A few weeks ago, I opened my Ladies of the House review with a caveat: I knew the director, sort of. We’re Facebook friends. He was the head publicist at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But it was only sort of a disclaimer, because it’s not like we had ever really hung out. And it certainly didn’t affect my impression of the film.
This film comes with a slightly harder disclaimer. I’ve known writer/director Ted Geoghegan for a while. He’s an independent publicist in NYC, and he’s a great guy. For the past several years, he’s headed up the PR efforts for the New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia. And in between, he does a whole bunch of other things. In my LotH review, I said, “I’ve sent some very nasty reviews to some people I have much better relationships with…” Ted was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote that. Some of the films he’s pointed me towards were straight up terrible, and in my review of Ryoo Seung-Wan’s The Berlin File, I noted that the English dialogue was poor enough that I believed it had been written by someone who was only slightly familiar with the language. Turned out, that dialogue was written by Ted. Awkward.
But I was excited when I heard that Ted had actually directed a movie called We Are Still Here. I found out in November, at the same Film Society panel I mentioned in my LotH review (everything is connected), and I’ve been excited ever since. I really wanted it to be good, because while I’m 100% capable of telling directors they wasted precious hours of my life with their creative failures, it’s not something I particularly enjoy. The trailer looked good, and even though Ted has steered me wrong in the past, I trusted that he would make something that was, at the very least, enjoyable. Initial reviews out of SXSW and elsewhere were all very positive, and so I continued to prod Ted about seeing the film. After several months (and I have no doubt a whole lot of exasperation on his part), I finally got a chance to see it.
90ish minutes later, I opened Facebook and sent Ted a message: “I liked your movie!”
“Oh man!” he responded. “That’s a relief!!!”
I kinda felt that way too.
We Are Still Here
Director: Ted Geoghegan
Release Date: June 5, 2015
A lot of people have compared We Are Still Here to the films of Lucio Fulci. Fulci, for those who don’t know, was an Italian director known for his gore-heavy horror movies, such as the infamous Zombi 2 (a “sequel” to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released as Zombi in Italy). For what it’s worth, Zombi 2 is the only Fulci film I’ve seen. I expect that at least a few of the critics who have made that comparison have never seen any of his filmography. Writer/director Ted Gheogegan thinks so as well. But whether that’s true or not, the comparisons make sense, because the film is heavily inspired by Fulci’s House by the Cemetary. So heavily inspired, in fact, that nearly every character’s name in the film comes from HbtC‘s characters, cast, and crew. (Naming characters is hard, you guys.)
It’s also, so I’ve been told, pretty beat-for-beat similar in its structure. I was told this by the writer/director, so I expect it’s probably true. But I can’t speak from experience. But if it’s true, I want to see House by the Cemetery, because it must have a pretty rock-solid foundation.
(That’s a house joke, by the way. A haunted house joke.)
I first met Ted at NYAFF 2012. Some months prior, he had took over duties on the Korean Movie Night series, so he and I had been in contact before. When I heard he was taking over NYAFF PR, I was like, “Oh, sure. That guy.” When we actually first met, he was like, “Oh, sure. That guy!” We talked, because that’s what you do. I asked him if he was a particular fan of Asian cinema. He said no, that Genre was really his thing. I thought that was sort of odd, considering the circumstances, but you don’t have to be in love with something in order to get people to cover it. But that stuck with me, and so I was unsurprised by his first film as director was a horror film. (I find it mildly amusing that he co-wrote a Korean film before directing a horror film, however.)
At the talk where I found out about the existence of We Are Still Here, Ted said something crucial: “I want people to be entertained. I want people to walk out of the theater having had a good time.” It’s both a significant statement in and of itself (this film embraces the idea of and wants to be entertainment), but also because of how it manifests itself in the film.
Anne and Paul Sacchetti have been having a less than stellar year. Their son, Bobby, died. In order to get away from the memory, they moved to a cold, rural New England town. These characters are played straight. They are sad. And unfortunately for them, they moved into a haunted house. The basement is obscenely hot and there’s a faint odor of smoke. If I had to guess, I’d probably think that somebody had been burned to death in that house. Perhaps someone who was angry and wanted revenge on the next unsuspecting homeowner? Perhaps.
But here’s the key thing: the other characters are not played straight. Or rather, they’re not characters that are intended to play straight. There’s the Harbinger of Doom; there’s the stoner hippie; there’s the sketchy New England townsfolk. All of these things are funny. But they’re not dumb funny. They’re just funny. They’re entertaining. This is a horror film with a sense of humor.
Last I heard, there has only been one notably negative review of We Are Still Here. I don’t know where it came from, but I know that the person who wrote it is dumb. He didn’t get it. He was annoyed that the film was funny and that the characters a little silly. He was expecting straight horror and didn’t get that. He bashed the film for his own ignorance. He’s a terrible critic.
A critic’s job is not to project their own biases onto a film and judge it based on those assumptions. Not terribly long ago, I got into an argument about Mad Max: Fury Road. Someone was angry at the film because he thought that it had failed as a fundamental critique of violence. Which would be fine, if the film was trying to be a fundamental critique of violence. But it wasn’t. And so instead of being profound, he came off like an idiot. He missed the point, and blamed the film for his own inadequacies.
The person who called out Ted’s movie for being hammed up is much the same.
I’m not trying to imply that the film is beyond reproach. It’s not. And people are welcome to hate the film’s silliness. They are also welcome to hate the fact that the film was trying to be silly. They shouldn’t, but if you don’t find humor enjoyable, then you’re welcome to not like what Ted was going for. But you have to accept that that is the film’s intent. You cannot say it fails at being serious because it has over-the-top moments and occasionally stilted performances when that was literally the point. I remember when the earliest reviews came out praising the tone of the film, saying that it struck the right balance between horror and humor. “They got what I was going for!” he exclaimed. When I told him that I liked it, he said much the same thing.
But there are things I didn’t like about it. I thought that the cinematography was more “interesting” than it was “good.” The camera is often in motion, giving a voyeuristic feel that reminded me a little bit of 2012’s Resolution. It feels like you’re watching the film from something’s perspective. The camera moves like a person does, or a ghost or whatever. It moves. And that’s compelling, but the images themselves are often a little drab. It may be an accurate representation of New England winters, but there’s a beauty to that kind of life that I never really felt like We Are Still Here captured. It’s a perfectly fine looking movie (and the practical effects look great (the computer generated ones less so)), but I wasn’t in love with it. Also: the highlights frequently looked blown out, and not in an artistic way so much as a “Whoops, overexposed the shot” kind of way. Even if it was intentional, it didn’t look good.
But it’s not about whether or not it looks good. It just needs to look good enough to tell its story, and it does that. So, about that story.
I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island. Many years ago, there was a series of murders in my town. People still talk about it. Small towns have long memories. New England towns in particular. There’s something fascinatingly insular about them, but not in the way that something like Winter’s Bone is. But then again, maybe that’s just because of where I grew up. Maybe someone from the south sees Winter’s Bone as the norm and We Are Still Here is the crazy thing.
We Are Still Here is about an undying memory. The house is haunted by sin. A sin that goes unspoken except the man who can’t help but tell anyone who will listen about the horrors of the old Dagmar house. And when they’re introduced, it’s a brilliant moment played brilliantly. Honestly, much of the film is, and the beats of the narrative often surprise (the first person to survive is the exact person you expect to die first). The scares are a bit jumpy at times (and one particular jump scare completely breaks the film’s logic in order to have a cool moment (something I called Ted on and he admitted to)), but they also work. There’s tension from the start. At first, it’s just a picture frame that falls over without provocation. It leads into the film’s title, and there is never any question of whether or not the house is haunted. Even if the characters don’t necessarily fall in line, you know. And you see them surprisingly early on. We Are Still Here isn’t afraid to show the Dagmars.
I’m not sure that was the right move, because as fascinating as they are, there’s an odd, CG sheen to them that takes away from the fear factor. They should be terrifying, but they aren’t. They look too fake, like a monster in a rubber costume, except instead of rubber it’s subpar computer graphics. It doesn’t stop them from being involved in some legitimately scary moments, but it does keep them from being the nightmare-inducing horror icons that they could have been.
Still, the buildup is excellent, and by the time the shit hits the fan, you’re invested. You’ve laughed and jumped. Maybe you screamed if you’re a pansy like me (I didn’t scream, but I probably would have if I had been in a theater and not at home with the curtains wide open and the lights on). And the payoff is pretty goddamn great. It’s not a film that answers all of its questions, but it also doesn’t leave a thousand plot threads open just to preserve a false air of “mystery.” You know what you need to know and a little more. It’s a film you can talk about with friends, dissecting its moments (especially the ending) and trying to parse what it all meant. Too many films these days (and genre films in general) tell you everything, and it takes away from the horror. We Are Still Here tells you things, but you can’t necessarily assume it’s telling the truth. The film is an unreliable narrator at times. It’s from something’s perspective, but that thing isn’t necessarily all-knowing. But the fear of the unknown, wondering why the Dagmars do what they do, who they choose to attack and who they simply decide to mess with. It keeps you invested, it keeps you wondering, and it keeps you scared.
I’m glad Ted made a good movie. I’m glad I don’t have to post this review to Facebook with a note saying, “Sorry man, but you fucked up.” It’s hardly flawless, but I was absolutely entertained. And if that was truly the intent, then the film is absolutely a success. A silly, scary, and ultimately satisfying bit of genre filmmaking.
Ted, if you’ve made it this far: Well done. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.