Forget Carrie. We Are What We Are is the true must-see of this year’s Halloween slate. Well made and immensely disturbing, Jim Mickle’s family saga is like a less-stylized Stoker and nearly as accomplished overall.
Holed up in a small Catskills town, the Parkers largely keep to themselves, honoring the cannibalistic ways of their ancestors once each year. So as not to attract too much attention, Frank (Bill Sage, in a superbly creepy turn) moodily runs a trailer park and ashen daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) attend the local public school, yet all remain generally standoffish. Such privacy is threatened at the story’s onset when a flood, playing the unbilled role of judge and deliverer, brings unwanted attention their way beginning with the sudden death of matriarch Emma (Kassie Wesley DePaiva). So begins an eventful week in the life of the clan with each day announced in bold letters, accurately suggesting limited time and an ever-tightening vice.
Ably adapting Mexican filmmaker Jorg Michel Grau’s original screenplay to a rural U.S. setting that feels like its natural home, Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici consistently surprise. After some fairly standard yet effective build-up, the team dole out certain clues (a captive in the family cellar; talk of resisting a gruesome ceremony) and, more importantly, bring aboard Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), a local physician who notices odd health problems via Emma’s autopsy and similar issues plaguing Frank. Not merely a curious bystander, Barrow’s unhealed wounds from his teenage daughter’s not-too-distant disappearance make him suspicious of anything unusual, and when another young girl goes missing and human bones begin to wash up in the creek, his senses go into overdrive.
Once the situation appears dire for the Parkers, however, We Are What We Are responds with a story that’s practically resistant to predictability. The tale deepened by mysterious dramatizations of how the Parkers’ forebears adopted their nasty habits, Mickle constructs a thrilling final act in which seemingly anything can take place, many of which indeed does. Though hitting a few genre-specific tropes that even Scream lampooned, the director pops these moments with masterful timing, producing big-time scares that would make the genre’s godfathers proud. Grisly through and through, much of which will send sensitive viewers running for the door, what helps make the terror bearable is Childers’ star turn. A range of relatable emotions emanating from her beautiful yet pained face, it’s the kind of human connection that troublesome gross-out films typically lack, yet here is simply one more aspect that the players nail.
Rated R for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language.
We Are What We Are is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.