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We are what we eat

Actresses Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner in a scene from We Are What We Are.
By Pablo Suarez

Director Jim Mickle offers an old, noble approach to suspense in horror

These last few years saw a string of rather mediocre horror movies, that is leaving aside the works of Rob Zombie, such as the outstanding Lords of Salem (locally unreleased so far); James Wan’s highly inspired Insidious (unfortunately followed by a most awful sequel); or the creative short films anthologies V/H/S and V/H/S/2 — forget Carrie, the inexpressive remake, too. So it should be no surprise how hard it is to find strong shoulders for the horror genre to rest on.

One (somewhat) new name that is often overlooked is director Jim Mickle, who first grabbed viewers’ attention with the clever Mulberry Street (2006), which concerns a deadly infection that breaks out in Manhattan, causing humans to devolve into blood-thirsty rat creatures. Then came Stakeland (2010), a compelling take on a vampire epidemic that has swept across the country after years of political and economic disaster. And now Mickle is behind the camera again with We Are What We Are (released locally as Ritual sangriento), a drama, a thriller and a horror film that caused some well deserved stir at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

We Are What We Are tells the story of the Parkers, an apparently wholesome and benevolent family that has always kept to themselves, and for good reason. Behind closed doors, patriarch Frank rules everyday life with a rigorous fervor, determined to preserve his ancestral customs — come what may. As a torrential rainstorm moves into the area, the matriarch of the family has a freak accident and passes away.

So daughters Iris and Rose are forced to take up responsibilities that go beyond those of a typical family. Think that the most important task the girls face is putting meat on the table — but not the kind that can be found at the local supermarket. As the unrelenting downpour continues to flood their small town, local authorities begin to uncover clues that bring them closer to the secret that the Parkers have held closely for so many years.

We Are What We Are is a remake of the Mexican film of the same name by Jorge Michel Grau, but it comes across as a more realistic and suave version — the original is downright sleazy, and with a pretty outrageous tone. Mickle’s remake noticeably carries along at a slow pace in its first half, so that you adjust to the environment and carefully observe this rural atmosphere and its wildly strange inhabitants. Once you familiarize yourself with the family’s habits as their back-story unravels, the film begins to kick in. This is when you start feeling immersed into an atmosphere where evil lurks waiting to take its toll. Consider this is a film that keeps it leisured pace for its most part, which tends to turn into a tension-building affair. Eventually, the pace picks up in the latter half and you are greeted with a remarkably tense ending, which serves as a pinnacle in conclusions.

And here’s one remarkable trait of We Are What We Are: although there’s an element of predictability almost throughout, an edge of unpredictability is highly prevalent during the finale — and many scenes before as well. There are some wicked twists and turns along the way until the conflict hits its marvelous peak. Basically, this is one of those movies that becomes so much better than you’d anticipated thanks to the exceptional manner in which the story wraps up. Expect graphic horror, cannibalism and realistic gore bound to leave you gasping for air.

What Mickle films lack in originality in the screenplay (Stakeland and Mulberry Street are also cliché-ridden) is compensated by an overall ominous feeling that conveys true horror. These are the kind of atmospheric horror films that were common in the sixties and seventies, but are now seldom made. Realism is the name of the game here, and so performances are deftly tuned as to make viewers care for the core of drama in the story, not for its ornaments. At the same time, playing the entire scenario deadly straight is some kind of a drawback (just like when Stakeland gets too serious), but the problem is not the realistic approach. It’s the insistence in making it, at times, too solemn.

Something else that makes Mickles’ films stand out from the crowd (more so in the case of We Are What We Are) is how atrocious some images are, even if you never get to see all that’s going on (but you do see a lot). Instead of filling the screen with an assortment of crude, gross images left and right, Mickle opts to carefully pick a few ones, say five or six, and places them in ways that catch viewers off guard just when they thought they could relax a bit. An old, noble approach to suspense in horror, but also one that unfortunately doesn’t have as many followers as it should.

And though the music isn’t striking and feels fairly bland and generic, which removes potentially greater suspense and eeriness), We Are What We Are will likely stick in your mind because of the unexpected, pulsating intensity that erupts as the it draws to its end. A scenario that’s definitely not for the faint hearted.

@PablSuarez

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