There’s a strange trend I’ve noticed lately in independent horror: directors are seemingly desperate to prove to us, the audience, that they are worthy horror directors simply because they have a vast knowledge of horror movies from the past. And how do they prove that they know their horror history? Well, they just take a bunch of familiar fan favorite horror flicks, mash them up, and turn them in as a supposed new product. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Does this actually make for a worthy horror director? Does merely stoking the embers of nostalgia equal competent, compelling storytelling? Who knows, man. Why does Quentin Tarantino get to blatantly steal his ideas and characters from 70s exploitation films and win Oscars for it? Why does Led Zeppelin get to steal every riff they never wrote and still be hoisted up to an untouchable, God-like status? I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.
Now sure, there will be repeated tropes that I bet are near-impossible to avoid. Horror films have been around for 120 years; there are gonna be a lot of commonalities among films. But the modern thing I’m talking about is more than that. Adam Wingard’s The Guest (which I like) is a mash-up he describes as “The Terminator meets Halloween“, after he supposedly watched them back to back. Starry Eyes (which I loathe) is just Rosemary’s Baby meets The Fly (1986), until the last few minutes when it unfortunately dissolves into standard slasher stuff. Irish ghost flick The Canal (which I love) covers a whole range of movies, from Jacob’s Ladder to Pet Sematary. Sometimes the references are more subtle and play out as homage. The artistic influences of movies like It Follows or The Babadook reek of John Carpenter and Roman Polanski, respectively, but they don’t feel like they were simply pieced together from old classics; they took familiar sensations and made them new again. Like I said, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
The point of all of this is We Are Still Here, the haunted house/ghost/occult/possession/revenge flick from director Ted Geoghegan is such a mish-mash of references and themes that it fails to gain any footing and therefore elicits few scares.
Set during an ambiguous decade, presumably the 1970s, a middle-aged couple (played by Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) decide the best way to cope with the recent death of their son is to move out of the city and head for a house in the sticks. Almost immediately after moving in, Crampton tells her husband that she “feels” their sons presence in the new home. Shortly after that, an electrician is attacked by a mysterious entity in their basement. Soon after that, they receive a strange visit from their nearest neighbors (which is apparently pretty far, considering how remote this new home is), who inform the couple of a tragic history surrounding their new woodland residence: it used to be a funeral parlor at the turn of the century, run by the Dagmar family. Turns out, the family was also selling the bodies and doing other types of desecratory things that caused an angry mob to dole out a bit of street justice and murder them all. After telling this story, the neighbors abruptly leave, and the house goes back to creaking and thudding.
Crampton and Sensenig invite their hippy-dippy spiritualist friends, played by Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie, out for the weekend to help them get to the bottom of these disturbances. Soon after this, things go from bad to worse. And before you know it the credits are rolling. There’s stuff I’m not telling you as to not spoil some of the twists and turns, but that’s pretty much it.
So what works and what doesn’t? Well there are some promising creepouts in the beginning of the film. I won’t give away anything, but within the first 10 minutes of the movie I was totally onboard, ready to have the bejesus scared out of me. But as the movie progresses, the scares become less scary and the plot less coherent. By the time the final act rolls around, it feels like they were trying to play catch up with all the time they squandered during the first two thirds of the movie.
Director Ted Geoghegan – like Wingard before him – openly admits the influences of his film, going so far as to name the evil characters after one of the actresses from Lucio Fulci’s classic supernatural Video Nasty, The House by the Cemetery. But there are other influences to be found: Evil Dead, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Children of the Corn, The Shining, hell even Straw Dogs! But references do not a good horror movie make.
I love Barbara Crampton. Love. Besides the fact that she’s a genre staple and an always welcome face, she’s actually a really good horror actress. In fact, I’d go as far as to say she carries this film. Everyone else is pretty wooden, with exception for contemporary iconic horror figure Larry Fessenden, who does a better 70s-era Jack Nicholson in this movie than Nicholson could do himself — the hair, the arched eyebrows, the sloven-yet-charming air about him — Fessenden is the warm, likable comedic relief to Crampton’s distant and numb mother-in-mourning. I also love that the protagonists of the film are middle-aged parents. It’s a small detail, but one that actually makes a world of difference. And let me say one last time how much I love Barbara Crampton.
While this review may come across as generally negative, I assure you it’s not. The feeling I was left with after watching We Are Still Here was actually one of indifference. Feeling like I’d seen it before and I didn’t care. The mashing up of every ghost/witch/haunting trope, combined with the overwhelming praise I’ve seen (mainly from horror sites with a large following to maintain and reputation to uphold, which makes me question the earnestness of their reviews), left me even more confused and unenthused.
Independent horror has always been vital to the scene, but especially nowadays when the only horror that seems to be getting wide-releases are sequels and remakes. Independent horror should be an untamed landscape, a fertile ground to generate new, weird ideas. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Shivers, Repulsion, and Sisters are all great examples of independent horror from the past, from directors who had clear, original visions. Unfortunately, We Are Still Here chooses not to be part of that camp, and instead falls into familiar beats and patterns, ones I have no doubt we could see on the big screen in Insidious: Chapter 3, Ouija, Paranormal Activity 5, Rings, Poltergiest (2015), et al.
In a time when horror fans seemingly have only two options to get their fix, forced to decide between referential, homagey shoulder-shruggers and borderline-offensive, slapdash remakes and reboots, I’ll gladly choose the former. But only because it’s the lesser of the two evils.