“The house needs a family”
Sometimes the spirits clinging to your old home prove the least of your worries. Just ask the Sacchettis (Barbara Crampton‘s Anne and Andrew Sensenig‘s Paul). Attempting to restart their lives after the tragic death of their son months earlier, the couple moves to Aylesbury for peace, quiet, and a former mortuary turned residential property with a price-tag they couldn’t resist. She’s the spiritualist of the two, feeling a presence that could only be her boy Bobby comforting her. He’s the pragmatist, responding in kind with patronizing looks of pity when not yelling at city employees over the phone to have someone fix the boiler making their basement one hundred degrees and smelling of smoke. Pictures fall, lights go out, and we see shadowy figures behind them, but for whatever reason they’ve come to no harm. Yet.
First time feature writer/director Ted Geoghegan sets his nostalgic horror tone with these foreboding dark visages hiding in plain sight as his characters move about their new house while scene transitions cut on staccato notes to leave us with a clear view of his “ghosts” or a sharp memory of broken glass from a frame falling off the wall. It’s all meticulously timed, each vignette commencing with a serene look at nature before reaching its jarring end in aggression. We Are Still Here feels like an old B-movie horror dug up from the archives and brought back to life straight down to the copious amounts of blood and not quite polished acting. But the best part is Geoghegan’s rendering of Aylesbury’s residents—silent, calm and knowing as they anticipate the inevitable news that the Sacchettis have finally perished.
A visit by neighbors Dave (Monte Markham) and Cat (Connie Neer) McCabe introduces us to these “off” people, popping in to check on things and relay the story of how previous owners the Dagmars were run out of town. The tale is nothing special with common similarities to most supernatural films but the orators’ odd delivery and obvious ulterior motives make us as perplexed by the impromptu visit as the Sacchettis—especially after the reaction to the fact they’ve already been inside for two weeks. It intentionally plants the seeds for what’s coming without yet revealing too much about how wide a net the house’s nightmarish past spans. And if nothing else, corroborating the potential that spirits are present pushes Anne to call friends May (Lisa Marie) and Jacob Lewis (Larry Fessenden) to conduct a séance.
What ensues is a mix between The Amityville Horror and Straw Dogs as evil arrives from every corner, inside and out. Exposition is light and really only shared by Dave McCabe’s quasi narrator leading us along and filling us in via conversations with the Sacchettis and other townsfolk—a welcome detail that allows us to enjoy the scares without wading through unnecessary hows or whys. It helps that the scares are effective enough for us not to worry about learning more for clarity’s sake (the end credits’ old newspaper overlays will flesh out more by a timeline beginning at the home’s construction). These types of horrors are better the simpler they are. We want to be frightened and Geoghegan’s charred figures with glowing eyes and lit embers do exactly that. These things are aesthetically fantastic.
This economy of scale can’t completely cover the so-so performances, though. The broadness assists its throwback style, but distracts nonetheless. You can see Marie working through her motions the most and yet May being the “seer” of the group contextually embraces those loopy theatrics as a character trait. Fessenden is a tad too overzealous with his aging stoner’s wild smile at the start, but he settles in nicely once possessed by the Dagmar patriarch during the film’s climactic assault. As for the Sacchettis: Sensenig is often caught staring, almost like he’s biding time until his line arrives. Great when angry or sarcastic, his Paul sadly becomes awkward when compassionate dexterity proves necessary. Crampton, on-the-other-hand, does very well making Anne seem caught in a daze, her mind drifting towards Bobby no matter what’s occurring around her.
Thankfully, their distraction is minimal considering each character is ultimately a pawn waiting to discover whether the Dagmars will pounce. Geoghegan seems aware of this truth and condenses all need for three-dimensionality by converging on Bobby’s death. The Sacchettis are his grieving Mom and Dad, the Lewis’ his former roommate’s parents, and Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) and Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) said roommate and plus one. They meet at this house in the hopes of speaking to him—or at least pretend in order to satisfy Anne’s curiosity. What they receive is way more than bargained for, a transformation from human to fodder for gruesome effects including more than one exploding head is their prize for participating. Souls must be sacrificed before the horror subsides to lay dormant another thirty years and everyone is fair game.
It’s fun to see a movie like this in 2015 because it doesn’t jump on the torture porn bandwagon despite proclivities towards extreme gore. Possessing scares that rely directly upon the audience accepting the presented mood and timing ratcheting up suspense until release is a welcome return to form for the genre. We Are Still Here has cult classic written all over it as a result even with a cast of middle-aged actors replacing Hollywood’s generic line-up of interchangeable co-eds dying because their libido is too high. I love that the mystery at its center has substance beyond merely a haunted house consuming those who try to live there and was genuinely in awe of Markham’s McCabe’s game-changing, unexpected shotgun blast return. The Dagmars may not appreciate houseguests, but they hate something else even more.