JANUARY 6, 2014
A friend of mine recently asked what the best After Dark title thus far was, and my answer (after some thought; there's like 40 movies to choose from and my memory sucks) was Jim Mickle's Mulberry St., a low-key zombie film that stood apart from the others by actually resembling the sort of independent production that I thought the label was supposed to be catering to. Mickle impressed even more with his followup Stake Land, a terrific vampire/post-apocalyptic drama that added some familiar faces to the mix (Danielle Harris has never been better in a film, and it was great to see Kelly McGillis again), and now he's 3 for 3 with We Are What We Are, a very good remake of an impressive but very slow Mexican film that I saw at Frightfest back in 2010.
I just reread my (mini) review of the original, and I called it boring, but it's one of the films that you might not think much of at the time, but sticks with you for one reason or another, and I'd probably like it more if I ever found the time to revisit it. And I should do that before making the next claim, but screw it: I think I like this one even more (even though it's actually longer!). It's a very different execution of the same basic idea (siblings - who happen to be cannibals - cope with the loss of one of their parents on the eve of their annual "feast"), so you can watch the two movies back to back and not feel much repetition, but I think the way Mickle and his writing partner Nick Damici (who has a smaller acting role here than in their previous two films) speaks more to my sensibilities, which allowed me to enjoy it more right off the bat.
And it's amazing how it all spirals from reversing the sexes - the mother dies instead of the father, and it's two sisters and a brother instead of two boys and a girl. So everything different about its narrative stems from that basic change; the loss of a mother means that the young boy has no one to comfort and nurture him, and since the father is still alive there isn't much of an income issue. Likewise, the son isn't old enough to engage in "I'm the man of the house now" type plotting - in fact the children here don't take much of an active role in the family "tradition" until the very end of the film, whereas the original dealt heavily with the boys trying to take their dad's place and failing miserably. It's a very unique approach to a remake, which is surprising since it seems so obvious - what better way to FORCE yourself into having a fresh take on a story than to just swap the sexes of its characters and go from there?
But even ignoring the remake aspects, it's just a solid film. Like Stake Land, it's closer to drama than full blown horror, allowing those "scary movie" bits to really resonate in ways they never could in a traditional genre flick. The body count is low, but each one counts - there's a kill at the end of the second act that shocked me both times I saw the movie (I caught it during its brief theatrical run in October, but never got around to writing it up as it was during Screamfest), and it's got another gruesome moment early on (someone whacking their head on a pipe) that made me cringe all over again. It's also got an interesting, morbid hook - the small upstate NY town has been flooded thanks to constant torrential downpour, and thus the bones of the Parker family's victims (i.e. food) are rising to the surface and floating down the river. More and more bones surface as the film goes on, and local doctor Michael Parks is convinced that they're not animal. You could probably make an entire movie just about his character, in fact - his daughter has been missing for quite some time and he starts to suspect that the Parkers may be to blame, so he starts investigating sans any help from the local police. Parks is a terrific actor and plays the most sympathetic character in the film; you'll likely wish you had seen more of him when the credits begin to roll.
You might also wish there were several hundred more hours of Jeff Grace's score when all is said and done. The film actually has a few composers; apparently Grace did some music and then Mickle needed more, but Grace was unavailable, so other composers Phil Mossman and Darren Morris were brought in for the rest. And their stuff is good, but Grace's contributions are simply phenomenal; there's a cue called "Preparing the Body" that plays over a rather sad montage of all these lonely, broken people going about their day - it's the sort of thing you'll put on repeat if you had the CD (the editor of the making of doc apparently feels the same way - he uses it several times). I've sung Grace's praises before, but this is his crown jewel, in my opinion, and I honestly believe it elevates the film. Likewise, the gloomy cinematography and near constant rainfall also adds to it - it's hard not to instantly feel for these people when they can barely step out of their house without drowning.
And that's even more impressive when you watch the making of (which runs just under an hour) or listen to the commentary and discover that there was only ONE shot in the entire film where it was actually raining during its production. It's not even an important shot - just one of the still shots that make up the opening title sequence. Everything else was faked with machines and digital trickery (and the cinematography by Ryan Samul, who has served on all of Mickle's features), making the documentary pretty interesting at times because you'll see how bright and shiny it was during the film's gloomiest scenes. It's not much of a doc though; apart from occasional "Oh the camera's pointed at me so I'll say something" moments, it's just a silent assembly of footage from the film's production. Things occasionally seem to be going wrong, but there's no one to explain to us what the issue really is, so it can be a bit of a dull affair given its length - you'll see how a dolly track is assembled, but insight on what they're shooting or how it fits into the story.
The commentary is much more essential; at first I was a bit worried since Mickle and Damici are joined by Samul and two of the actors Bill Sage and Julia Garner); a red flag that it could turn into a jokefest, but it's actually pretty enlightening and chock full of real info on both the production and its story (plus some good natured ribbing). There are some priceless anecdotes about Parks, and Samul doesn't get too bogged down in technical details like some DPs tend to, so it's as accessible as it is entertaining. There are also a few interviews with Mickle, Sage, and Garner, where they talk more about the characters and story, and the line of thinking that got Mickle wanting to make the movie in the first place (I won't lay it all out, but basically it amounts to when you start to question your families' traditions). The film's trailer is also included, making this a pretty nice package, though I should note the audio mix could have been a bit clearer - Sage in particular is hard to decipher at times since the character is soft-spoken. Subs are included if you still can't hear him when you turn it up full volume!
Ordinarily I'd roll my eyes at the idea of an exciting new filmmaker dipping into remake territory so quickly, especially when it's a remake of a film that's only a couple years old (it was hitting festivals at the same time as Stake Land, in fact), but they've done a great job of making this story their own while paying the original its due respect (the father still repairs watches for a living). It's not like Let Me In where it seems simply doing the story in English seems to be the primary motivation - this is a fully developed film that can stand on its own (while encouraging folks to check out the original if they haven't already). And it just further positions Mickle as one of the most interesting new genre directors working right now, so it's a winner all around.
What say you?