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“We Are Still Here” (2015) REVIEW

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.

ghostSet 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, PoltergeistChildren of the CornThe 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.


Dr. Jose on “Terror Train”


I originally wrote this review/article for Shit Movie Fest‘s “25 Days of Shitmas”. You can check out the original article on their site, here.

I think I was near 20 years old at the time. This is about a decade ago. I was taking the Amtrak from Chicago to go see my parents in Southern Illinois. The train was empty enough, and I was thankful for that. I sat alone; had both seats to myself. In the pair of seats in front me sat a young girl – probably 16 – and a guy maybe about my age. I couldn’t see their faces at the time, but I could hear them quietly bickering pretty much from the get go. You know, young love.

Night fell and I spent my time completely zoned out, headphones on, staring out into the absolute darkness that sped by. I don’t know how it caught my attention, but as I faced the window my focus shifted. Reflected by the glass, I could see the girl who sat in front of me. She was facing the window, staring directly back at my reflection, and she was mouthing the words, “Help me.”

I sat there dumbfounded for a few seconds before I fully processed what was really happening. It takes awhile when there’s no tense string score to punctuate how you should be reacting. When it hit me that this girl could actually be in real trouble, and that the guy she was with was possibly bad news, I went cold. I hate to use such a trite phrase, but it’s true: I felt an actual rush of icy numbness.

Seemingly by luck, the guy who was sitting with her got up right then and either went to the bathroom or to go get food. Regardless, it was just enough time for this girl to look over the back of her seat at me and start frantically spilling her story: she didn’t know who this guy was; he had snuggled up to her as soon as she got on the train; he was being too forward, too touchy, too aggressive; he was drunk; she was afraid. She didn’t know what to do.

Now, thinking on my toes has never necessarily been my greatest strong-point. I do best with a few hours, a couple beers, and a notepad. I could have said a million things to this girl, the easiest and most logical being, “Get a conductor”, or even just, “Move seats right now, sit next to me!” But under pressure for an immediate response — and yes, this whole story has been 100% true, including the next few lines — the first thing that came to my lips was: “Set him on fire?”

I’ll let the insanity of that bizarre suggestion set in for a second, but I won’t wait too long because this story somehow gets crazier, and quick. As if I’d just handed her a Christmas gift she had been begging 364 days for, this girl’s face lit up. Her eyes got big and her smile broadened. “Great idea!”, she enthused, without a single drop of sarcasm. Again, this all really did happen.

She plopped back down in her seat just as the mysterious aggressor returned, resuming his place saddled up next to her. I sat there, motionless, slack-jawed. Just as quickly as it had started, it was over – seemingly back to normal. And there was no one around who witnessed it, so I couldn’t actually be sure it really even happened. A part of me thought, “Is this it? Is this how these types of situations are handled in real life? Is everything okay now?” I must have accepted whatever conclusion came from my internal dialogue as an acceptable resolution, because I soon recommenced submerging myself in the vast darkness on the other side of my window.

But that’s when I heard it. The distinct “chk, chk” of a sparkwheel striking flint, from a lighter low on fluid. “Chk, chk”, again, only this time followed by a “Yeow! What the hell are you doing, you crazy bitch?” The creeper shot up from the seat in front of me, rubbing the side of his head. He continued mumbling to himself as he made his way down the row of seats, far away from the one he’d just been sitting in. I couldn’t believe the girl had taken my advice, but moreover I couldn’t believe it worked. But then again, if someone sitting next to me tried to set my head alight, I’d hightail it out of there, too.

Like a gopher, the girl popped back up, still grinning: “That was so awesome!” I asked if she was okay, she said she was, that it was just some unwarranted attention from a tipsy stranger. Before I could ask anything else, she spoke again, but in a weirder, more hushed voice: “You know, I think I’ve seen you before…” That icy, uneasy feeling I spoke of earlier? It returned in waves. I had no idea who this girl was, I had never seen her in my life. I smiled and shrugged. I asked where she lived.

“Oh, I live at Brookside. Have you heard of it?” I had heard of it. As I was aware of it, it was a boarding school where troubled kids were sent. And it was just a couple blocks away from my parents house. On the same street. I suddenly realized that there was a real chance this girl had seen me before, and that creeped me out even more. She was still smiling, her eyes wide and fixed. She asked how long I was going to be in town for. “Maybe we could hang out…” Her voice was soft and terrifying. I still hadn’t said anything in a few minutes, mostly because I was still reeling from how this whole thing had unfolded. I felt broadsided. I was sucked into a situation and thought I had helped, but now I just felt like the second fly on a spider’s web.

“I…I…”, was all I could manage. I probably sounded like a pirate.

“What’s your phone number?”, she pressed. Still smiling, eyes black and burning.

I blurted out ten random numbers. It was the first smart move I had made this whole time. She wrote them down on a piece of paper, which she tore a chunk from and handed to me. Her number was written down.

“Call me.”

I looked behind me down the long row of seats for the unaccounted shady dude from earlier. I wondered if he had unwittingly been made the pawn in a game of loony lust, and if I had been the intended target the whole time. I felt weird, tense, confused. I turned back to the blackness outside and I looked out as far as I possibly could.


Terror Train is actually a lot like this anecdote, and not just because of its locomotive setting. It’s long – much longer than it needs to be – but the big reveal at the end is just satisfying enough to make it all worth it. Would you want to hear it again? No, of course not. But the first ride’s pretty fun.

The first time I saw Terror Train, I was honestly pretty blown away. Even if it was just to cash in on the burgeoning slasher craze at the time, it has a clever enough concept and a reveal at the end that’ll leave you braided as a pretzel. I don’t want to give too much away, especially if you’ve never seen it, because the less you know the better.

A graduating class of med students board a train on New Year’s Eve to celebrate their success, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s a costume party! As a mysterious killer makes their way through the iron horse, they take the costume of each successive victim, making the killer harder to track. It’s a fun flick – and the only film magician David Copperfield has had a starring role in – but repeated viewings will definitely make the holes in the plot more apparent. Still, I consider it to be a top contender to all of its early-80’s slasher ilk, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get more recognition – because it should.

Well, that’s all my prattling for now. Go watch Terror Train.

This has been Dr. Jose, saying: Happy Holidays, Hail Satan, and Cowabunga.