Fans of the stage musical La Cage aux Folles (and who isn’t?) surely recall its fabulous opening number, “We Are What We Are.” But be warned that there are no drag queens or musical numbers to be found in the new religion-tinged horror film We Are What We Are, now playing in Los Angeles and New York City, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing by adventurous moviegoers with strong stomachs.
An English-language remake of the 2010 Mexican thriller Somos Lo Que Hay, it focuses on a normal-to-all-practical-appearances family whose members just happen to be cannibals. Having lived undetected for generations in rural upstate New York, patriarch Frank Parker (Bill Sage of Precious, Boardwalk Empire and numerous Hal Hartley films), his two teenaged daughters and 5-year old son find themselves stricken by their wife and mother’s sudden death during a fierce storm. Her loss is all the more significant because it occurs on the eve of Lamb’s Day, the family’s annual weekend-long ritual that involves fasting, capturing a young woman and turning her into a climactic, celebratory stew in honor of a centuries-old survival story.
Daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers, recently seen in Gangster Squad and The Master) and Rose (ethereal up and comer Julia Garner) are increasingly and, for viewers, comfortingly troubled by their family tradition. As the eldest, Iris is assigned by Dad to prepare the Lamb’s Day meal. She and the allied Rose are reluctant to voice their resistance given their father’s fragile emotional state, yet resistant to killing the woman Frank has chained in their basement. Meanwhile, the town doctor is growing suspicious of the family after receiving Mrs. Parker’s autopsy report, which indicates unusual, cannibalism-related maladies. It doesn’t help the Parkers that the doctor’s daughter mysteriously went missing a year earlier.
Lesbian actress Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, Witness) appears as an increasingly nosy neighbor who also seems to have a romantic interest in newly widowed Frank. Let’s just say she shouldn’t get her hopes up. The adapted screenplay by Jim Mickle, who also directs, and Nick Damici (the pair previously collaborated on the very good apocalyptic vampire saga Stake Land) plays out as more of a domestic drama or police procedural than a full-blown horror movie, and this is to their credit. (I haven’t seen the Mexican version so can’t say how the two films compare.) In true horror movie tradition, some of the smartest characters in We Are What We Are (notably the doctor) do stupid things just when they shouldn’t be letting their guard down. This is a fairly minor criticism though given the otherwise mature, non-sensationalistic and even at times compassionate tenor of the film.
Also worth noting, especially from my professional religious perspective, is the historically and liturgically accurate notion that some actions or rituals considered sacred hundreds of years later are often derived from mundane, even profane origins. Some examples of this in Catholic tradition are when the priest adds water to the wine prior to consecration, which originally was done to make wine more palatable but today represents the mingling of humanity and divinity, and the solemn washing of believers’ feet in imitation of Christ’s humble but fairly simple act recounted in Scripture.
Gore hounds may be disappointed by the relative lack of graphic bloodletting for the majority of We Are What We Are’s running time but they will be rewarded in the final ten minutes, an over-the-top yet appropriate climax to this unusually thoughtful, well-done horror tale.
Also opening this Friday in select cities is the best gay-themed film I’ve yet seen this year, Out in the Dark. You can read my previous review of Michael Mayer’s award-winning, politically-complicated romance between a Palestinian student and an Israeli lawyer here. It will also be released on DVDon October 29th. Whether viewed in a theater or at home, it should not be missed.
We Are What We Are: B+
Out in the Dark: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.