“Oh good Lord! It’s unbelievable. It’s… it’s horrible. I can’t understand the reason for such cruelty,” exclaims Alan Yates in Cannibal Holocaust upon stumbling on an indigenous girl impaled on a wooden pole.
Yates’s reaction to the grotesque tableau mirrors the response most critics have to cannibal films. Proscribed by society as morally harmful and insidious, the genre has until recently been confined to grindhouse theaters and home video, its protracted scenes of torture and dismemberment classified as unforgivably obscene.
The ceremonial eating of human flesh was first implemented on screen by amputee medical researcher Dr. Wells (Preston Foster) in the 1932 horror/comedy, Doctor X. Sidelined by The Motion Picture Production Code for three decades, the unthinkable act was given new life by taboo-buster Herschell Gordon Lewis and his booze-on-blood masterpiece, Blood Feast in 1963. Man-eat-man films flooded the exploitation market in the late 70s and 80s with eye-catching titles like Slave of the Cannibal God (1977), White Cannibal Queen (1980) and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Recently, people-eaters have been appearing on family-friendly multiplex screens in more-palatable, socially conscious representations. In The Neon Demon, a young model (Elle Fanning) is literally devoured by the competition. In Raw, a young girl, motivated by a desire for independence, develops a craving for human flesh. In We Are What We Are, director Jim Mickle utilizes cannibalism to comment on tradition and inherited ways of thinking.
Filmed in a section of the Catskills still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Irene, the movie sees the rigorous and reserved Mr. Parker (Bill Sage) struggling to keep his family from unraveling after the death of his wife. As a violent storm wreaks havoc through town, Mr. Parker looks to his daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) to preserve the habitual customs of their family. As the downpour of rain slowly consumes their land, a town doctor (Michael Parks) and local deputy (Wyatt Russell) move closer to discovering the Parkers’ unusual traditions.
Loosely adapted from a 2010 Mexican shocker of the same name, Mickle’s deliberately-paced remake is a welcomed retreat from the hurried gore flicks so popular today. A haunting opening credit sequence establishes the filmmaker’s intent and welcomes us into the picture. Stone-grey clouds move across a laden sky, water rushes violently over a bed of rocks. Hallucinatory notes composed by Philp Mossman and Darren Morris turn with each somnolent image lulling viewers into the movie.
As the film commences, Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) steps out of the rain into the shelter of a general store. A pig carcass rests on the counter, its hide a ghastly shade of pink and streaked with suet, its unseeing eyes black and aimed at the ceiling. She picks up her order and exits. On the walk to her car she pauses at a community bulletin board to examine a poster advertising a missing girl. Without warning, her skin pales, her eyes pull tight. She lurches. A dark-colored liquid spills from her mouth into the welcoming lagoon forming around her. She collapses to the ground and is swallowed by a muddy pool of water.
At home, the surviving Parkers prepare for Lambs Day, a religious observation that involves the ritualistic killing and consuming of a human. Through a series of flashbacks we learn the practice stems to pioneer times and a particularly harsh winter. Now that mother Parker is no longer living, Iris and Rose debate whether or not it is necessary to abide by the strictures of their inhumane theology. Frank, struggling with the transition to single-parenthood, clings to established routines. He demands his daughters adopt their mother’s custom of slaying and preparing their human meal.
The best horror flicks are those inhabited by characters we can identify with. Mickle and screenwriter Nick Damici go to great lengths to portray the Parkers as likable, caring people. Father Parker’s values seem deranged, but his actions are carried out with a love of his family. Everything he does, he does for his daughters. Iris and Rose question his customs but are moved by a devotion to their father. Their sad eyes, stained the color of cold metal, capture the weight of their despair. Mickle draws us into the lives of his characters and allows us to feel what they are feeling. His story is rooted in fantasy but the emotions of the characters are so genuine that you can’t help but to go along with it.
The rain-soaked world Mickle creates drips with gloom and uncertainty. Cinematographer Ryan Samul captures the action in-depth and in deep focus. The icy grey sky and flooded streets, storm-battered homes and screaming limbs of trees come to life. You feel the dampness, become smothered by the gloom. The movie is as cold as the rain that beats down upon the Parkers like bullets from above, as bleak as the damp Earth that devoured their mother.
This is a slow-moving movie that holds back its violence and bloodshed until its final act. Mickle understands the strength of mood and pacing. He takes his time developing atmosphere. We Are What We Are is infused with dread. Every moment spent with the Parker family heightens the delicious tension of the movie. It relishes its own sense of grim anticipation. The twisted, gore-infested final moments sneak up on you. The film’s deliberate design renders the gruesome finale totally shocking.
The gothic atmosphere cloaks themes of faith and loyalty. Father Parker’s values seem nightmarishly illogical. Eating human flesh for survival sounds preposterous. Iris and Rose are forced to choose to support their father via agreement or oppose him via protest. Children striving for independence jeopardize parental relationships every day. Cannibalism seems to cross the line of what’s acceptable. Consider though that one third of the world commemorates the death of their god via the consumption of bread and wine: elements meant to represent the body and blood of their deity. In the end, Iris and Rose simultaneously embrace their father’s wishes and abandon his ideals at the same time. ***SPOILER*** They make him their sacrifice and the eat the hell out of him.
A restrained meditation on family and tradition, We Are What We Are is a powerful horror movie worthy of repeat viewings. Richly photographed, wonderfully paced and intelligently directed, it offers a spine-tingling diversion from the blood-filled spectacles released each week. Sophisticated and well-crafted with relevant social undertones, it builds toward a shocking climax that can’t be forgotten.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Jim Mickle gets better with each movie he produces. Stake Land provided a fresh edge to an otherwise familiar story. A cross-breed of vampire legend with apocalyptic scenarios, the movie was both ferocious and lyrical. Cold in July was a badass pulp throwback of uncommon confidence. It’s one of the most underrated films of the decade. Mickle lent his talents to the small screen in 2016 with the darkly humorous adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s noir series, Hap and Leonard. The tale of two unlikely friends solving crimes in small town Texas just finished its third season. We Are What We Are is available on blu ray through Sony Pictures and is currently streaming on Amazon.