The Dagmar's Curse - WE ARE STILL HERE

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

Everybody loves a good ghost story, it’s just a shame that so many of them have recently fallen short on chills, instead resorting to jump scares and excuses to indulge in poorly conceived CGI. So when We Are Still Here made its way onto the festival scene in 2015, it was received well by critics and audiences but seemed to be lost on the general public when it finally reached the home market. Not only does the film evoke the feel of the much-loved Lucio Fulci films of the early eighties such as The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond it also succeeds in scaring the living daylights out of its audience.

Paul and Anne Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig and genre icon Barbara Crampton) are in mourning for their son, a loss that has naturally put a strain on their relationship. In order to try to start again, they move into a new home in a rural New England village. It’s an imposing old house, and almost instantly, Anne feels there is a presence there. She is convinced it is Bobby, their deceased son. A photo of their son that the couple proudly displays in a frame on the sideboard is found shattered. Anne reminds Paul that Bobby didn’t like the photo, hiding it when he had girls around. She sees it as a certain sign that he’s there with them.

There is certainly something ominous about the place, particularly in the cellar. A constant smell of smoke and an intense heat makes Paul call an electrician. While he’s working away down there, ‘something’ grabs him, scorching his flesh and leaving him writhing in agony. Paul assumes it was a faulty boiler, and thinks nothing else of it.

A few weeks into their residence, they are visited by their nearest neighbours, Dave and Cat, who welcome them to the area in a rather sinister way. Dave tells them the macabre history of their new abode. In 1859, the house used to be a family-run mortuary. The family, the Dagmars, were allegedly run out of town after it was discovered they were burying empty coffins and selling the corpses. The house has only sporadically been lived in since then, the occupiers not lasting too long. As the couple are leaving, Cat hands Anne a crumpled piece of paper bearing a scribbled note, ‘the house needs families. Get out’. Although unsettled by this, they decide to stay on and ask some old friends to come to stay. The invitation comes with a loaded reason, however, as May (Lisa Marie, perhaps best known as Vampira in Ed Wood and the slinky ‘Martian woman’ in Mars Attacks!) is a New Age type who claims to have psychic abilities while her husband Jacob (Larry Fessenden) is a stoner.

Jacob and May’s son and girlfriend are also planning to come to visit, too; Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) having been a close friend of Bobby’s is keen to show his support, but Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) is a little anxious, particularly when he tells her that ‘Bobby’ could be haunting the place. Rather than wait for the youngsters, the group head into town for a meal, leaving a note to make themselves at home. Which, of course, they do in the way all teens will when left alone - no, not by lounging about playing Xbox games, they crack open the whiskey and begin to get frisky. Before they can get down to it, though, a noise disturbs them. Harry thinks it’s come from the basement and goes to investigate, only to be attacked by the scorched spectre that is lurking down there, cinders soaring as the presence chars his flesh. Daniella makes a run for it and gets as far as the highway when she too is slain - with an arm thrust straight through her chest. It is clear whatever vengeful spirits are lurking in the Dagmar house, they are able to corporeally appear outside the confines of the old wooden structure.

Meanwhile, the foursome’s meal isn’t going too good as the bar they have chosen to eat in has an atmosphere as frosty as the surrounding area. May has a feeling something’s wrong just at the time her son is being roasted alive, so they leave to head back to the house. There’s no sign of the youngsters so they assume that they didn’t arrive and will be there later.

 


The whole town are aware of the house and the significance of having a family there for the first time in thirty years, and under the instruction of sinister neighbour Dave, they are not going to allow the newcomers to leave - and if the house and its residents won’t take the family for themselves, the townsfolk will make sure they are sacrificed.

We Are Still Here has a lot more to it than that simple synopsis, but it’s not our job here to spoil the enjoyment of the viewer’s discovery. Rest assured, however, the climax is as shocking and gore-spattered as anything Fulci came up with, and is surprisingly satisfying. Something modern horror films often fail to be. It’s also realised with physical special effects - barring a few digital embellishments on the burnt Dagmar family - which certainly packs a bigger punch than many of the CGI spectres and blood spurts we’re getting fed these days.

Written and directed by Ted Geoghegan, a producer/screenwriter who has a few credits to his name over the past few years (including 2009 shocker Sweatshop and Andrea Schnaas’ Demonium) impresses greatly with his début in the director’s chair. Not only does the film ooze atmosphere, the visuals are perfect. The way the exteriors are shot is in stark contrast to the oppressive and foreboding interiors. It’s also a very adult shocker. Unlike many recent ghost stories, We Are Still Here takes a more measured and mature approach to its chills. Despite it being Geoghegan’s début feature, he displays fantastic restraint and the film is all the more engaging for it.

That’s not to say there are not some lighter moments. As a veteran of many recent genre efforts - both in front of and behind the screen - Larry Fessenden brings a level of humour to the proceedings. His laid-back stoner character adds some levity, but never at the expense of the story and never so much to derail the brooding terror. Fessenden’s been an almost omnipresent face on the US independent film scene for the past few years. One of those faces that people instantly recognise but then can’t place where from, but most notably in Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break, Jughead (renamed The Pit in the UK), I Sell the Dead and You’re Next. It was on the latter that he first worked with Barbara Crampton (as did Geoghegan, who was helping with the movie’s PR). Barbara shouldn’t need much introduction to genre fans, having graced at least two of the ‘80s most iconic and memorable movies - Re-Animator and From Beyond. But her role here is less the scream queen and more measured, minimalist and believable. This is someone who has recently gone through a traumatic and tragic event (the loss of her son) and, while not gullible, is open to the suggestion that the boy is trying to stay close.

There are elements of so many influences in the film, yet still feels fresh and exciting. It’s coincidental that Crampton appeared in the two Stuart Gordon movies mentioned, as We Are Still Here has a kernel of H. P. Lovecraft to the tale. The malevolent family - burnt beyond recognition and out for regular vengeance from the small town - may not be the archetypal Lovecraft antagonists but the mood and uneasiness created sure is.

As mentioned, there are also similarities to the latter work of Fulci, but the parallels don’t stop at the setting and atmosphere. The electrician that receives a frazzled arm is named Joe - just like the plumber in the Italian’s 1981 epic The Beyond (who also meets an unfortunate demise in that cellar).  And, more obviously, the mortician is named after the actor Dagmar Lassander (albeit with a not-so-subtle switch around). She is a veteran of Fulci movies herself, appearing in The Black Cat and The House by the Cemetery (both 1981) as well as cult classics Femina ridens (The Laughing Woman, 1969) and Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Almost every character in the film has a name that influenced by The House by the Cemetery; just not as obviously as the Dagmars!

 


If you want a film that pays enough reverence to the ‘old-school’ horror movies but still packs a mighty wallop when it comes to the gore, you can’t go wrong with We Are Still Here. Make sure you sit through the end titles, though, as there are a series of newspaper headlines that fill in what has been going on in the town for the past hundred-or-so years and why the townsfolk were so terrified of the Dagmar’s curse. Oh, and there’s a really neat little sting, too.

Ted Geoghegan is currently in post-production with his next directorial effort, Mohawk, which promises to be another tale of revenge and survival, only this time involving a squad of American soldiers. If it’s half as good as We Are Still Here, we can’t wait.

WE ARE STILL HERE is currently screening on Horror Channel. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.


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