We Are Still Here Dir. Ted Geoghegan

[Dark Sky Films; 2015]

Styles: horror, haunted house
Others: The Changeling, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, House by the Cemetery

In the comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, the thing that propels the story along — what bare story there is, that of a someone killing lots and lots of people — is a wall, somewhere in the bowels of a house, that needs blood, fresh blood, all of the time. Johnny, the protagonist, paints it over and over. It has to stay wet. If it doesn’t, something bad happens. There is a demon, or something. There is always a demon. And one of the things that makes the comic so successful is how emotionally astute it is: this notion that someone must do a lot of bad things just in order to keep everything composed. This kind of motif plays out a lot in culture, especially in horror, every time as a simple analog to inner demons that we can only seem to keep from barging through if we make concessions to their power over us. It plays out here, again, with We Are Still Here, a movie that plays into its genre so hard it begins to become a fault, and then turns around on it with such a startling display of grandiosity that it emerges, fully redeemed.

Paul (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (Barbara Crampton) are a middle aged couple who lost their late-teens son two months ago in a car accident as he was driving home from college. They’re trying to move on with their lives by moving into a large, old rural house. It is the dead of winter in New England, snow thick and constant. They’ve got a significant amount of money. Neither of them works. They putter, sorting boxes and drinking whiskey in front of the fire at night. Anne feels uneasy; she thinks that Bobby, their dead son, is in the house with them — or that his spirit is, maybe. There is a weird hole in the foundation in the basement. Phantom creaks and bumps come from neighboring rooms; pictures fall down and the frames crack.

I have to imagine that these haunted house tropes are intentional. Early in the movie, Anne is in the basement, puttering around again, and a baseball, owned by Bobby, comes tumbling down the stairs to rest at Anne’s feet. It is a moment ripped straight out of The Changeling, when George C. Scott is investigating the bumps and scrapes he is hearing in his newly rented Northwestern abode when a child’s ball rolls down his staircase. We Are Still Here is aware that it is presenting nothing new, what with the eerie warnings from the neighbors (a note that reads, “Get out!”) and puzzling stares from all the townspeople. You sit there watching, wondering if this is the same old bag of tricks ‐ and, for at least an hour, it is. Nothing terribly exciting happens. There are a few jump scares, a couple moments of blood, and more creaks and moans and shadows.

We Are Still Here is culturally aware in a way that a lot of movies are not. It isn’t just trying to scare you; it is trying to surprise you. Haunted house movies are usually, by their definition, what with beings whose existence is entirely questionable, pretty tame. They are based on atmosphere far more than gore or shock value. Demonic possession movies — The Exorcist, Evil Dead — can get away with more bodily fluids flowing all over the place, but in modern examples, like The Conjuring, they have a tendency to be pretty wimpy, too.

We Are Still Here meets somewhere in the middle of all of these things. It is a haunted house movie with a body count. It rewards those with the tenacity to stick with it, and open enough minds to recognize the small moments of goodness for the bigger picture. It has a story that makes sense in the way of poetry, in pieces and tangentially, from a distance. But narrative is not the function of poetry, nor is it the function of We Are Still Here. In fact, the narrative here serves its own function: as an excuse for the movie’s whole bloody existence.

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