Few film genres can take steady aim at "organized religion" like the horror genre does. In the hands of clever filmmakers, our collective fixation on the power of religion can result in films as varied as The Exorcist, The Woman, and Jug Face. (That last one is worth checking out, trust me.) And while we find that religion is actually the hero in most of the occult-flavored horror films, it is most assuredly the villain when we're dealing with symbolism, metaphor, and intelligent screenplays. The excellent new horror film We Are What We Are is not exactly an attack on any specific religion, but it is a trenchant and fascinating indictment of the ways in which religion can brainwash and poison even the most innocent of souls.
Based on the 2010 Mexican horror film of the same name, We Are What We Are comes from director/co-writer Jim Mickle, whom the astute horror fans will remember from Mulberry St. (2006) and Stake Land (2010), and while one hates to "compare" a remake to its predecessor, there's enough quality here to allow for such a comparison. To start with, this is an actual remake. The central premise remains the same, but Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici do all they can to make this version their own: most of the characters have switched genders; the focus is more on the kids than on the parents; and here there's a truly well-crafted subplot that involves a local doctor who slowly comes to realize that his neighbors are ... cannibals.
Ah, yes. We Are What We Are is a film about a family of cannibals who seem reasonably civilized -- if a bit weird -- on the outside, but behind closed doors they eat a lot of human flesh. As the film opens, the mama of the flesh-eaters suffers a stroke and drops dead in the street -- which leaves two pre-teen daughters and a little boy in the hands of a stern and devout patriarch who clearly has no idea how to deal with his adolescent daughters. Suffice to say that this family unit is crumbling. It seems that the Parker clan has thrived for generations while somehow keeping their cannibalistic -- and murderous -- activities a secret, but with the unexpected death of their mother, the modern-day Parkers are truly facing extinction.
Like most of the finest indie horror films (even ones that are remakes), We Are What We Are is less about "faith-based cannibalism" and more about what "faith-based cannibalism" represents. Overly devout or unyielding religious laws are clearly one of the film's targets, but so are themes regarding love, loyalty, faith, morality, and (the best part) the good old question of "nature vs. nurture." Are we born good and then learn evil? Or are we born a blank slate on which anything can be written? What happens when basic human decency does battle with the evil things a child is taught?
There's a lot of thematic material to chew on here, just as there is in the original We Are What We Are, but this is also one of the most quietly impressive Amercan indie horror films of the past few years. Not only is it wonderfully shot and crisply edited, but the cast is simply aces across the board. The prolific character actor Bill Sage is effortlessly menacing (and virtually unrecognizable) as the psychologically crumbling Frank Parker; the young ladies playing the wildly different Parker sisters (Julia Garner & Ambyr Childers) are both excellent; and of course there are small but well-conceived roles for veterans like Kelly McGillis and the always-cool Michael Parks.
What's particularly impressive about We Are What We Are is what it changes (which is a lot) and what it chooses to keep; the central core of both films is very similar and yet fascinating for different reasons. The film also boasts strong essentials in the cinematography and score departments, while Mr. Mickle acts as his own editor, and the result is two disparate subplots that slowly converge in clever and intense fashion. This is a sober and serious horror tale, but it does remember to include some jolts, scares, and seriously bloody bits, too. It's just a tight little package, all told.
Best of all, those who don't even realize this is a remake will enjoy a dark, intelligent, challenging, and consistently unpredictable piece of genre filmmaking. It's a rare beast indeed: an indie remake of an imported horror movie that works as not only a compliment to the original, but also as an impressive complement.