Dir: Jim Mickle. US. 2013. 100mins

We Are What We Are

For horror fans who prefer their terrors served cold, We Are What We Are is a tense, unsettling experience that offers very little gore but nonetheless knows how to turn the stomach. A remake of Somos Lo Que Hay, a 2010 Mexican film about one family’s twisted secrets, director Jim Mickle’s follow-up to his vampire road movie Stake Land succeeds on the strength of its pungent dread, which envelops the story like a sickness.

Mickle withholds his greatest shock for the end, delivering a gruesome, delicious payoff that’s entirely in keeping with the demented goings-on that have come before.

After its premiere in Sundance’s Midnight section, We Are What We Are will play the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. The low-budget film, which will be distributed by eOne in the US, boasts no stars, but its creeping nastiness should make it a cult hit among discriminating horror connoisseurs.

The film takes place in the Catskills, a heavily forested region of New York State that allows residents of a local small-town community to enjoy anonymity. Unfortunately, it also creates an environment in which the Parker clan (led by patriarch Frank, played with chilly Old Testament menace by Bill Sage) can live in a remote house and follow a bizarre, clandestine religious custom that may be connected to a rash of unsolved recent disappearances in the area.

Much of the grisly fun in We Are What We Are comes from the ways that Mickle and cowriter Nick Damici hint at what’s going on inside the Parker household, which production designer Russell Barnes and cinematographer Ryan Samul give a crumbling, almost gothic grandeur. The nightmarish interiors, juxtaposed with the bucolic beauty of the surrounding woods, is a familiar genre trope, but the lack of over-the-top bloody horror scenes grounds the proceedings in a stark realism that makes the building terror gripping rather than escapist.

Although We Are What We Are possesses a dark comic streak, the filmmakers don’t turn their horrific moments into grim punch lines. Instead, Mickle treats the Parkers’ strangeness seriously, removing any emotional distance from the audience and the family’s ghastly behaviour. 

Sage is particularly frightening portraying a cult leader, and Frank’s impressionable daughters, played by Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner, are unnervingly placid without tripping into angelic-evil-child clichés. (Interestingly, each actress has recently appeared in another movie about cults: The Master and Martha Marcy May Marlene, respectively.) Once the Parkers’ true agenda is revealed, We Are What We Are loses some of its spell, undone by some questionable character decisions that mostly pave the way for scare sequences. But Mickle withholds his greatest shock for the end, delivering a gruesome, delicious payoff that’s entirely in keeping with the demented goings-on that have come before.

Production companies: Belladonna Productions, Memento Films International, Uncorked Productions, the Zoo

International sales: Memento Films International, www.memento-films.com

Producers: Andrew D. Corkin, Jack Turner, Linda Moran, Nicholas Shumaker, Rodrigo Bellot

Executive producers: René Bastian, Brett Fitzgerald, Mo Noorali, Emilie Georges, Tanja Meissner

Screenplay: Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, based on the screenplay Somos Lo Que Hay by Jorge Michel Grau

Cinematography: Ryan Samul

Editor: Jim Mickle

Production designer: Russell Barnes

Music: Philip Mossman, Darren Morris, Jeff Grace

Main Cast: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Jack Gore, Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell, Michael Parks