With only three films in his CV, Jim Mickle has already established himself as one of the most exciting talents in contemporary American horror cinema. Along with entrenched star and co-writer Nick Damici, he has made a handful of largely undersung modern horror classics, and in spite of the fact that it’s his first swing at that dreaded horror substrate the remake, We Are What We Are is another ball knocked well out of the park.
In lesser hands a remake of a respected Mexican horror film from only a couple of years ago would have been a crass exercise in commercialism, but Mickle and Damici use the seed of the original film as a jumping off point to craft something that’s completely different and completely their own. I saw someone say that comparing Mickle’s We Are What We Are with its Mexican progenitor was like saying that Interview with a Vampire was a remake of Dracula, and while that’s probably more than a bit of a stretch, the two movies are very different creatures, in spite of their shared premise—that of a family keeping alive secret, cannibalistic rites in the midst of modern society.
One of the big changes, of course, is in the setting, with urban Mexico City exchanged for rural America. Which also leads to a fundamental shift in the mood of the movie, and the Catskills Gothic feel of this version, mixed with Mickle’s sure direction, produces an unbeatable atmosphere. Whether it’s the use of the density of nature surrounding the characters, or the constant rain that is simultaneously isolating the community and unearthing the family’s secrets, the setting is a big part of the success of Mickle’s film.
Setting isn’t the only shift from the Mexican original, though. The members of the family are genderswapped, with an overbearing father in place of the original’s mother, and with daughters and one son this time around. The cast—which includes some Mickle alums like Kelly McGillis—is uniformly excellent, with great turns from Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers as the girls, and Michael Parks as the suspicious town doctor. But it’s Bill Sage who brings the film’s powerhouse performance as the patriarch of the family. Sage has been in a pile of movies, though I was previously unfamiliar with him. Here he creates a brooding and intimidating presence that anchors the movie in dread, even in scenes in which his character isn’t present.
After a while, comparing Mickle’s version of We Are What We Are to the original becomes pretty pointless, especially as the movie moves along and continues to chart its own path. By the film’s final moments, it is its own creature entirely, and the final scenes provide a fantastic turn, unexpected either from what’s come before or from foreknowledge of the Mexican original. The ending generated some controversy—both in other reviews I’ve read, and in the group with whom I watched the movie—and I’ve seen a couple of different interpretations of events, at least two of which are, I think, supported by the text of the film itself. The take on it that I came away with is, I think, a remarkable touch on which to end the picture, one that resonates backward through the rest of the film, allowing you to look at previous events with new eyes. That’s the goal of a lot of movie finales, but in a genre that’s awash with “twist endings,” it’s a feat that is all-too-seldom truly accomplished.