Culture, it’s said, moves cyclically. The generation of filmmakers who whiled away their childhoods sitting rapt before the hundredth replay of a John Carpenter film on VHS has come of age, and those hours spent glued to the TV have paid off. With The Guest and House of the Devil, directors Adam Wingard and Ti West, respectively, reworked their influences into tone-perfect ’80s homages, exercises in mimicry that were also clever and terrifying in their own right. Those films flew when similarly allusive horror films fell because Wingard and West understand that a good homage comes down to more than a hot-pink title font and a synth-heavy score. To properly pay tribute to the bygone classics, it takes a certain mentality, a certain sense of pace, and a carefully calibrated balance between the semi-kitschy retro and the genuinely horrifying.
Ted Geoghegan, the brain behind haunted-house throwback We Are Still Here, knows that as well. Though his film goes a little light on the scares—until the climactic set piece, when it unleashes them in full force—the man’s got a knack for summoning the unshowy techniques that first endeared him to the cult curios of his youth. Training his sights specifically on the schlocky, glorious filmography of Italian horror forefather Lucio Fulci, Geoghegan evinces a patience and refined traditionalism refreshingly out of vogue. In a cinematic climate saturated with microwaved remakes, he’s given audiences the exact opposite. Think of it as an “unmake”: an effort to make the new old again.
Even relative to The Guest and House of the Devil, We Are Still Here harbors no preoccupation with modernity. Instead of a stable of nubile teens, Geoghegan claims a pair of middle-aged adults as his murder fodder, perhaps his most subtly effective choice in time-transporting his viewers. While slasher films traditionally subsisted on young flesh, supernatural horror greats of yore tended to terrorize settled domestic couples, unloosing the latent evil waiting in the walls of small-town America’s homes. Bereaved parents Paul and Anne Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig and Re-Animator scream queen Barbara Crampton, respectively) relocate to a frost-choked New England hamlet in hopes that a change of scenery may assist them in coping with the death of their son. The ceaseless, metaphorical ice-winds that whip the barren landscape suggest otherwise. As their den of healing, they select a timelessly creepy derelict mansion, complete with creaky stairs, a dank basement, and elderly next-door neighbors who come bearing vague warnings of malevolent spirits. Monte Markham makes for particularly effective human set-dressing; with his uncanny vacillations between elderly congeniality and possessed foreboding, Markham feels as likely to offer butterscotch as he is to start spewing black bile and speaking in tongues.
Paul’s shocked to find that moving into what is essentially a colder version of the set from House on Haunted Hill does little to better his wife’s mental state. More troubling still, her claims that she can still feel the presence of their deceased son might amount to more than figurative grief-bearing. Fearing the worst, they call in the dubious services of a self-proclaimed psychic, Anne’s friend May (Lisa Marie), who totes along her still-truckin’ hippie husband Jacob (Larry Fessenden). As influences on the film’s overall tone, they prove the most problematic: May and Jacob provide the otherwise somber horror show with a dash of color, but their levity comes off as something closer to affectionate parody than reverence. When it comes to soothsayers, kookiness is par for the course, but Marie and Fessenden’s performances are less “haunted house” and more A Haunted House.
Ultimately, they clash with the studied discipline of the rest of We Are Still Here. Geoghegan and editors Aaron Crozier and Josh Ethier imbue the film with a carefully regulated pace that salutes their chosen subgenre more effectively than any superficial aspects of design. Like the pillars of the proud haunted-house tradition, they afford little glimpses of the terror that stalks the characters—in this case, a fleet wraith that appears to be made from burning cinders—before pulling out all the stops for a hectic grand finale. The key is Geoghegan’s willingness to withhold, trusting that his audience will follow him where he leads even if he’s not constantly bombarding them with scares. As such, the first hour can drag, before the audience realizes they’ve been drifting through the calm before a spectral storm.
Not to detract from Geoghegan’s skills as a filmmaker, but We Are Still Here probably won’t ignite the fire within any budding horror maestros who happen upon it. Much of the film’s distinction stems directly from its current cultural context; to those uninitiated in the history of the horror that influenced Geoghegan, it’ll feel too similar to too many other films. But to the well-trained eye, it’s a respectable ersatz relic. When the walls of her new home first begin howling, Anne’s the only one who can hear them. Seasoned horror fans able to similarly tap into the film’s eerie frequency will hear the withering wails, too.