The problem with most remakes is that, either through sheer laziness or perhaps a misplaced slavish loyalty to the original film, they ultimately tell the exact same story that has come before with very little variance. Whether it is following the original story beat for beat or (in a worst case scenario) shot for shot, it gives the viewer nothing new to look forward to thus making the entire film’s existence pointless. The very best remakes tend to take the basic elements of the original and either improve upon them or use them to take the story on a different path entirely. A great recent example of this is Jim Mickle’s U.S remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican original “We Are What We Are (Somos Los Que Hay)”. Both films deal with a family who after the death of a key member, have to come to terms with the shifts of power and responsibilities within the group as they prepare for a yearly ritual that is to take place in just days. Aside from this though, the two films couldn’t be more different.
Set in upstate New York, the Parker family is left reeling after the sudden and unexpected death of its matriarch. Due to the pain of mourning his beloved wife, Frank Parker sends his two daughters, Rose and Iris, to identify the body of their mother. While the sadness of their loss permeates their thoughts, the girls cannot help but talk about the upcoming religious ritual and who will now be left with the deeds of preparing such a ritual. Frank soon reveals to the girls that tradition states that the eldest daughter must fill the role left vacant by their mother. Understanding that she has no choice, Iris is still reticent to take on the duties, knowing exactly what they entail. Meanwhile, due to the powerful rainstorms and flooding the local area is experiencing, odd things begin to be washed up on the riverbanks and while out walking his pet dog, Doctor Barrow comes across a piece of bone which he is convinced is of human origin. Barrow believes that his finding may also be a clue into the disappearance of his only daughter who has not been seen for around a decade. As his investigations intensify, it seems certain that his path is destined to cross with the Parker’s, as the shocking truth about their centuries old ritual is finally revealed.
Not only is Jim Mickle’s version of “We Are What We Are” a great remake, it is a great horror film period. Mickle immediately differentiates his film from the original by locating the story’s events in a rural setting, as opposed to the urban environment of the Mexican film. He also reverses the sexes of all the main characters, which changes the dynamics of the film entirely. In Grau’s original film, not only is it the father that passes away, but it is his teenage sons who must then take on the mantle. By changing the protagonists of the film into female, Mickle has also changed the whole tone, atmosphere and pace of his film. Gone is the machismo and competitive one-upmanship of the brothers and in its place is a more gentle and placid feeling which comes from the sisters being loving and close to one another as opposed to competitive. While it is true the pace of “We Are What We Are” is of a slow nature, the creepy atmosphere that Mickle is able to create ensures that the film is never boring, and ends up being very disturbing.
There is so much to like about this version of “We Are What We Are” and the way it has been all put together. The original film is a very rough and I guess, immediate looking film, where as this version has the appearance of something that was well planned out before shooting began. The film is filled with gorgeously composed images, immaculately framed, with the odd split diopter shot thrown in for good measure. Being a massive Brian De Palma fan, it goes without saying that I am a huge fan of split diopter shots, particularly when they are done well and are seamless, which most are here, although there was one instance when the actor in the left field of focus crossed into the right field (causing part of them to become out of focus) that destroyed the illusion of the shot and took me out of the film for a brief second. Other than that little hiccup, I was very impressed by the visual style of “We Are What We Are”. This is a beautiful little horror film and cinematographer Ryan Samul deserves recognition for the great work that he has done here.
However without the stellar work that has been done from both, the costume and art departments, the film would not look as beautiful as it does. I was very impressed with Liz Vastola’s costume designs, particularly with the clothes designed for both Iris and Rose. While the film is set in the present, Vastola’s designs for the girls gives the film a real “old” feeling which is very appropriate in regards to the ritual they are preparing for. The girls look stunningly serene and almost angelic, and come across as if they are from another era entirely. Interestingly when the girls briefly leave their house and head to the market, their attire changes to fit their environment and they look like any other modern girl.
As well as having a keen visual eye in regards to this project, Jim Mickle has also elicited some amazing performances from his entire cast. There is no one here that gives a bad performance, and Mickle has done a great job of ensuring that no one overplays their role. Each actor convinces and brings a reality to a situation that, if handled incorrectly, could come across as incredibly hokey. From Bill Sage (playing against type from the roles he is regularly known for that he did in the past with Hal Hartley) as the quietly domineering and strict father Frank, to Kelly McGillis as the caring (and clueless) next door neighbour, to Ambyr Childers who plays Iris, the new matriarch of the family; everyone is excellent. However it is Julia Garner who impresses the most in “We Are What We Are” and she totally steals the film. Garner plays the younger sister Rose but does so with such charisma that you cannot take your eyes off of her when she is on screen. It is a seriously commanding performance and she does it so effortlessly, without any theatrics at all. Rose is a character who is young enough to question the ritual that they have grown up performing, but too young to challenge her father in regards to not taking part. She also appears to be the most weary about everything that is going on, while her sister is distracted by what she is about to be forced to do. The other standout performance for me was Michael Parks (who admittedly is good in almost everything he does) as Doc Barrow, who delicately portrays the man as a tired soul, almost ready to give-up but refuses to do so for the sake of his lost daughter. Parks injects a melancholy in the man that you understand will never go away. What I also loved about Parks performance was that it was so restrained. As good as he is, Parks does have an ability to play roles a little over the top if he isn’t reined in, which Mickle appears to have been successful in doing. Interestingly, the character of Doc Barrow and his subplot is completely absent in the Mexican version of the film, which gives the film a freshness and uniqueness to it all.
Up until now, I have kept the nature of the ritual secret, although most people by now know the true nature behind it. For those that are still are unsure, I will not ruin it, but I will say that with this subject matter you could assume that “We Are What We Are” would be a very gory film. In fact you would be entirely wrong, because it is just not that type of horror film. Every chance the film has in going in that direction, Mickle steers it in the opposite way. This is a horror film that relies on mood, atmosphere and a suspense that continually builds until the finale of the film. However, this finale also turns out to be the films greatest mistake, to the point that it is almost disastrous. It is during the ending that Mickle finally delivers on the blood and gore, and it is a total mis-step that almost destroys this amazing film. It is so against the tone and mood of the rest of the film that it can only be described as a terrible decision on Mickle’s part and ends up making “We Are What We Are” just a good film, when it should have been a classic. The only other recent film I can think of that has made a similar mistake is the remake of “The Last House On The Left”; a fantastic film ruined by that ridiculous microwave killing at the end.
The only other flaw I felt this film had was a brief section where the girls are reading from their religion’s “bible”, reading about how this ritual first came to be, and Mickle has decided to visually represent these stories which I felt just wasn’t needed and probably should’ve been trimmed. Personally it felt like it was from a different film entirely and thus didn’t work within the whole.
Overall, while it is sadly not perfect, Jim Mickle’s version of “We Are What We Are” is still a bloody good horror film and one of the best I have seen this year. It has been impressively directed and is brilliantly acted by the whole cast, it is just a shame that it has that major hiccup at the end because without it, I honestly believe that this film was destined for classic status. Personally I love the slow and eerie build up of the film, but understand that the pace of it will not be for everyone. Spoiler Alert…..Still any film that lets Michael Parks say the line “Did you eat my daughter?”, has to be good right?!!!........End of Spoiler.