Closer to a companion piece than a straight remake of the 2010 Mexican horror original (Somos Lo Que Hay), We Are What We Are sees Stake Land and Mulberry Street director, Jim Mickle, and writer, Nick Damici, relocate the action from a sweaty Mexico City’s crumbling urban slums to a po’ white trash rural Deep South in the middle of monsoon season, slyly inverting the protagonists' genders to give this slice of American Gothic a more feminist spin. The central premise may be the same, but the execution is very different.
As in the original, the film begins with the death of a parent – in a neat switch this time, the family matriarch. A middle-aged woman drops dead in the street leaving her teenage daughters Iris and Rose (Childers and Garner) and her young son under the care of their stern, devoutly religious father Frank (Sage) who may be nursing an incestuous desire towards the girls. Outwardly friendly and normal, if a little strict and religious, the Parkers have a few skeletons in the closet though. Literally.
The Parker family are cannibals, secretly chowing down on their neighbours for generations and justifying their appetites through their own twisted interpretation of scripture. With an almost Biblical deluge sweeping the area and the grief-stricken Frank mentally disintegrating, it’s going to be up to the reluctant Iris and Rose to save the family, but the Parker girls are having a crisis of faith and bone fragments exposed by the rain and the results of their mother’s autopsy (which shows a neurological disease consistent with cannibalism) have aroused the suspicions of the local doctor (a wonderfully low-key Parks) who’s daughter is among the missing and who thinks he might just know why so many people go missing in their small town…
A melancholy staging of the conflict between Nature and Nurture that’s as much a study of grief as it is a cannibal horror flick, Mickle and Damici’s take on the material is subtler and more nuanced than the Mexican original. Somos Lo Que Hay was an angry, cynical little shocker, a social realist satire that used its people eaters to explore the plight of Mexico’s marginalised urban poor where people are disposable and the police are lazy, corrupt, inept tools of a rampantly capitalist society that chews up the poor far faster than its peckish predators. The family’s victims were those who’d least be missed; gays, prostitutes, runaways, homeless children; theirs was a society that existed in a moral vacuum.
While We Are What We Are’s Parker family are far from wealthy, their cannibalism is fuelled more by ignorance and tradition than by poverty and hunger, the family’s faith eating them alive (along with the local community). Their victims are their neighbours, mostly wholesome young women, the film a sly condemnation of a particular strain of religious zealotry and American patriarchy. Here the forces of law and order are not corrupt but harried, have too much on their plate, the investigation left to concerned citizens. Society may be broken in Mickle and Damici’s film, but it’s not beyond saving. At the core of both films lie dysfunctional families, but while in the original it was their appetites that were the glue that held the family together, in Mickle and Damici’s film it’s the catalyst that will tear the family apart.
The performances are excellent, character actor Sage wonderfully twitchy as the mentally and physically disintegrating Frank, succumbing both to grief and to the degenerative neurological disease that killed his wife, while the ever reliable Parks, writer Damici (as the sheriff) and Mickle regular McGillis as a suspicious neighbour offer strong support but the film belongs to the Parker girls, the pale, wan Childers and Garner both wonderful as the reluctant cannibals fighting tradition.
A thoughtful, intelligent, restrained little horror movie that racks up the tension and is surprisingly light on gore (until it’s really not), We Are What We Are is one of the few horror remakes that improves on its source material.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with co-writer/director Mickle, co-writer/actor Damici, stars Garner and Sage, and cinematographer Ryan Samul; the documentary An Acquired Taste: The Making Of We Are What We Are (52:53); and junket interviews with Mickle, and stars Sage and Garner (15:39).