We Are What We Are is the stateside remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican cannibal sensation of 2010, which played in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and drew (in truth, overly flattering) comparisons to Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In.
In the hands of Stake Land director Jim Mickle, the urban setting of Grau’s original gives way to the Gothic power of the American small town. Just as pivotal an amendment is the change of identity of the cannibal family member whose death in the opening scene triggers the crisis that propels the narrative.
This time round, the Parkers retain their father, the provider, but lose their mother, causing the cohesion of the family unit to subside as disastrously as the deluged earth of the cemetery where Frank Parker (Bill Sage) buries the bones of their victims.
The old religious fervour of the American heartland is what drives the Parkers’ flesh-eating, and has done for generations. Ritual is afforded premier importance, by Frank in particular: the fasting, the killing, the mealtime dress-up in frontier clobber, and the creak of old country records.
Having mentioned religious fervour, now seems an apt juncture to mention Michael Parks, the demented Westboro-inspired demagogue of Kevin Smith’s Red State, here playing a nice chap – a doctor and a daddy no less.
Parks’ Doc Burrows is the embodiment of reason and social norms, deliberately pitted by Mickle against the atavistic inhumanity of Frank Parker. It’s a rivalry that’s destined to get personal too, with the Doc’s daughter having vanished several years previously.
Important as the relationship between the older men is, the really pivotal figures in Mickle’s movie are the Parker daughters; teenage girls becoming the young women they will be, a process accelerated by their mother’s death.
The eldest, Iris (Ambyr Childers), is torn between a family duty that involves butchering the sad, degraded specimens of humanity kept prisoner in the dungeon beneath the Parker home and an attraction to Anders, a fresh-faced, big-chinned deputy (played by Wyatt Russell, the ex-pro hockey-playing offspring of Kurt ‘n’ Goldie).
Her sister Rose (Julia Garner) is more icy and ambiguous in her demeanour, initially anyway, before her path becomes clearer. From there, the girls’ story has distinct parallels with Chan-Wook Park’s Stoker, as the siblings embrace a destiny that, for all its darkness, is at least entirely theirs.
With Frank Parker much more of a big bad bogeyman than any character from the original We Are What We Are, the final scenes adhere to a formula of chases, close shaves and tricky situations. It’s all delivered with reasonable enough aplomb, while lacking the brooding menace or dramatic intensity of what precedes it.
That atmosphere of hanging dread is partly down to the strong look of the film. The colours are as washed out as the countryside, while many of the scenes are shot super-shallow, emphasising the claustrophobia Iris in particular feels about her situation.
So while this is a remake drawn from a far more archetypically horror vein than its 2010 forebear, it is in many ways the finer film for it. A perhaps surprising side-note is that Jorge Michel Grau apparently agrees, and is supposedly eager to direct a sequel to Mickle’s movie.
We Are What We Are is released in the UK on 25 October