Generally a recommended practice in good parenting guides, family mealtimes around the table get a bad rap in the exuberantly grisly “We Are What We Are,” the third and most polished feature to date from handcrafted horror specialists Jim Mickle and Nick Damici. Ostensibly a remake of 2010’s Mexican cannibal saga of the same name, the new film is sufficiently divergent in tone and narrative — smoothly relocating the action to the Catskills backwoods and cleverly flipping the original’s gender dynamics — to stand alone. Genre buffs will dig in with gusto; mainstream auds may find it more of an acquired taste.
Mickle and Damici’s first two films, “Mulberry Street” and “Stake Land,” both riffed on standard-issue horror subjects — deadly viruses and vampires, respectively — to engagingly eccentric effect, so it should come as no surprise that they play fast and loose with their source material here. Little is borrowed from Jorge Michel Grau’s original script other than the premise of a close-knit cannibal family sent into disarray following the providing parent’s death.
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Where the original tilted into frenzied urban chaos as the family’s flesh-starved offspring set about finding suitable victims, the new film hits a stealthier stride, locating the most crucial conflict in the family itself: Dad (Bill Sage) is the enemy, while angel-faced daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) want out of their not-so-proud family tradition, implied here as having 18th-century religious origins. Kelly McGillis, who also was featured in “Stake Land,” provides some welcome warm notes as the children’s prying neighbor and would-be protector.
With the surviving parent now a bullying patriarch rather than a collaborative mother figure, the film is markedly more frightening than its predecessor, in a crooked “Night of the Hunter” vein. That’s not to say it’s without some gratifyingly cheap jolts — one in particular, shattering an uncharacteristically tender scene between two youngsters, is timed to cruel perfection. As in the original, the encroachment of authorities ratchets up tension further toward the climax, but Mickle and Damici find a denouement all their own; it’ll certainly be a talking point among audiences, so suffice to say it’s at once more physically extreme and more thematically elegant than the Mexican film’s exit strategy.
That “We Are What We Are” steers just shy of silliness even at its most outrageous is in large part thanks to a committed cast of non-disposable character actors. Sage, manfully resisting the role’s capacity for camp, is a genuinely menacing antagonist even before he goes off the deep end; he’s balanced by the more benevolently grizzled demeanor of veteran genre-film player Michael Parks as the small-town doctor who’s first to cotton on to the family’s misdeeds. Most impressive of all are Childers and Garner as our putative heroines, seemingly brittle yet disquietingly resourceful as they face up to some ugly moral responsibilities. (Garner, also a striking presence in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Electrick Children,” seems to be the go-to girl for stories about creepy family cults.)
Technical contributions are uniformly sharp, with Mickle providing his own rudimentary visual effects. Shooting in damp conditions that are integral to the story, the director’s regular d.p. Ryan Samul opts for a palette of mossy, washed-out greens and grays, complementing the upstate setting and the generally fetid atmosphere of proceedings. Particularly worthy of note are Brian Spears’ lurid makeup effects, which have guts spilling, — and stomachs churning — in all the right places. The strings-based score is shrilly effective in parts, though the film’s best music cue is its choice of closing song, a Tommy Strange country number graced with the apt lyric, “She was a good girl / It was me who made her bad.”