Thursday, 3 September 2015


The joy of FrightFest is that you get a wide variety of horror films from which to pick and choose. From gore-splattered slasher flicks to tongue-in-cheek creature features by way of creepy ghost stories, the horror world really is your oyster.
It's one of the latter that I'll be focusing on for my next FF Special review, an atmospheric haunted house tale starring scream queen legend Barbara Crampton.
With a talent like that onboard and a creepy as Hell trailer, I went in with high hopes.
Would this film stand a ghost of a chance? Or would it leave my spirits deflated?
Read on…


Dir: Ted Geoghegan

Starring: Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, Larrey Fessenden, Monte Markham, Susan Gibney, Michael Patrick, Kelsea Dakota, Guy Gane, Elissa Dowling, Zorah Burress, Marvin Patterson

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

The year is 1979. Anne (Crampton) and Paul (Sensenig) are a couple struggling with bereavement after losing their college student son Bobby in a tragic car accident.
Anne in particular is finding it difficult to cope with her grief, so the pair leave their old home in the city (and all the painful memories it holds) behind and relocate to a spacious and picturesque home in a small New England town.
However, upon moving in the change of scenery seems to have been to no avail as Anne becomes certain that Bobby's spirit has followed them to the new house.
As if one restless ghost wasn't enough, the pair are called on by neighbours, the McCabes and soon Dave (Markham) is recounting the grisly history of the house, specifically its previous purpose as a funeral parlour run by the maligned Dagmar family — a family who were found guilty of selling bodies and driven out of town.
Fearing for his wife's emotional well-being (all while dealing with a problematic boiler in a crumbling cellar) Paul invites family friends May (Marie) — who also fancies herself as something of a psychic — and stoner Jacob Lewis (Fessenden). They even invite the Lewis' son Harry (Patrick) and his girlfriend Daniella (Dakota), as he was Bobby's roommate at college and he offers Anne a link to the boy she's lost.
After May and Jacob arrive the four friends head out to eat at the local diner for dinner, leaving a note for the young lovebirds to join them when they arrive.
However, Paul, Anne and their friends soon realise that this small town is not so welcoming to outsiders. Meanwhile, Harry and Daniella discover the deadly secret in the cellar.
As the supernatural phenomenon mounts and the group attempts to deal with it, they are soon forced to accept that what lies waiting in the house may be beyond their comprehension — and what stalks them from without is every bit as dangerous.

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): We Are Still Here is a homage to the works of cult Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci — specifically his batshit but bloody brilliant unofficial 'Gates of Hell' trilogy: City of the Living Dead; The Beyond; and The House By The Cemetery. As such it contains plenty of elements similar to those in Fulci's films.
For younger genre fans who may not have had the pleasure of seeing Fulci's works (and if you haven't, I certainly recommend these along with the iconic Zombie Flesh Eaters), what this means is that you get plenty of creepy, slowburn suspense scenes as we are drip-fed a surprisingly simple plot, interspersed with sudden, shocking moments of incredible graphic gore and bonkers supernatural shenanigans.
That's right, you essentially get the best of both worlds here.
The earlier scenes give you plenty of spooky, barely glimpsed hints of otherworldly goings-on, the sort glimpsed in classic haunting tales such as The Changeling (whose influence is nicely homaged by echoing the iconic 'ball on the stairs' scene). It sets a disquieting mood, without ever explicitly tipping towards out-and-out frights. As the atmosphere builds and the sense of dread mounts it seems as if we are settling into a Seventies-style supernatural horror film — but this is really just a trick, luring the viewer into a false sense of security before springing the trap with graphic depictions of the burnt, blackened entities dwelling within the cellar and the shockingly gory, violent methods with which they dispatch their victims.
This shows some tremendous film-making talent on the part of Geoghegan — it combines a restrained and intelligent pacing with spectacular visuals. The film is set in 1979 and feels very much of the area, from the fashions of the costumes worn by the leads down to the set dressing and decor of the interiors. The cinematography by Karim Hussain really evokes a throwback feel which heightens the comparison to classic horror films actually filmed in the era, some of which still stand among the very finest genre movies ever made. From the aforementioned The Changeling, by way of the character design for the crew of the Elizabeth Dane in John Carpenter's The Fog via plot elements of both The Evil Dead and Rosemary's Baby. However, the chief sources of inspiration are certainly the aforementioned works of Fulci — especially The House By The Cemetery — and the works of literary horror legend HP Lovecraft (himself an influence for Fulci's Gates of Hell series).
The script (written by director Geoghegan from a concept by Richard Griffin) openly wears this inspiration for all to see with We Are Still Here's characters taking their names from characters in Fulci's 1981 movie. Anne/Ann; May/Mae; Jacob; Harry/Harold; and Bobby/Bob — these are obvious, but other characters such as Daniella take inspiration from the cast of THBTC. The Dagmar family's name comes from Dagmar Lassander (Lassander also being the first name of the spectral family's patriarch), while Paul's name is derived from lead Paolo Malco. Even Anne and Paul's surname, Sacchetti, comes from The House By The Cemetery's co-writer, Dardano Sacchetti.
Of course, it takes more than admittedly wonderful visuals (particularly the way in which the snow-covered and desolate New England winter landscapes are presented) and lots of loving nods to genre classics to create a horror film that stands up in its own right.
It also needs an emotional heart in the form of characters you can believe in and root for or against. Giving us two leads who are dealing with bereavement is a simple but effective way to gain our sympathy — most of us will, at one time, lose somebody that we care about. That Anne and Paul be mourning the loss of a child is even more powerful — parents will certainly feel their pain. That the characters are brought to life by such wonderfully talented actors as Crampton and Sensenig certainly doesn't harm the characterisation.
As I've said before, the fantastic Crampton is a genuine scream queen with a list of genre classics to her name including Re-Animator, From Beyond and, in more recent years, You're Next. She's always excellent and this role is no different, giving Anne a fragility, all big soulful eyes and quivering voice. In lesser hands Anne's character could have been annoyance, in Crampton's she is supremely sympathetic.
Opposite Crampton, Sensenig is also brilliant. A veteran actor with over a decade's experience, he makes a perfect foil. His character is one that takes quite the arc, moving from  sceptic to believer and then forced to overcome the horrors that entails. It requires some range and he's more than up to the task.
In the supporting roles the standouts are certainly gifted character actor Fessenden and Tim Burton regular Marie, plus the gravitas-laden Markham.
Fessenden has a lot of work to do, with his role ranging from comic relief to a key part in a major scare sequence and he absolutely nails it. He really is superb.
Marie adds an element of mystery, plus adds some classic emotional melodrama in key scenes. She's a vital part of the puzzle and adds a new element to the group dynamic.
On the opposite side of the coin, Markham's McCabe is a classic 'satanic panic'-style villain, along the lines of Rosemary's Baby's Castevets. As the elder of a group within the town that rely on certain events for their livelihood, he provides some key exposition without it ever feeling forced or shoe-horned in. It's a real testament to his ability that he is able to keep the audience interested as he does so.
He also adds menace in a cold, calculating way, a very different form of villainy contrasted to the incandescent rage of the otherworldly entities within the house.
With a strong cast and well-crafted scares, it might seem unlikely that We Are Still Here would deliver on the splatter front.
That couldn't be further from the truth.
From the tremendous make up on the vengeful, undead Dagmars to the all-too visceral nature of their unbridled bloody revenge by way of an extremely messy gunshot to the head, the film features plenty of grue and gore. Haunted house stories rarely appease the gorehounds — but the work by Cat Bernier, Heather Buckley and Marcus Koch's effects team delivers every bit as much as Gino De Rossi's did for The House By The Cemetery back in 1981. 

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): It seems daft to fault a movie for aping the defects of the films to which it pays homage, but I'm afraid flaws are flaws, whether intentional or not.
The main problem with We Are Still Here comes from the manner in which it so faithfully follows the story structure of those Fulci films it references.
I don't think I'm being too cruel when I say that Fulci was more of a visceral and visual filmmaker than a storyteller. His plots were often very simple, with random WTF elements introduced sporadically for a little flavour, even if they made no sense or strained credulity.
We Are Still Here isn't as gonzo as some of Fulci's works, but it has a very straightforward plotline. There's nothing wrong with a simple story when it's told well, but those of you looking for twists and turns may feel disappointed.
Furthermore, there are a couple of points at which characters act in a way that has you scratching your head. Paul's rapid flip-flopping when it comes to the supernatural goings on grates somewhat, while an ill-advised decision to perform a séance in direct contradiction to advice from somebody clearly more clued up with regards to ghouls and ghosts is downright moronic. Then again, this is horror, iffy character decisions are par for the course!
In the latter stages the plot borders on self-parody and threatens to collapse under its own weight as it hurtles headlong into its bloody climax. However, it manages to keep its head above water, never feeling like it cheats as the various elements click into place, and the bloody massacre that closes out the film is actually one of the highlights. If nothing else, Geoghegan and company deserve credit for having the courage to follow their vision through to its barmy conclusion.

THE VERDICT: There's nothing I love more than discovering a horror gem when I went in unawares. We Are Still Here is one such surprise. From its über-cool throwback feel to its absolutely incredible cast, from the sumptuous visuals to the jaw-dropping graphic gore effects, THIS is a film that screams quality. More than anything I love the fact that this movie could inspire today's horror fans to take a look at its influences, to read some Lovecraft or check out a Fulci movie or even Rosemary's Baby or The Changeling. Geoghegan has crafted a fantastic genre film that stands on its own — that it references classic films so well as it does so is just the icing on the cake. 

With FrightFest now over anybody hoping to catch We Are Still Here may well have to wait until the home release. Thankfully that is soon, with a global release set in time for Halloween, giving us all something to look forward to watching come 31 October. Check out the film's official Facebook page for more details and give it a Like while you're there too!

Read my previous Film4 Frightfest special reviews for Suspension hereThe Nightmare hereWind Walkers hereStung hereNight of the Slasher hereInvaders here and Crow Hand!!! here.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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