Writer-director Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here concerns a couple, Anne and Paul (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig), who move into an 1800s-era New England prairie home in an attempt to recover from the sudden death of their college-age son. We can tell from all the casual smoking, the décor, and the lack of cellphones that it’s the 1970s, the contemporary American horror film’s favorite decade for its inherent associations with various classics of the genre and, especially, for its lack of social media to gum up basic isolating engines of suspense. When this home inevitably commences to screw with Anne and Paul, they can’t run a Google search on spirits with a possibly literal ax to grind; instead, they must rely on the dubious advice of a neighbor, Dave (Monte Markham), who ludicrously yet eerily informs them that their new residence was once a funeral home, owned by a family who grifted the town, burying empty coffins in the cemetery while selling the bodies to medical facilities. It doesn’t take a veteran viewer of the genre to discern that Anne and Paul have made an exceptionally unwise real estate investment.
Geoghegan displays a commanding feel for the austere stylistics of a New England ghost story. The wintry whites are starkly gorgeous, and a furnace and basement, both straight out of The Amityville Horror and The House by the Cemetery, respectively, are appropriately dark and cramped. The upstairs of the house, with the rugs and portable 1970s-era bar and big TV, is simultaneously comfortable and stifling in just the right proportions. Drafts can often be heard on the soundtrack, which also reverberates with the bass required of symbolic haunting fables. The opening is a notably elegant, wonderful, nearly silent interlude that gracefully follows Anne and Paul, separately, as they get to know their new house, wandering the halls, looking around, trying to emotionally sort themselves out. Early on, a shape tellingly lingers behind Anne with chilling nonchalance. There’s no peace to be had here.
Escalating Anne and Paul’s domestic crisis are the requisite people who can “talk” to tormented houses in these sorts of films, in this case Jacob and May, who’re played by Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie, the former with his usual debauchedly unkempt rock-star grace, the latter with her spooky, unstudied translucency. Together, Anne, Paul, Jacob, and May go to a tavern and enact that prototypical scene in which the heroes of a horror film, who’re tourists, are surveyed by the locals with an amusingly obvious mixture of contempt and pity, the latter inspired by what the townspeople know must soon transpire.
And things do turn quite nasty, the pervading Changeling-like vibe evolving with quicksilver suddenness into a tone explicitly informed by A Nightmare on Elm Street and vast portions of Lucio Fulci’s oeuvre, to cite just a few of the influences that are unobtrusively namedropped. There’s nothing new in We Are Still Here, but Geoghegan is an assured, enthusiastic craftsman who wisely allows his film to breathe, luxuriating in its unsettling atmosphere, sneaking up on you with its surprisingly volatile bite.
Quite a bit of We Are Still Here’s intensity derives from its aesthetics, in the tradition of most haunted-house films, and this transfer is attentive and beautiful. Whites are crisp and severe, blacks deep to the point of seeming infiniteness, browns nostalgically autumnal. The film was shot digitally, but is lit with an aim toward replicating the graininess one associates with 1970s-era images. That grain isn’t always convincing, but that’s inherent to the source material. Facial textures more successfully emulate the gritty, occasionally unforgiving acuteness of vintage genre-movie film stock (though these actors are attractive and have little to fear). Both soundtracks are mixed with similar fastidiousness: The score’s bass and the minute diegetic effects really hum in collaborative harmony with one another.
The audio commentary with writer-director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens is fun and unpretentious. The filmmakers discuss the horror films they love and bat around anecdotes familiar to low-budget movie production, such as their fashioning of the setting’s furnace out of spray paint and cardboard, which managed to fool people only a few feet away from it. Much praise is extended to the cast, a gifted crew of veterans with several legendary films between them. The behind-the-scenes featurette is routine but painless. This slim but likable package is rounded out with the theatrical trailer and a teaser.
Just in time for Halloween: a beautiful transfer of an underrated, confidently directed haunted-house thriller.