When actor Bill Sage read the screenplay for “We Are What We Are,” he got excited. “I told my wife, ‘This is an amazing script,’ ” he recounted. “ ‘And, oh, by the way, they eat people.’ ”
“They” are the Parker family. And what made their story “amazing” was not necessarily that Sage’s character, Frank Parker, heads a household with a cannibalism problem. What drew the star to the film, which opens Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema, was its meaty dissection of 21st-century American culture. Unlike plenty of horror movies, whose main concern seems to be how to best slice and dice teenagers having sex, “We Are What We Are” wants to cut into more important societal issues. Tradition and change. The secrets that bind families. How religious fundamentalism can warp one’s perception of love, loyalty, and the truth.
Such are the hopes raised by director and co-writer Jim Mickle, who fancies his movie as “a family drama with horrific backdrop,” rather than the reverse. “I hate that we have to classify things or put things in specific genres in order for it to be seen as something,” Mickle said while in Boston recently to promote the film. “For marketing purposes, I hope people see it as a horror film and then when they see it, go, ‘That wasn’t really a horror movie.’ ”
In other words, Mickle wants viewers to see “We Are What We Are,” which is a remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name (“Somos lo que hay”), as a gripping social commentary. But he’s fine with the horror label if that gets them in the door.
Thoughtfully written, carefully shot, and meticulously paced, “We Are What We Are” is art-house filmmaking with professional actors — Sage is a veteran of seven Hal Hartley films, including “Simple Men,” and the TV show “Boardwalk Empire” — fused to the body of a gory shocker. That amalgamation impressed festival audiences at Cannes and Sundance earlier this year, but it has also challenged the expectations of both hardcore horror and indie-drama fans. At a recent screening at the Deauville American Film Festival in France, the film elicited curses and boos; some outraged audience members even shouted, “[Expletive] the director!” Mickle had to be escorted from the theater.
For a film like this, controversy isn’t a bad thing. “That strong reaction from France,” Sage said, was “great.”
Besides, when handled well the genre has always offered more than cheap thrills and a cathartic blood-and-guts release. In the best horror films, we see our various anxieties — about changing sex and gender roles, women’s place in society, technology’s dehumanizing effects, even teenage promiscuity — reflected back at us. Any zombie movie, beginning with 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” addresses social conformity and fears of rampant consumerism. The “torture porn” of the “Hostel” and the “Saw” franchises expresses our discomfort with waterboarding and the scandals at Abu Ghraib. “Alien” was equal parts scary monster movie and parable about the struggle between mega-corporations and individual humans.
Gross-outs can be a dimension of a film’s story line, rather than a gory end unto themselves. Plus, in horror, directors and writers can perhaps be more subversive than in other genres. Horror is, Mickle said, “the best genre to be able to explore bigger themes.”
“We Are What We Are” aims its carving knife at the Parkers, a conservative religious family living in rural New York. Sage plays the bearded and grizzled Frank, an Old Testament-minded father of two teenage daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), and a young son, Rory (the aptly named Jack Gore). While the family is grieving the recent loss of their mother, and their small town is being inundated by a once-in-a-century flood, they turn even more reclusive — and for good reason. The Parkers are bound to a flesh-eating ritual that Frank ties inexorably to his faith, and forces on his children. The local coroner (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fave Michael Parks) and a kindly neighbor (Kelly McGillis, in a rare performance) investigate.
Mickle, who said he was influenced by “The Thing,” the “Evil Dead” trilogy, and Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” and “Bad Taste,” has a history of inserting weighty topics between the bones of his creepy features. The director set “Mulberry Street” (2006), about a deadly virus that turns Manhattanites into homicidal rat-mutants, against a backdrop of urban woes: high rent, gas prices, and malaise about the war in Iraq. “Stake Land” (2010), his zombie-apocalypse movie, also slipped in political ideas about America’s demise. “Had we made a movie that was about the fall of the nation after an economic collapse and the rise of Tea Party and fundamentalist Christians,” Mickle said, “I don’t think people would really care all that much. But I love that we were able to weave that into the story [of “Stake Land”] of a kid learning to fight vampires.”
Co-writer and actor Nick Damici, who has collaborated with Mickle on other features, also wanted “We Are What We Are” to be, at its core, a family drama, with other themes — the dangers of religious fanaticism, how that passes from parent to child — slipped in. “We’ve done movies where the threat was monsters. The threat was external,” he said on the phone from New York. “Here, the threat is internal. It was not something that was going to get you from outside, but it’s coming from the inside.”
Of course, there is gore too, plenty of it, including a feast-of-human-flesh finale that should please the horror faithful. Those fans have “seen every trick in the book and they really have a hunger for what’s next stylistically, narratively,” said Mickle.
The question is, do they have a hunger for art-house cannibalism?