I’ve heard it said that from underneath the right filter, nearly any topic can become the subject of a horror story. “We Are What We Are”, a 2013 movie directed by Jim Mickle, is a solid example of this notion at work as it takes the commonplace practice of the family dinner and turns it into something unspeakably dark.
In a small rural town outside the Catskill Mountains, sisters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris Parker (Ambyr Childers) anxiously await the return of their mother from a shopping trip during a violent rainstorm. They are then informed by local police that she is never coming back, having suddenly passed out and drowned in a parking-lot puddle. This news has come at a particularly inconvenient time for the Parkers. Unbeknownst to their neighbours, this is the season of their most valued family tradition, dubbed “Lamb’s Day.” Determined to carry on with their annual festivities, patriarch Frank Parker (Bill Sage) passes his wife’s former responsibilities onto his teenaged daughters. Up to this point the film’s plot could be presumably synonymous with a typical family drama about grief and custom. The juicy twist here is that the Parker’s family tradition is murder and cannibalism.
“What if we just stopped?”
Coming-of-age tales often make for the most engaging of horror stories, “We Are What We Are” being no exception. Slowly and articulately, the film gradually unveils a number of interesting themes, namely the meaning of ritual and its impact on family life and identity. Both Garner and Childers are well cast for their roles as hardened young women bound to an existence that pulls them one way towards the normality of the outer world and another way into the hellish center of their home. In all our lives, there is a threshold where we exit the obedient state of childhood and enter into the realm of defiance; this film captures the experience of crossing over that threshold for the first time, and accurately depicts all of the attached fears and uncertainties.
Bring out the good silver…
“We Are What We Are” is a mature revision of the so-called “hillbilly horror” genre, which can only be referred to using titles like “The Hills Have Eyes” or “Wrong Turn”. In the most authentic light as possible, it examines the shockingly plausible history and motivations behind the Parker’s horrifying practices. This subversion is probably one of the best facets of the film, besides its suspense and Sage’s terrifyingly tense portrayal of madness. The atmosphere of the film is closely reminiscent of the murky tones seen in many classic cabin-in-the-woods type of films, but the focus is turned specifically to this world’s inhabitants, instead of its visitors. This results in an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the daily life of a human-turned-monster, and reveals a world of custom and ritual eerily similar to the supposed ideals of our own reality.
…and don your Sunday best.
There’s not very much to complain about “We Are What We Are.” The film may seem to lag at times, but its pace is designed to recreate the feeling of a roller coaster slowly climbing towards an exhilarating dropping point. It is a well-crafted feature that quietly lures in its audience and latches on until the very end. I have yet to view the 2010 Mexican film of the same name on which it is based, but it certainly holds its own without any need for comparison. “We Are What We Are” is probably one of the best offerings of last year’s indie-horror platter. Go ahead and dig in.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10