The Jumpscare Phenomena and We Are Still Here (2015)
Horror movies nowadays have the same complaint attached to them — they have too many cheap jumpscares and don’t spend enough time creating a suspenseful and creepy atmosphere. This is also a complaint that I have had for many a horror film; far too many of them succumb to the dreaded “quiet, quiet, BOO!” phenomenon, especially horror movies made after 2010. Just simply take a spooky-scary concept like a Ouija board or a creepy possessed doll, add some jumpscares and PRESTO! You’ve made a killing at the box office.
As shown here in the box office information for Ouija, a $5 million budget made a $50 million profit domestically. The total gross for Ouija came out to be $102,529,779. This ridiculous gross has prompted the distributor, Universal Studios, to order a sequel to the film despite the fact that the first film received a an abysmal score of 38 on Metacritic and an even more devastating 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. I remember seeing Ouija and saying to myself, “With a budget of $5 million, you’d think they could come up with some better scares.” Every scary moment was muddled and lazy, with cheap jumpscares permeating every scene.
Many modern horror films suffer from the jumpscare problem in their attempts to stretch their appeal to a mass audience: they try to scare as many people as possible, and that really limits filmmakers in terms of what they can do with the horror genre itself. James Wan’s The Conjuring was an amazing example of an old-school haunted house film done correctly — there was an emphasis on atmosphere and character development BEFORE any scary mumbo-jumbo started happening, and the film now reigns as one of the highest grossing and highest-rated horror movies of all time.
So, naturally, the studios noticed they had a moneymaker on their hands and ordered the spin-off Annabelle, released in theaters the following year.
This is where the problem lies with horror films. Studios market them to the widest audience possible and end up saturating their movies with cheap, low-grade scares. As soon as you begin to mass-market a horror film to a wide audience, you can no longer experiment with gore or themes of death or frightening themes, especially in a PG-13 setting. These studios need to understand that when you cheapen the scares, you cheapen the overall quality of a horror film. This is why the phrase “PG-13 horror film” should not exist; the saturation and coddling of the audience that comes with some of these PG-13 horrors borders on being ludicrous. Some studios simply cannot handle challenging their audience, and so these filmmakers are forced to resort to that age old tactic — the jumpscare.
The jumpscare is a very useful, but tricky tool in the horror filmmaker’s utility belt. Jumpscares disrupt the pacing and flow of your horror film, giving the audience a feeling of uneasiness and unexpectedness; you want your audience to never know what is coming around the corner. Whenever you can see a jumpscare coming from a mile away, it almost makes you cringe. You must create tension first, an uneasy atmosphere — anything to give the characters of the film (and subsequently, the audience) a feeling of “this place doesn’t feel right”.
Modern horror films equate effective jumpscares with the “quiet, quiet, BOO!” technique mentioned earlier, and there is one simple reason why this is ineffective: this technique is not a jumpscare, but a jumpstartle. When a film goes quiet and then suddenly goes loud, of course people are going to jump out of their seats — it’s a natural reflex that the body has to such situations. So, when a horror film like Ouija or Annabelle takes advantage of my body’s reflexes in an attempt to trick me into thinking I’m “scared”, that doesn’t make it a good horror film for me. At all. In fact, it makes it quite awful. It is a cheap cop-out that these studios and filmmakers use to try and make a huge profit while spending as little money as possible, and it has worked like an absolute charm thus far.
However, not all hope is lost. There are a new group of up-and-coming filmmakers in the horror scene that have breathed a fresh, new life into the genre. Filmmakers like Ti West, Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, E.L. Katz, and David Robert Mitchell are just some of the many filmmakers that are turning the horror genre on its ear. Affectionately part of the “mumblegore” movement, these horror films have an emphasis on creating a tense and suspenseful atmosphere rather than just screaming in the ears of the audience every so often. I remember seeing You’re Next in theaters and being absolutely blown away. I walked in expecting your average home invasion movie and walked out with a new-found appreciation of the dark humor and airtight screenwriting that these filmmakers were providing. Films like V/H/S, The Guest, Cheap Thrills, House of the Devil, and It Follows have paved the way for a new standard to be set in the horror genre — all are fantastic movies dripping with their own style, breathing an atmosphere all their own, and straying away from the normal conventions of Hollywood horror. What adds some extra artistic integrity to the works of these filmmakers is that they don’t necessarily care about making the most money at the box office, but rather crafting an excellent and truly scary film for people to watch and enjoy.
Things brings me to a little movie called We Are Still Here. Released theatrically in June of 2015, this haunted house movie is anything but ordinary. Set in 1974, the always-riveting Barbara Crampton (of Re-Animator and You’re Next fame) plays a grieving mother who moves into a new home with her husband far away from the city after the death of their son, only to find that there may be malevolent and restless spirits in her new home. It was nice to see a middle-aged group of lead characters in this movie, simply because the situation becomes much more real and terrifying once their sound-mindedness and skepticism is tested. Inspired by the works of Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci and the giallo horror movies of Italy, this film is immersed in a unique style and an absolutely tense and brooding atmosphere that sinks right into your bones by the time the credits start to crawl.
Giallo horror is mainly characterized by its usage of stark and vivid color imagery, slow-moving camerawork, and its use of ocular horror — i.e., eye-related gore. All of these appear in We Are Still Here in one way or the other. While the colors in We Are Still Here are not as vibrant as they are in most giallo films (if they were, it would have seemed totally out of place), the filmmakers behind this movie have still done an excellent job in using colors to evoke certain feelings in the audience — particularly with the color blue. A bluish tint accentuated a muted sadness in many of the exterior shots of the house. Films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria show the tender beauty that can sometimes reside in horror, and We Are Still Here does a fine job of reciprocating that feeling.
Writer/director Ted Geoghegan gives us a film that is dripping with suspense, as he clearly understands that atmosphere is unbelievably important in horror. The first 6 minutes of the film do an extraordinary job of laying out the setting, characters, and the feeling of uneasiness that is attached to the new home. He does so without shoving exposition down our throats in a messy dialogue dump. Rather, Geoghegan chooses to deliver this information in a sort of montage, going over each detail of emotion and brokenheartedness that our main character is feeling. There is a perfect example of how Geoghegan skillfully crafts an uneasy atmosphere in the film, and it comes within the first 15 minutes.
Our main character, Anne Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton), goes down into the basement with a flashlight to investigate a noise. In the cellar, she finds a baseball glove belonging to her recently deceased son. As she turns around, a shadowy figure is visible in the doorway behind her, but only for a moment. As soon as Anne turns around, the figure moves out of sight. The figure then reappears behind Anne while she is examining a baseball that has fallen down the cellar stairs, as she is reminiscing about fond memories of her son. There is no scare cue when the figure appears, no loud noise to signify that “this is the part where you should be scared.”
By doing this, Geoghegan treats his audience like they aren’t completely without a clue and allows them to drink in the uneasiness on their own, to notice things for themselves and draw their own conclusions. By allowing his audience to do this, he brings the level of immersion of his audience to a much more powerful level — his audience feels a little bit more like they are experiencing the horror right along with the characters instead of simply watching a “scary movie”.
This is why We Are Still Here is one of the best films of 2015, and I would go so far as to say that it is also one of the most inventive and frightening films that I have ever seen. I am not one to get scared easily, as I have seen many a horror film, but this film did a fantastic job in immersing me fully into its environment. Because this movie immersed me in its world the way that it did, it made the jumpscares in the movie ten times as effective. Oh, this movie definitely has jumpscares, it doesn’t shy away from them at all. What makes We Are Still Here miles more effective than Annabelle or Ouija is the fact that the jumpscares came after the careful development of the atmosphere and environment. The creepy tone of the movie had been set LONG before the first jumpscare of the film happened, and so when all Hell breaks loose (which it inevitably will), it makes it that much more intense and terrifying.
Geoghegan takes the general tropes of a haunted house movie and adds twists and flavors to them that are, frankly, unexpected, and this could not be more of a good thing. We need more filmmakers like Geoghegan and his team to bring us horror films that have a standard implemented behind them, horror films that are careful to craft an actual atmosphere and environment that is tangible to their audience. It is clear that Geoghegan and filmmakers like him have a burning passion for the horror genre, they understand that horror films can be more than just cheap scares and half-baked plot lines. Horror is an art form, and these visionary filmmakers are onto something with their interpretations of the genre.
It would seem that I am not the only person who has enjoyed We Are Still Here. The film is currently sitting at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and as this is Geoghegan’s first feature film, this makes this feat much more impressive. It is clear that a new talent is making his way onto the horror scene, and with a whirlwind of a movie like this, we welcome such a talent with open arms. We Are Still Here is also enjoying a Blu-Ray release on October 6th, 2015, and the video-on-demand price is a scare of a deal at $3.99. So, if you’re in the mood for an artistic and bone-chillingly suspenseful movie to scare the pants off of you, I suggest giving this one a try!
You may want to keep a light on afterward, though.