WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013), like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, uses cannibalism as a stand-in for any unfortunate family traditions that are passed down through the generations long past their shelf date. In this case the Parker family continues a practice that should’ve expired immediately after their ancestors did it the first time in a Donner Party survival type situation. Now it’s gussied up as a religious act to be repeated yearly as “Lamb’s Day,” and the Parkers hold onto an ignorant belief that they’ll get sick if they don’t do it.
This is told mostly from the family’s perspective, and they’re not some weirdo Leatherfaces. To them it’s, like, a family doesn’t just stop celebrating Christmas one year. The Parkers are gonna eat a bowl of human chili on Lamb’s Day. It’s how they were raised.
Like the 2010 Mexican original, Jim (MULBERRY STREET, STAKE LAND, COLD IN JULY) Mickle’s American remake tells the story of what happens when the provider of this cannibal family suddenly doesn’t come home one day, and the survivors have to figure out how to take over those responsibilities. But in the original it was the father who died, and his more timid son had to learn the family trade in his absence. Here the mother (Kassie Wesley DePaiva, who I didn’t recognize as Bobby Joe from EVIL DEAD II) dies and her oldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers, HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN, THE MASTER) is expected to take over. So this is gender swapped. This is like GHOSTBUSTERS!
It’s a pretty different story. The original took place in Mexico City, and dealt very disturbingly with the son stalking homeless people, prostitutes and people at night clubs, trying to lure them in as victims, doing a bad job of it. The remake is in a very small town in the Catskills, and they already have their victim locked in the basement. So the daughters at least get out of having to choose someone to kill, having to approach and trick and capture them. Horrible shit. But their scary-strict father Frank (Bill Sage, FENDER BENDER) insists that they do the killing, cutting and cooking. And that’s a bad childhood, in my opinion.
The girls are afraid, and younger sister Rose (Julia Garner, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR) thinks about refusing to do it. But they agree to just get it over with and figure out what to do about it before next year. I mean, there are certain things you might be expected to do by your family or school or society – go to church, say the Pledge of Allegiance, stand for the national anthem – it takes guts to be a conscientious objector. And it’s probly harder when you know the person you’re standing up to is experienced in disposing of remains and keeping secrets. It’s a tough spot to be in.
I might just be naive, but I suspect less than half of us here have had this kind of cannibal upbringing. But there’s still so many ways this is relatable. They’re dealing with growing up, facing new expectations from their father, and starting to question things they’ve always taken for granted. And they’re like one of those families most towns have that are more strictly religious than most in their community and have a hard time fitting in. Even in a town that seems pretty out of time they seem to be lagging further back. Their house and their clothes have a little tinge of Amish to them. Or Little House On the Prairie. But Iris has the normal desires of a young woman and she wants to act on them.
So these girls who are eating human flesh are very sympathetic, as really all of the characters who are not their father are. Michael Parks (FAST COMPANY, TUSK, DEATH WISH V) is outstanding as the soft-spoken town doctor Doc Barrow, who performs the autopsy on their mother. Then one day his dog finds a bone fragment that he believes is human. Sheriff Meeks (co-writer and STAKE LAND/LATE PHASES star Nick Damici) thinks it’s nothing, but Barrow, whose own teenage daughter went missing a few years ago and was never found, is not about to drop it. So he pressures a young Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell, COLD IN JULY, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!) to help him search the creek.
Deputy Anders is a good character, an aw shucks nice guy who bashfully asks Iris out in between faithful performance of his job duties and giving earnest advice based on his own experience losing a parent. He just doesn’t know how totally different this situation is. And he’s the kind of guy that will think what the doctor is having him do is a total waste of time but doesn’t know how to say no to it, so he keeps wading through the creek with a net all day.
Also, Iris really looks like Reese Witherspoon to me, so the courtship part of the movie kinda made it seem like SWEET HOME ALABAMA or one of those type of movies, except she’s hiding from the boy that the missing girl he’s been looking for is her dinner.
I like this setup where it was the mother who did the killing, not the scary dad. Maybe she was worse than him, but my guess is that she was sort of under his thrall and/or scared of him like their daughters. He’s one of those creepy chauvinists with his stubborn idea of what men are supposed to do and what women are supposed to do and he sits around with a mean look on his face to scare them into doing it. He’d never try the normal thing where you love each other and have relationships working together and enjoying life helping each other out and stuff. Making the wife do the cooking and grocery shopping works out to him not having to do most of the dirty work.
But somehow you know he could. The fact that he waits until the shit goes down makes him all the more scary. The story takes some jagged, upsetting turns. It means business. And you know Frank is not gonna give in, because he’s following his religion. He thinks everybody else are heathens.
It was a rain storm that killed their mother. She was sick and she collapsed, but then she hit her head and drowned in a puddle. And now the flooding is digging up literal and figurative buried secrets and sending them downstream. Maybe don’t be so sure God is on your side, Frank.
The fates of all of these characters drift toward each other as the father’s position becomes increasingly untenable. He gets desperate and dangerous, and the resulting mayhem seems somehow both unpredictable and inevitable. Despite the larger-than-life subject matter, the climax has the sad, messy feel of true crime.
I think this is Mickle’s best horror movie, and his slickest, the only one that seems to have a budget to match its ambitions. The original is more genuinely unsettling as it puts you in the shoes of these kids having a hard time kidnapping people, almost getting caught or beat up. And then having their mom judge a victim as unworthy of eating. That one is more fucked up, but I felt more emotionally invested in these characters and what happens to them, especially since the person who might catch them seems like a nice guy with very understandable personal reasons to get in over his head. As much as I liked the original, this very different take was more satisfying to me personally.
Tastes like chicken actually.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.