Rebelling against the garish gore that became all the rage in the wake of Saw and Hostel, horror films like James Watkins’ Woman in Black, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s Silent House, Nick Murphy’s The Awakening and James Wan's double whammy The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2 have favored a more subdued approach to scares. Rather than buckets of blood and scads of jump scares, these horror auteurs envelop audiences in an atmosphere of foreboding and toss us in us with compelling characters, so that their terrors will grip us at our cores, rattle us like rag dolls, then curl their ways deep around our spines to follow us home. Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are follows in this ambitious trend combining a horror trope typically known for extreme gore with a subtle, gothic storytelling approach. While he makes some missteps in this journey, his follow-up to Stake Land is both thought provoking and chilling.
Penned by Mickle and his Stake Land co-writer Nick Damici, We Are What We Are centers on the Parker family, who live on the edge of a trailer park they run in the Catskills of upstate New York. Their faith and family traditions dictate a simple life, reflected in the weathered walls of their home and the pioneer style clothes they don for very special family dinners. But there is something decidedly unwholesome about this family of five. The first hint to this is the bizarre and abrupt death of their frail mother, who dies on the street after coughing up black bile and blood. The second lays heavy in how her surviving teen daughters discuss in carefully chosen words whether or not they can carry on in her footsteps, no matter what their father (Bill Sage) says.
He is a stern man, tall, bearded and intimidating despite the ceaseless tremor that rattles his right hand. His daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), are pale but pretty girls with fair hair and eyes always rimmed in red as if they've been crying. When the sisters dare suggest maybe the upcoming ritual of Lamb's Day be postponed as mother is not around to prepare the demanding traditional meal, their father growls that they will go on as they always have. By now you may have guessed this is no Thanksgiving dinner or symbolic eating of the blood and flesh of Christ. The Parkers are literalists, and their family Bible demands that once a year they capture, kill, and eat people. With mother Parker gone, this gruesome chore is older sister Iris's to shoulder.
If you're familiar with the Mexican horror movie Somos Lo Que Hay, on which We Are What We Are is inspired, you'll have noted various minor changes from the original. But We Are What We Are doesn't feel like a retread thanks to the writers’ world-building that paints this story as one that is deep-rooted in the troubling history of America. Flashbacks to 1792 reveal the origin to this bloody family tradition. But by bringing it into the present day where its religiously enacted again and again to preserve family unity and--as father preaches--the family's health, it becomes a crisp criticism of the dark side of religious tradition. In the midst of their cannibalism tale, Mickle and Damici essentially demand their audience to question whether the roots of their own faith have grown into something positive, or something gnarled and dangerous that devalues their fellow man, in this instance to meat.
The story is cryptic, unveiled with a sense of doom that warns there can be no happy ending, and yet I couldn't help but hope for the sake of these teary-eyed girls who want so badly to be like everyone else. Discovery of the family’s murder spree seems inevitable once relentless floodwaters wash human remains downstream. The resulting investigation led by Iris's high school crush pushes the girls to action. But will they break from their father or stand with their family? The strong performances from all involved add a delicious weight to this choice. Sage as father Parker seethes with rage, grief and zealousness, smashing around his home and bellowing at the loss of his wife like some terrible beast. Yet his love of his children is evident, though misguided. He may smash about to deter them from breaking from their religious rites, but it’s because he deeply believes this is the only path to their survival and salvation.
As Iris, Childers maneuvers the terrain of guarded teen girl well, keeping her countenance cold while her eyes practically scream for help. In scenes with her younger sister and baby brother, she shows a telling strain to be brave for them. When faced with her Deputy dream boy, her face softens in a way that makes their flirtation alternately promising and heartbreaking. While Iris manages more of the plot, Childers' thunder is stolen by Garner, who memorably appeared in another troubling cult drama Martha May Marlene. Playing the 14-year-old Rose, it's Garner's job to punctuate the horror of the Parker's home life by voicing an alternate to their father’s faith. Like her big sister, she knows how to shine it on for the outside world, but her ache for normalcy teases a direct conflict with daddy's doctrine that is sure to end in screams, tears, and blood. Without spoilers I can say Garner handles all of the above with a harrowing conviction as the film drives into its shocking conclusion.
There's a lot to admire in We Are What We Are. The world building and performances blend to create a looming sense of dread that allows for a horror experience that throbs with fear and anxiety. However, the film seems to rush at points, conflicting with its gothic tone. Shots of water tugging down riverbanks and rain pelting the Parker home establish the mood, then a spattering of plot points are sloppily made with exposition lines so obvious they feel like nails on a chalkboard against the rest of the dialogue. More disappointing is the way Mickle chooses to race through some crucial details of the family's motivations (from past and present) that leave a couple of elements of the story frustratingly murky as we race to the finale. It’s rough around the edges, feeling crude and inelegant despite Mickle’s best efforts. Still, there’s something uniquely creepy and compelling in this horror remake. So while its execution doesn’t always meet its ambition, overall I found We Are What We Are to be satisfyingly scary, both in the theater and later as the red-rimmed eyes of its teen cannibals haunted me on my walk home.