Going back at least to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and traceable through films as otherwise varied as Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Stevan Mena’s Malevolence (2004) and Dan Bush’s The Vault (2017), there is a strand of cinema that sets fugitive criminals on a collision course with the horror genre. A similar game is played by Fredi Nwaka’s feature debut Are We Dead Yet?, in which an incompetent quintet of house burglars – Madison (Jessica-Jane Stafford), Barry (Aurie Styla), Gavin (Paul Danan), Alan (Hakkan Hassan) and their handler Parksy (Bradley Turner) – seek overnight refuge in the isolated Drakelow Manor after a robbery gone wrong. On their way through the woods to the huge house, one of their number receives an Old Man’s Warning™ about the place – and very soon all of these not-so-hardcases are having encounters with the manor’s many ghostly residents, as they find themselves playing a reluctant if pivotal role in its cursed history.
Are We Dead Yet? is very definitely located at the comedy end of horror, and your enjoyment of it will be entirely dependent on how much tolerance you have for the company and banter of these cheeky chappies (and chapess) as they fart, fight and fail their way through various haunted scenarios. Little of this worked for me, and while some of the more eccentric elements of the plotting – especially the characterisation of its large phantom ensemble – come with a certain novel appeal, these barely add up to a coherent whole. Rules about the workings of the house are stated, only for different rules to be arbitrarily introduced towards the end, and a wild coincidence (concerning Madison’s identity) proves crucial to the film’s resolution. It is hard to escape the strong sense that the story was being made up as it went along, even if subplots involving imposture (that require us to revisit and reinterpret what we have seen before) perhaps suggest otherwise.
Where Are We Dead Yet? does come into its own is in the prominence that it gives to black characters, in a genre that has typically excluded, marginalised or rapidly eliminated anyone not white. “We’re not supposed to be here,” comments the ethnically Afro-Caribbean Barry. “I‘m not supposed to be here – when’s the last time you saw a black guy in a castle?” It is an entirely fair comment on the history of gothic cinema, but in fact the manor’s own history is haunted by a multitude of black personae, going right back to the original Drakelow paterfamilias (Winston Ellis) and his five mixed-race daughters. Barry may have visions of spectral twin girls – but unlike their analogues from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), these identical sisters are black and dreadlocked. In a self-conscious flourish, Barry refuses to be the first to enter the Manor. “I’ve seen how this movie ends,” he says. “I ain’t dying first, man, I’ve seen Scream 2, Ghost, The Unborn.” This represents an express acknowledgement of the ‘first to die’ trope associated with African-American characters in horror.
So Nwaka’s film takes advantage of the climate recently created by Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) to reinvest and refresh the horror genre with black perspectives. It is just a pity that in other respects Are We Dead Yet? is so messily unfocused. The ongoing sub-Ritchie criminal capers never sit well with the more supernatural material – and a greater tightness to the writing would have better served the more original inflections in Nwaka’s voice. Maybe in his next feature.
Are We Dead Yet? was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.