Kicking off this year’s Freak Me Out program is Ted Geoghegan’s debut feature, We Are Still Here. The film, a goofy throwback to ’70s haunted house features with a clear relationship to Ti West’s recent The House of the Devil, stars a number of familiar faces in Barbara Cramption (The Re-animator), Andrew Sensenig (Upstream Color), Lisa Marie (Tim Burton’s muse in the earlier half of his career) and Larry Fessendon – who is a bit of a god in this underground indie horror scene, spawning a lot of the formal elements embedded in a lot of more recent cinema in his earlier flicks Habit and Wendigo. All deliver mixed to solid performances in this fun, but uneven spooker that makes up for its somewhat bland execution with some stellar scares and gags.
We Are Still Here follows Anne (Crampton) and Paul (Sensenig), two grieving parents who move into a secluded New England house after their son dies in a car crash. Something isn’t quite right about the house; Anne experiences some paranormal activity in the basement and a chance meeting with some seriously weird neighbours (played expertly by Monte Markham from Baywatch of all things, and Connie Neer) only helps to exacerbate the situation. Frightened, Anne invites her ‘spiritual’ friends (Marie and Fessendon at his gleefully wackiest) to the secluded structure to help exorcise whatever’s going on in the house, with occasional hilarious and bloody results – of particular note is the wonderful 15 or so minute finale that makes the film’s brief 86 minute runtime completely worth it.
Overall it’s a nice directorial debut from Geoghegan, that plays out a little unevenly as it tries to tackle a number of disparate tonal elements, never quite managing to balance them all. The dialogue in some scenes is clearly cheesed up (brilliantly by the queen of quality schlock Crampton, although some unfamiliar with her past work will surely disagree) to satirize the structure of these classic haunted house films, while other scenes will see these same characters play similar situations completely straight, undercutting the previously established irony. It is in this way that it offers an interesting counterpoint to Ti West’s absolutely fantastic The House of the Devil; West’s film was completely sure of what it is, a mock-straight to video schlockfest, ripped straight from the ’80s with formal elements played completely straight and dialogue that is slightly exaggerated for a much needed injection of self-aware humor. Within this, we were able to really invest in certain scenes, and a number of the slow-burn scare sequences played out in legitimately terrifying fashion. Although We Are Still Here embodies a joyful tribute to the spookhouse films of yesteryear, it seems caught in-between tribute, parody, and replication without a clear guiding voice to cement it into one category, nor does Geoghegan’s direction manage to balance each disparate element so that he forms a cohesive whole.
That’s not to say that it is without its pleasures; although reliant (in its former thirds, at least) on a number of jump-scares, I wouldn’t categorize them as malicious. In fact, what Geoghegan does expertly is make us fully aware of the placement of all elements of a scare before it eventuates. We see the spirits of the undead obscured in the back of the frame, their shadows running across the wall, before they jump into the fore and scare us from the exact position we, the audience, have located them in. Knives, scythes and other tools used in the films later moments are located specifically within the scene, pulled from logical locations before their eventual use to joyfully grisly effect. There’s a nice dialogue between the earlier and later works of Sam Raimi here too, with clear visual and aural references. It is almost as though elements of The Evil Dead are coming up against chunks of Drag Me To Hell – its an extended old school vs. new school metaphor that colours a large portion of the film and adds a nice little subtext to something that seems very straight forward on the surface.
There were projection issues at the screening that I attended which I feel have probably altered my experience; the film, shot in scope (2.35:1), was projected in the bottom two thirds of a screen designed for films shot in flat ratio (1.85:1). I’m not sure if the screen was retractable and there was some technological error to blame for this, or this is just the design of that auditorium, but working in projection at a cinema I know how easy it would have been to adjust the image such that it was projected onto the middle of the screen rather than the bottom, a vast improvement on last night’s presentation. The audio, too, was problematic, sounding hollow and a bit muted throughout – the first three lines of dialogue were near inaudible before the sound mix in the auditorium slightly improved (it was never fully immersive, however). Having not seen another copy of the film in a different setting I can only guess that this was entirely down to projection issues rather than the result of a poor DCP transfer. Hopefully this was an isolated incident that only affected one screening, as it was not a good way to kick off the season on the new screen – the Newtown Dendy is a mostly consistent cinema (it’s smaller theatrettes are easily the best ones in Sydney) and it would be great for a vibrant Sydney Film Festival hub to form around the Newtown area, but that is entirely reliant on the delivery of a quality, film-focused experience from the new festival site.
For me, this film sits on the borderline of recommendation, never fully delivering on its promise of consistent, quality throwback haunts, however it feels like I missed a lot of the film’s more subtle elements due to the conditions under which it screened (we definitely missed some sound cues as they are referenced by the characters throughout, for instance) and because of this We Are Still Here gets the benefit of the doubt. Geoghegan is a clear horror fan, and his debut is nothing to shake a stick at – everyone clearly had a lot of fun making this film and it translates. If you’re a die-hard horror hound We Are Still Here is surely worth a look but for others I’d be a little cautious. If you’re just looking to switch off for a bit and enjoy a little easygoing carnage, you’d do well to seek this out.
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