'What We Are': Fresh, Grade A Horror, (Re)Made In America

Sep 26, 2013
Originally published on September 26, 2013 6:41 pm

The best advice for those looking to remake foreign horror movie hits? Don't.

At best, the results tend to be well-made but redundant copies (The Ring, Let Me In). At worst, the misbegotten rehashes that result miss capturing the originals' frights so completely that they nearly take their inspirations down with them (The Grudge, The Vanishing). Everyone's better off if you just leave these things be.

Unless you're Jim Mickle.

The director of the well-received 2011 indie vampire flick Stake Land obviously had no intention of making a cash-grabbing English-language photocopy when it came to redoing Jorge Michel Grau's gripping, gritty 2010 Mexican cannibal allegory We Are What We Are.

Instead Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici gutted Grau's story to the bone. And they not only built something entirely new on that skeleton — they managed to equal and in many ways surpass the dark, bloody beauty of their source material.

The basics remain the same. Both films center on an insular family — here, the Parkers, led by the dead-eyed, chain-smoking Frank (Bill Sage) and his daughters Iris and Rose (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) — who engage in periodic cannibal rituals. Just as they're about to proceed with their next kill, one parent dies and the eldest child is called on to fill the gap left behind, even as grief and internal resentment threaten to bring their whole enterprise to the ground.

But where the original had an urban setting, this version unfolds in a rural town in the Catskills. Where before an eldest son had to fill in for a dead father, now an eldest daughter must take hold of the slaughtering knife after mom collapses while grocery shopping.

The changes might seem like the simple application of opposites designed to distance the new film from its source, but there's deeper purpose in every change here. Mickle is particularly interested in exploring the role of tradition — specifically religious tradition — in passing down archaic and sometimes dangerous rites.

Grau's film used the grimy slums of Mexico City to refract modern economic despair and police corruption through the lens of his macabre tale. But Mickle's characters are stuck in a centuries-old cycle of murder in the name of a fickle god — and his version benefits from a rural setting that clings just as doggedly to its past.

Mickle also effectively subverts expectations by delaying the horror in his horror film as long as possible. Apart from a clinical autopsy scene early on, there's little in the way of gore or violence until the very end of this new telling. The director knows how to slowly build tension and dread — but he also, unexpectedly, weaves in a thread of quiet, melancholic despair.

That surfaces most poignantly in his dreamy, elegant shots of the tale's earthy environment, as well as in the tone of its family life, which is typified by sadness more than violence and cruelty. In many scenes, characters move with dirge-like weightiness, their eyes rimmed red as if they'd just been crying.

That silent gloom is also the hallmark of the best and most surprising performance in the film, from longtime cinematic tough guy Michael Parks. The filmmakers hand him the role of Doc Barrow, a lonely old doctor with a tragedy in his past that turns out to be tied to current events.

At 73, Parks turns in one of the most tender performances of his career — before reminding us, in the end, that he's still a guy who can sit across a table and make you tremble in fear with a stony gaze.

"Genre exercise" is a term that can too often be applied to small, niche-marketed horror flicks; like any exercise, they're predictable and follow well-worn patterns. Mickle understands that the best genre filmmakers paint from a much larger palette, just as he understands that the best horror is about more than the kill. (Recommended)

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