There’s a lot to like about writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here, but it’s a mixed bag at the end of the day. Having gotten wind of it through some internet buzz, I rolled the dice, and I mostly came out ahead.
There are a few things about the opening that are kind of indicative about what I found to be a schizophrenic production. First of all, the opening establishing shots are terrific, but after the first five minutes, I grew tired of them – the technique is well overused here (and actually throughout the movie). Done well they’re effective at evoking mood at atmosphere, but this movie spends more time than it should on these shots, and I found them distracting after a while. But you can’t go wrong too much with this opening to this kind of movie: rural location, in what looks like middle of winter, big imposing Victorian-era house. That kind of setting; the bleakness, the solitude, that done right, it can be responsible for a giant chunk of the effectiveness of such a movie. In contrast, I’m reminded of Guillermo Del Toro’s bloated, over-CGI-reliant, Crimson Peak where the house should have played a much bigger part, but felt cartoonish and impotent. When the house is the focus of a ghost story it enhances plot, forces characters to react to the environment, rather than just say lines. A couple of great examples of this are The Legend of Hell House, and, of course, The Shining. We Are Still Here does not hit those heights, nevertheless, it’s an effective entry into the haunted house sub-genre, with a mostly interesting – if criminally underdeveloped – backstory, and a really nice take on the movie’s specters. The visualization of them is refreshingly different than the typical see-through flowing ghostly locks and gowns, from the likes of Mama and the aforementioned Crimson Peak. No, these ghosts are definitely earthy, and I liked that a lot. It didn’t hurt that they reminded me somewhat of one of my favourite cinematic ghost stories. To tell you the name of it might rob you of the surprise of seeing the ghosts of this movie, so I won’t bother.
Another delight for me was seeing Barbara Crampton, whom I had quite a thing for in the 80s due to her roles in The Reanimator and From Beyond (who didn’t, amirite?), and I must say, even at 57 years old, she’s a strikingly gorgeous woman – and she’s the best performer here. She plays the central character, one half of a married couple who have recently lost their son in a car crash, and her work is quietly understated where it could easily have been overplayed – in contrast, Andrew Sensenig, who plays her husband, doesn’t play bereaved authentically. I wish Crampton had a better agent, because I think she could do good work on a bigger budget with bigger talent around her. She’s at the age where the roles are sparse and go to a select few. On the basis of this movie, she deserves bigger roles. It was nice to see her do well in this. The other actors hold their own, but don’t feel as if they’re any more than a pay grade away from local rep theater, but it is interesting to see the cast rounded off by veteran TV character actor of the 70s and 80s, Monte Markham (The Six Million Dollar Man, Dallas). When I was younger I could never remember that guy’s name, so I dubbed him, “The Man With The Permanent Smile”, and he’s still got it! (Google Images says it all)
As I said at the top, though, the movie is a mixed bag. It’s a period piece horror movie that looks and feels like it was made in the 70s, and the photography is decidedly two-camera in spirit. The use of the supernatural is conveyed well enough, but I did find that they mostly consisted of the typical haunted house tropes that everyone is more than familiar with these days: noises where there shouldn’t be, creepy basements that people go into, doors suddenly slamming shut, psychics who warn of danger. It felt too much to me like Geoghegan had a checklist beside him when he wrote the movie, so in that respect, the plot felt a little stale. And where the musical score is sometimes great, it’s not used as well as it could have been, and the inclusion of the original songs was, frankly, a terrible choice. Whenever they appear in the movie they absolutely ruin the well-crafted atmosphere.
While the ghosts are very good indeed, I found the backstory tantalizingly undercooked, and the way it’s doled out in bite-sized chunks of exposition was poor writing for me. There’s a big, dark story behind this house, but I didn’t feel it was enough just to talk about it. The dreadful end-title sequence is like a Cliff Notes version of the backstory, but the information in them should have unspooled in the movie proper. If you have to use exposition, at least make it interesting and disguise it with visual storytelling.
But really, these criticisms aren’t huge through the first two acts. It’s in act 3 that I kind of checked out. The mayhem here belongs to a different movie, because to me the content was all over the place. Some of things that happen just look silly and badly done. Thankfully, it all settles back down to end with the same subtlety of the beginning, and a lingering look at the spirits of the movie in a nicely poignant scene. Definitely worth a watch, but like many of the movies I’ve watched recently, an inconsistency in tone undoes some really good work.
© Andrew Hope, 2016
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This review was originally published on 3/12/2016 at https://thatsnotcurrentblog.wordpress.com