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We Are Still Here

Dark Sky Films // Unrated // October 6, 2015
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author
When categorizing a period in horror movies, trends in subgenres would often be looked at as breaking points, such as "torture porn" (as weak and misused a term as it is) or "found footage". However, horror's real modern renaissance kicked off with the 2009 release of Paranormal Activity, a runaway success that prompted an industry-wide shift toward low and micro-budget genre pictures. In addition to Paranormal's five sequels, Insidious and Conjuring turned into cheap franchises for major studios, with The Purge soon to join their ranks, and the production company Blumhouse has essentially made its name on sub-$10 million productions, many of them horror. Yet, despite an ongoing trend that shows no sign of stopping, it'd also be hard to get horror fans to collectively point to a classic film that's come out of this phenomenon. Buzz is easy to come by (It Follows, Goodnight Mommy), but the finished films are rarely greeted with the same enthusiasm.

To this stack, we can add We Are Still Here, an occasionally atmospheric indie feature which has enough going for it for positive word-of-mouth to be unsurprising but which often feels as sparse as the film's secluded rural setting. Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) have just moved to a tiny New England town to get away from bad memories following a car accident in which their son Bobby was killed. Anne, still struggling with her grief and depression, tries her best to settle in, but she soon feels herself sensing Bobby's spirit in the house. A visit from their new neighbors, Dave (Monte Markham) and Cat (Connie Neer) doesn't help matters, as Dave fills them in on the tragic history of the house they've just bought.

They say horror is a cyclical genre, circling back around to trends after a period of time, but the current generation of filmmakers seem have taken that label as more of a challenge than an observation. Home video, especially DVD, has been very kind to horror fans, bringing plenty of cult classics and fan favorites to the mainstream in decked-out special editions. The films in question may have been worthy of celebration, but such lavish, devoted treatment (sometimes spread across three or more releases of the same film) may have unofficially anointed the genre's "classics" with a certain amount of tunnel vision. So much of modern horror's self-ref/deferential hat-tipping draws from the same wells that even the horror-comedies can sometimes feel like they're eating their own tail, and movies like We Are Still Here feel complicit without intentionally invoking anything. A premise as familiar as "a fresh start at an old country home" should just be a throwback, but even without any obvious homages, elements like the creepy backstory, the ominous warning, and the hive-mind townsfolk are so well-worn that the film feels overly familiar regardless. The Amityville Horror? Burnt Offerings? Texas Chainsaw? The question lingers, like an unscratchable itch.

A degree of this would be fine if We Are Still Here were more engaging, but it feels as if there are long dry spells in the story, screwing with the movie's pacing. Anne and Paul invite two friends to visit, Jacob (Larry Fessenden) and May (Lisa Marie), as well as their son Harry (Michael Patrick) and his girlfriend Daniella (Kelsea Dakata), but while their purpose may be to help Anne pick away at the spiritual mystery in her house, it doesn't feel like there's much there. May is a particularly spiritual woman who could perform a seance in the house, yet writer/director Ted Geoghegan's screenplay sets that up and then promptly ignores it, with May and Jacob's first night in town devoted mostly to a dinner at a local bar, followed by Anne and May going on a shopping trip in the morning. In theory this should seem normal, but it plays like a stall, a disconnect between the perceived urgency of what the characters are feeling (Anne especially, who seems heartbroken enough that it's hard to believe she wouldn't insist on trying to contact Bobby immediately), and what's happening in the story as it's being presented to the viewer (Geoghegan uses these scenes to provide more details about Dave and Cat, many of which feel obvious; in fact, much of Markham's performance consists of blatant expository dialogue that lands with a thud).

In the film's rockiest moments, Crampton provides a bit of relief, giving an impressively emotional performance. Although the very nature of horror means the genre is dominated by death, grief is rarely considered because so many horror movies are like haunted houses, looking to goose the viewer rather than devastate them when someone dies. As Anne, Crampton plays the sorrow without much theatricality, creating a woman who is teetering on the edge, whose pain is more likely to make her shrink than explode. She has the weary look of a person who has already cried until she simply couldn't any longer, and it's her work, above all, that imbues Here with a little bit of dramatic juice. It's not a bad or poorly-made picture, but it remains trapped in the same fog of regurgitation as the rest of the genre. A great film would live up to Crampton's work, but it feels more like Geoghegan is making time for it, surrounding it with makeup effects, possession scenes, and jump scares -- the specter of things that came before.

The Blu-ray
We Are Still Here, at the very least, has a great, evocative, painted poster, and Dark Sky's Blu-ray release retains that poster in all of its glory. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Dark Sky's 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation of We Are Still Here's digital photography is quite impressive. Although the film takes on a slightly earthy color palette, thanks both to the 1970's setting and the snowy small town where it takes place, the disc captures the nuances of the digital picture in terms of both color and clarity. Digital productions always create concern about banding, especially those that take place in dark and low-light settings, but no compression artifacts popped up as far as I could tell, and detail is excellent, capturing plenty of textural nuances. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is on par with the image. The movie, as with many modern horror movies, uses a bassy sting to signify the appearance of supernatural forces in the house, which is eventually accompanied by the crackling and popping of a roaring fire. The authenticity of this effect startled me more than once, and dialogue and music is also rendered quite nicely throughout the film. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
The primary supplement is an audio commentary by writer/director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens. Unsurprisingly, Geoghegan reveals himself to be a fan of the genre, and points out a number of references and homages throughout the film, as well as discussing (with Stevens) other inspirations for the script and the story, as well as the challenges of low-budget filmmaking. There is also a short Behind-the-Scenes (7:04) featurette. Most of the information will seem familiar to anyone who also listened to the commentary track, but those who prefer video extras can get some of the highlights while watching B-roll from the set.

Trailers for Redeemer, Para Elisa, and Starry Eyes play before the main menu. Both an original theatrical trailer and original teaser trailer for We Are Still Here are included.

We Are Still Here is bolstered immeasurably by Barbara Crampton's excellent performance, but the film as a whole feels anchored to contemporary horror history in a way that the genre really needs to do away with. It used to be that a film "wearing its influences on its sleeve" was a casual or neutral observation, but this practice is choking the life out of the genre, where even fresh ideas have a tendency to drown in echoes of the past. Rent it.

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