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After their teenage son, Bobby, is killed in a car crash, Paul and Anne Sacchetti move to an isolated 19th-century house in the New England countryside to try to start a new life. But, soon, the grieving couple begins to sense they are not alone in the old house. The Sacchettis' psychic friend, May, arrives to investigate Anne's hopeful feeling that Bobby's spirit is also there. Unknowingly, the Sacchettis become the prey of a family of vengeful spirits that reside in their new home and, before long, they discover that the seemingly peaceful town is hiding a terrifyingly dark secret. Now, they must find a way to overcome their sorrow and fight back against both the living and dead as the malicious ghosts threaten to pull their souls – and the soul of their lost son – into hell with them. (From Dark Sky’s official website)

 We Are Still Here
Hot off my two-part review of Matthew Kennedy & Adam Brooks’ The Editor and Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, I’m already back on the Eurohorror throwback train with Ted Geoghegan’s ode to Lucio Fulci, We Are Still Here. Fulci’s career spanned five decades and several genres. He made great westerns and some of the best giallo thrillers Italy had to offer, but his legacy lies in his singularly gory, grimy, gothic horror films. Four films in particular – Zombie (aka: Zombi 2, Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979), City of the Living Dead (aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981) – are recognized as his trademarks and have inspired homage among up-and-coming, low-budget filmmakers.

We Are Still Here is Geoghegan’s feature-length directorial debut, but he has played a role in gory horror tribute for about a decade now. His earliest imdb.com credits are as the writer of Demonium (2001), Nikos the Impaler (2003), and Don’t Wake the Dead (2008) for trash superstar Andreas Schnaas. Along with Nekromantik director Jorg Buttgereit and Premutos: Der Gefallene Engel director Olaf Ittenbach, Schnaas belonged to a brief underground horror movement in Germany. His first three films were the Violent Shit Trilogy Violent Shit (1989), Violent Shit 2 (1992), and VS3: Infantry of Doom (aka: Zombie Doom, 1999). These films were popular with cult fans who traded bootleg VHS versions of them via the back pages of genre magazines and early internet forums, but, in the modern era, where just about every weird low-budget oddity is available for purchase or download (illegal or not), their utter amateurism outweighs their minor charms. My point being that Geoghegan’s connection with this müllmenschen is a red flag. Beyond their cut-rate appearance, Schnaas’ movies – including Demonium and Nikos the Impaler – are superficial homage at best. They enthusiastically re-create graphic violence with barely functional narratives in order to make room for more rubbery and bloody special effects.

 We Are Still Here
Thankfully, Geoghegan’s work as writer/producer for other filmmakers seems to have been part of a learning process that he has outgrown. The modest budget and limited schedule occasionally dull its impact (the whole production could use a bit of tweak and polish), but, at its best, We Are Still Here is a surprisingly graceful and thoughtful little horror melodrama. The story and characters are culled from generic ‘70s/’80s haunted house stock and refined enough to stand on their own. Audiences don’t need to understand the Fulcisms to appreciate the self-contained sense of dread. Geoghegan takes a more mature approach to Fulci’s abstract familial themes by casting likable adults in most of the major roles and giving the protagonists a relatable reason to act like typical horror movie idiots, i.e. the death of their son. The characters are heightened, but sympathetic; funny, but rarely goofy. These naturalistic performances are fronted by Barbara Crampton, who is playing a much more responsive and sensible mentally anguished housewife than she did in You're Next (2011).

Geoghegan is wise to use House by the Cemetery – the most plot-driven of Fulci’s gothic trilogy – as a narrative basis. To try and recreate the more esoteric terrors of City of the Living Dead or The Beyond would be impossible. The family drama and ‘haunted’ basement motifs offer a lot of room for interpretation and many chances to work other Fulci nods into the mix without stopping the movie to wink at the fans in the theater. Even the H.P. Lovecraft references work, as many of Fulci’s films have directly cited Lovecraftian lore. The mythology surrounding the house and its heat-infused zombies (lavazombies?) is a rich twist on a number of Fulci tropes. In fact, my biggest complaint is that more time wasn’t devoted to telling the back-story (much of it appears during the end credits). I certainly appreciated the character-based moments, but would’ve gladly sacrificed them for more about the town’s curse.

 We Are Still Here
Visually speaking, Geoghegan rightfully acknowledges that Fulci’s horror movies were not just about gore. Surely, gore played its part, but Fulci’s work endures because of the particular atmosphere of his films. In this regard, cinematographer Karim Hussain’s efforts to recreate and modernize Sergio Salvati’s ethereal and dynamic photography merits major credit. Hussain – himself the accomplished director of Subconscious Cruelty and the cinematographer in charge of Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012), and two episodes of Hannibal – occasionally even flat-out impersonates of Salvati with handheld camera work, an earthy colour palette, and establishing shots of the house itself that are framed to evoke the opening titles of House by the Cemetery. The only thing missing is the omnipresence of blowing dust and fog, which is a rather vital component in a Fulci zombie movie. I suppose moderation is important, though. For the record, though, Geoghegan does bring the gore-goods culminating in a climatic bloodbath that would make the Maestro proud.

Because I can’t help myself, here are all of the direct references to Fulci’s work I noticed my first time through (before I watched the commentary). Beware of vague spoilers:
  • I can’t recall if the year the film is set in is ever specified, but the press materials claim it’s taking place in 1979, the same year most of the Fulci movies in question were made.
  • A family moves into a countryside house with a mysterious past and a haunted basement. Sort of a generic qualification, I admit, but definitely a nod to House by the Cemetery.
  • The basement is a miniature labyrinth with mysterious holes in the foundation. A handyman comes to fix the damage (it is blasted with supernatural heat, rather than supernatural torrents of water, like in The Beyond) and is attacked by demon zombies. His name is even ‘Joe the Electrician’ in the credits – as opposed to The Beyond’s ‘Joe the Plumber.’
  • A younger couple enters the house when no one is home and is attacked by the spirits. Unlike the pre-titles of House by the Cemetery, they are invited and are interrupted before they have a chance to make love.
  • Two of the characters are mediums and there is a City of the Living Dead-like séance sequence (that eventually turns into a more standard-issue possession sequence).
  • J&B whiskey, a mainstay of Italian genre filmmaking, makes a brief appearance (though the label actually reads BJ).
  • There is a bar/restaurant that has been decorated to resemble the bar in City of the Living Dead.
  • The house is possessed by the malevolent spirit of a family that was murdered by townsfolk, like the warlock Schweick in The Beyond. Though the trope has been inverted to the point that the modern residents are just as evil, it also recalls a subplot of City of the Living Dead’s, in which all of the people in Dunwich are the descendants of witch-burners.
  • One character is killed with a fireplace poker, ala House by the Cemetery.


There is also a key reference to Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980).

 We Are Still Here

Video


We Are Still Here was shot using Red Dragon digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. As mentioned above, Geoghegan and Hussain do what they can to evoke a modern, clean Fulci/Salvati-inspired aesthetic. This means that We Are Still Here is very dark and that darkness can create some problems with clarity and noise, but Hussain is such a skilled digital technician that the heavy shadows rarely overwhelm the most vital details. Besides, the occasional grit, along with lens choices and the soft, diffused backlights make for a pretty convincing 35mm analogue. The ‘digitalness’ of the footage is only obvious in brighter images, where the more delicate gradations appear too smooth to be film-based footage. It’s difficult to decide what digital noise is inherent in the material and what is caused by disc compression. Edge enhancement is rarely an issue, but there are some posterisation/banding peppered throughout the transfer. The Fulci/Salvati aesthetic tends to dictate a desaturated, often earth tone-heavy palette alongside oodles of eerie darkness, and We Are Still Here mostly follows suit. This is sort of a bummer, since Hussain is such a wizard with vivid acrylic and neon hues, but the colour quality certainly isn’t what I’d call bland.

We Are Still Here

Audio


We Are Still Here is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. I imagine Lucio Fulci would’ve done interesting things with digital effects (assuming he had the money for good digital effects), but I think it’s more interesting to wonder what he’d do with digital surround sound. This track is pretty minimalist during the non-horror sequences as it subtly establishes the mood with soft bumps and basic environmental ambience. The scary scenes include a steady hum of atmospheric noise (implying that the supernatural happenings are heard as a mysterious wind), a very exaggerated bass (every minor clunk and thump rumbles the LFE), and directionally enhanced spookiness. Composer Wojciech Golczewski had a very high bar set for him by Fulci’s favourite gothic horror tunesmith Fabio Frizzi. Next to maybe Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, Frizzi is the most influential genre composer Italy ever produced. Golczewski is paying slight homage to Frizzi with this dreamy score. The polished simplicity, dissonant themes, and slightly joyous motifs turn frightening at a moment’s notice are all definitely reminiscent of all three of the Fulci gothic movies. Like Hussain, though, he is definitely modernizing the archetypes.

We Are Still Here

Extras


  • Commentary with writer/director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens – Geoghegan and Stevens aren’t quite as boisterous as I was hoping they’d would be and they have an occasional habit of just describing the on-screen action, but otherwise do a fine job discussing the ins and outs of the production. This commentary is at its best when Geoghegan is talking about subverting haunted house tropes and building his mythology. They discuss the Fulcisms, though not until about the 20-minute point, when they talk about recycling the names of House by the Cemetery actors. Apparently ‘70s TV movie horror was also an inspiration, which is very clear in the more static character shots.
  • Behind the Scenes (7:00, HD) – This brief series of interviews with the cast & crew covers the film’s inception, Geoghegan being handed the directing reins after being asked to write the script, and production. This featurette also includes behind-the-scenes footage and colourful production illustrations.
  • Trailer and teaser


 We Are Still Here

Overall


Recently, I reviewed Michael Winner’s The Sentinel and I suggested instituting an unofficial septuple-feature collection of movies that represent the mythical Seven Gateways to Hell. My choices were The Sentinel (1977), City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, John Carpenter’s The Prince of Darkness (1987), Tibor Takács’ The Gate (1987), Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), and John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below (2014). It looks like we can add We Are Still Here to the list. I guess I’d dump The Gate, just because it’s my least favourite. Dark Sky’s Blu-ray is a little rough-looking due to how dark the film is, but features a fantastic DTS-HD MA soundtrack and a nice commentary track among the brief extras.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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