a smart choice by Geoghegan; trying to put too much of the house’s history into the film – even though it runs at a lean 84 minutes – might have made for too much downtime.
The supporting characters are spot-on as well. A pair of key players are May Lewis (Lisa Marie), a friend of Anne’s who is called to lend her (limited) paranormal expertise, and May’s husband Jacob (Larry Fessenden), who knows a little bit about “the other side” as well, but is more comic relief than anything else. The most important supporter, though, is Dave McCabe (Monte Markham). McCabe is the mysterious neighbor who knows full-well the history of the house, its original owners, and why the spirits of those owners haunt it. He is also the closest thing to a living antagonist the film has, a title that grows as the film progresses.
The ashen figures are sufficiently creepy, and there are plenty of scares and a little gore throughout the film, but the film’s close is something I wasn’t expecting. It’s not the once-the-dust-settles resolution to the story I have a problem with – it’s the bloodiness of it all. I don’t object to mass quantities of blood in horror films, but I object to it when it feels forced, as it does here. The ending is such a bloodbath, it’s as if Geoghegan wasn’t sure how to wrap the film, so he went out in a blaze of crimson glory. It’s my least favorite part of the film.
I can’t deny it pleases me that this film is centered on characters who are, and whose actors’ ages range from, mid-40s to 70. It’s one more indicator of Geoghegan’s commitment to the story he wants to tell, not the story he wants to tell retrofitted to feature younger, sexier people. Without her age, Anne’s loss of her child is not as impactful. So much parental worrying happens when children cannot care for themselves, but once they are out on their own, a little guard is let down, making any tragedy that takes a child before a parent all the more devastating. This adds critical weight to the film.
And those aging actors are perfectly cast. Each comes with terrific acting experience that call for the kind of character portrayal necessary to make the story work. The standouts of the picture are Markham and Crampton. In the former, you get a bad guy you’ve seen a thousand times before, but Markham avoids cliché and instead makes the character something very familiar. He’s the villain you want. As for Crampton, she’s a horror legend for a reason, bringing all her scream queen experience (including greats Re-Animator and Chopping Mall) and channels that into the soul of a mourning mother struggling to come to terms with the loss of her only child.
I mention in my review of James Wan‘s The Conjuring that the film “… is not so much a tribute to horror films of the 1970s as it is an entry from the era, lost in time.” We Are Still Here conjures up (sorry) a similar sentiment. However, instead of being an entry from that era lost in time, Geoghegan’s film, with its seasoned cast and heavy pathos, is more like the entry the cast never got to make when they were younger, but they got to make it now.