Barbara Compton film

We Are Still Here Review: Too Clear for Its Own Good

Friday, June 12, 2015 Rob Samuelson

We Are Still Here

Director: Ted Geoghegan
Writers: Ted Geoghegan, Richard Griffin
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden
Rating: Three stars out of five.
Available now on demand and in select theaters.

A key component of fear is the sensation of being off balance, not understanding one's surroundings or feeling any control over a particular place and time. It is about unknowns and lack of agency. Choice is replaced by chaos. The masters of horror filmmaking use the medium's inherent subjectivity to manipulate an audience into not knowing the next step, always throwing surprises at them to remove all sense of comfort and ease.

Unlike those works, We Are Still Here is a horror film that is controlled and presentational while trying to utilize the cinematic bag of tricks described in the previous paragraph. That it succeeds in any degree is a miracle and should be praised. But it is a lukewarm success, one that lies in a miscalculation of style.

Writer-director Ted Geoghegan, in his feature directing debut, builds an atmosphere of loneliness and tension in the first half hour of the movie that works precisely because it lets the viewer know exactly what is happening to these characters, Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig) as they move to a big mysterious house in the country to get away from the grief of their son's death in a car accident. Geoghegan puts them in medium-wide shots, almost always dead center of the frame, using the empty space around them to create a mood of isolation. The cameras are mostly tripod-bound, instituting a steadiness and assuredness to the storytelling, only going handheld or Steadicam seemingly when the set's limitations call for it – not enough removable walls here – rather than a stylistic or thematic choice.

Where the movie goes wrong is in continuing that steadiness as the haunted house aspects of the story start to manifest themselves literally. The nearly radical adherence to the center framing, while aesthetically pleasing and recognizable to anyone who has seen a Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson film, begins to act as a giveaway. The ghostly figures start in shadows behind Crampton, but instead of a slow reveal of their full, ghastly images, Geoghegan quickly gives away the game during their first attack. In short, they resemble the White Walkers from HBO's Game of Thrones if they rolled around in soot for a while, 101 Dalmatians-style. It removes the sense of momentum the movie would gain if it only gave away one aspect of the ghosts per kill scene. Instead, each time they reappear for the rest of the movie, they have a same-y quality, a repetition more like a mediocre song's chorus than the crescendo they could be. It keeps the jump scare moments from being particularly scary, not only because the camera is so sure of itself – a major plus in nearly every other cinematic moment but this one – but because the viewer knows what's there. The editing of these moments is a hair off, as well, holding a tick too long before an attack takes place. Optical preparation meets sequential flat-footedness. The plot twist mystery may remain, but the one that matters, the instinctual reaction to surprise, is gone.

That mistake compounds on itself by requiring We Are Still Here to rely on its actors to carry the day, something they are unable to fully do. Crampton is the bright spot as a grieving mother, at times nearly catatonic in her mournful thoughts, hoping against all evidence to be with her lost son again, enlisting the help of her spiritual yahoo friends, which makes all hell break loose for them. But as her WASP-y husband, Sensenig plays like a stiffer Albert Brooks – WASP and Brooks are not things one would normally put together, but it's true – and Marie and Fessenden get a little out of their element when asked to go big. This is probably not due to lack of talent, but more likely connected to scheduling. Their line readings have an over-rehearsed aspect to them in the hurried way soap opera actors have, that “we need to get this on the first take” desperation that kills any way of creating a lived-in believability. Because of that eagerness to get through the scenes, none of the actors are quite able to pull off shock and confusion, only getting about halfway to the genuine fear they might be able to express with more attempts. When the camera is trained on them, occupying the center of every shot with that not-quite-ripe expression, the moment is dashed for the viewer. An intellectual, “I understand where you're going with this,” connection is possible during this phenomenon, but not a visceral one.

So it is with We Are Still Here. It creates striking, contemplative moments, but when tasked with generating fear, it sticks with a style unsuited for the necessary immersion in the unknown. 

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