A few years ago, I went to see Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, a Korean monster movie. I went into the theater expecting scares; I came out slightly confused. There had been some good horror moments, and there had been scenes of genuine emotion, and there had also been some supremely silly moments that seemed to undermine the film entirely. I just wasn’t sure how to feel about the film. Later, I learned more about Bong Joon-ho and his sensibility. He’s known for mixing genres — for pairing a bit of slapstick comedy with domestic family drama to see how they play off of each other. (“The films of the South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho operate like slyly constructed Rube Goldberg machines. His 2007 The Host, which made my list of 10 best films for that year, was a Godzilla-style monster movie that popped open to reveal a ghost story and a touching family drama hidden inside,” wrote film critic Dana Stevens.)
All this is to say, sometimes it helps to know a little something going in. When I saw Bong’s later film, Snowpiercer, I was more familiar with the director’s style, and I pretty much instantly fell in love with this funny, thrilling, dystopian sci-fi epic.
Last night, I watched We Are Still Here. I knew virtually nothing about the film going in, except what I’d read in the review that made me want to watch it. The review, from Birth.Movies.Death, mentioned Lucio Fulci, about whom I also knew nothing. (This is, perhaps, a major oversight on the part of a horror movie fan, but I’ve never been a huge fan of giallo. I understand the historical and cultural importance of films like Suspiria or Delirium, but I just can’t get invested in them.) “We Are Still Here is Fulci as fuck,” Meredith Borders wrote in her BMD review, and I shrugged and thought, “Whatever, sounds like a good watch.”
Well…We Are Still Here started off promising. In his review for Roger Ebert.com, Glenn Kenny wrote, “For its first half-hour, We Are Still Here might give the impression that it’s one of those new-fangled ‘subtle’ independent horror movies. You know, the kind that depends more on ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ than on Guignol scares and shocks to reach its viewers.” Thing is, I like those moody, atmospheric movies, so for the first few minutes, I was in We Are Still Here.
It’s not even the tonal shift of the movie that threw movie. About halfway through, We Are Still Here tosses aside any subtlety in favor of straight-up Guignol and begins splattering blood, squishing heads, and incinerating bodies like nobody’s business. I approve of this sort of gore-fest.
But something felt off to me. The performances were so stilted and almost amateurish in some cases. The writing was unnecessarily repetitive; at one point, when the grieving mother played by Barbara Crampton, insists for the thousandth time, “I still feel Bobby here!” (referring to her dead son, whom she’s convinced is haunting the house she and her husband have moved into), I yelled at the t.v., “WE GET IT.” And how many damn times do characters have to say, “Gee, there seems to be something dark happening inside this house?” I’m watching a horror movie; who are they trying to convince?
There were nevertheless some good scares and some effective scenes. A seance during which a house guest rapidly goes from communicating with a spirit to serving as the ghost’s conduit is sufficiently disturbing, and several of the deaths (particularly those involving a certain staircase) are inventive. But I couldn’t get past the awkward acting, the uneven tone, and the nonsensical ending.
After the movie, I looked up additional reviews to see if I was missing something. “Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981) is one clear model here, with its slightly ‘off’ foreigner’s vision of American life and crude yet effective ghoul in the basement,” writes Dennis Harvey for Variety. He goes on:
[T]he performances here often have an exaggerated comedic tinge that’s not quite parodic but still creates some distance between the viewer and the spooky atmosphere. […] But they fit into a general thematic and design scheme that faithfully echoes a seminal era’s often garish horror conventions, particularly in Karim Hussain’s widescreen lensing and Wojciech Golczewski’s original score. Even the occasional gaps in narrative and character logic make sense in the context of homage — particularly to Fulci, but also to such cultish U.S. indie horror films of the era as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Of course, viewers with a shallower genre viewing history to draw on will simply fault We Are Still Here as being corny and careless.
Ah, so that’s my problem. I’m one of those viewers with a shallower genre-viewing history. Which brings up a question: What’s my responsibility in terms of well-roundedness? As a lover of the horror genre, I don’t want to be a shallow viewer; I like knowing the history behind certain directors’ choices and the legacy behind classic monsters. And not knowing how We Are Still Here pays homage to Fulci and older cult films, I clearly missed out on something.
But like I said, I don’t love giallo, and I’m not always into deliberate awkwardness. More importantly, as NPR’s Linda Holmes once pointed out, you can only consume so much, and that means you have to make choices. This time, my choice has meant that I don’t appreciate We Are Still Here, perhaps, as I should have.