We’re now well into the generation of filmmakers weaned on the generation of filmmakers that were weaned on cinema. The video store generation consumes references like regular audiences eat popcorn. When done well, you get a Tarantino or a Paul Thomas Anderson, following those like DePalma or Leone who borrowed from Ford and Kurosawa who in turn borrowed from those before. We’ve got a long line stretching back to the earliest days of cinema, with artists taking the clay of narrative, tone and performance and giving us something that’s paradoxically new and familiar.
Students of Horror films will be likely able to namecheck writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s many references in We Are Still Here– he himself referenced Italian master Lucio Fulci in his introduction to the screening – but what happens when watching the film is that simultaneous feeling of nostalgia and discovery.
It helps that the vintage setting makes things feel both old and familiar. The 1979 station wagon and period elements are deftly portrayed. It’s clear that considerable attention was paid to the setting, costumes, and the remarkable house where much of the film takes place. When you’re going to have a building as a central antagonist you want it to be as rich and cinematically engaging as any other character, and Geoghegan and his team have done a terrific job on a low budget in making us feel the film is very much part of a larger world.
Simplistically put this is a ghost story, a tale of death that’s tied to a troubling past in a small, snowy town. Sacrifices must be made, to sate not only the spirits in the narrative but the audience expecting some bang for their horror buck. Yet the film works best when it teases out the violence, crafting a mood as intricate and well designed as the physical elements referenced above.
The cast, headed by Barbara Crampton, Lisa Marie, Andrew Sensenig and Larry Fessenden, are all veterans of genre filmmaking, and it shows in how they manage to never overplay their hands even when things go very awry. Yes, there are broad moments, but the deliberate nature of the plot is matched for the most part with performances that echo the mood rather than trying to out-emote one another. This seems like a small and obvious thing to expect, yet too often in films like this, where the emotions rise as the stakes get higher and higher, there can often be a shrillness to the acting. Despite things going very badly indeed we’re left to empathize with our characters rather than dismiss their losses as merely part of an inevitable downward spiral.
Lensed in dark yet captivating shades by Karim Hussein, the camera work often highlights open spaces within the frame, allowing the audience to discover the moments as they appear. For those what want shock after shock this maybe too ornate, but what it does is further draw the viewer into the setting, dropping shaky-cam pyrotechnics for composed views. Further, it makes it so that when explosions of movement or violence occur they’re dealt with swiftly and without lingering, a collision of pace that leaves one unsettled in pleasing ways.
The score also helps keep the mood bubbling at a slow boil, only occasionally lapsing into jump-scare blaring horn territory. The soundtrack even takes a more diagetic tack when a radio is turned on, and its glowing vintage façade, as quotidian a piece of furnishing as any, is itself injected with that same foreboding dread.
Like last year’s It Follows, We Are Still Here demonstrates how homage can provide the undercurrent for a films visual and narrative language, yet go beyond simplistic checkboxing of references. In the age where vast swaths of musical output are based on the sampling of other vintage tracks it’s no surprise that cinema too has succumbed to this approach. When done well, like it’s done in this film, the pieces connect and truly do create something new and exciting rather than pedantically attuned to what worked before.
We Are Still Here plays like a cold winter storm with occasional gusts punctuating the biting, incessant frigidity. While the pace is deliberate the storyline remains captivating, its ability for us to actually care about the characters and their plight a refreshing change from so many films of this ilk. What makes the film feel more like a classic rather than a modern work is that it isn’t afraid to let mood develop without the constant need to provide jolts to the audience at specific, calculated intervals. And that, for this audience member, is a pleasing thing indeed.