The family that flays together, stays together, or so it has over centuries for the Parkers, the clan at the center of “We Are What We Are,” a campy and sometimes elegant American Gothic horror story. The opening sequence demonstrates that Jim Mickle and screenwriter Nick Damici (collaborators on the 2010 vampire movie “Stake Land”) have talent, as rain pours on a bleak store, and a woman blanches at the sight of a butchered pig. She steps outside, convulses, bleeds from the mouth, falls, bashes her head, and sinks to her death in a ditch full of water. It’s a kind of visual poetry that sums up much of what is to come. By the end, however, with its grand guignol Eucharistic parody, it’s an ambitious concept that Mickle and Damici have taken too seriously, or not seriously enough.
The woman in the ditch is Emma, wife of Frank Parker (Bill Sage), and mother of teenagers Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and their little brother, Rory (Jack Gore). Devastated, Frank tells the eldest, Iris, that she will have to take on her mother’s role now, and hands her an ancient journal. Iris has mixed feelings about this, and her sister Rose agrees. “I wish we were like everyone else,” she says. The irony being that they are, only more so, taking the consumerism and gender roles of the average nuclear family to monstrous extremes.
Meanwhile, the rain has caused widespread flooding, the ongoing emergency distracting the police from investigating the disappearance of a local girl. So what if dozens have vanished recently, never to return? Or that the local doctor (Michael Parks) has found a human bone on the bank of the creek near the Parkers’ property? And aren’t the Parkers a bit strange, what with the loopy patriarch preaching a gospel of fire and brimstone and presiding over changeling-like kids with anxious eyes? But if the police were competent in films like this, there wouldn’t be much of a story.
Based on Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s “Somos lo que hay” (2010), the film relocates the family from the urban miserabilism of Mexico City to the small town miserabilism of upstate New York, making the story less socioeconomic and more mythic. Or perhaps more anthropological, as it flashes back to the origins of the Parkers’ practices during a harsh winter in 1781. At times, such as in the close-ups of meat and the arch dinner table talk, it seems intended as farce. At other times it seems like the laughs may be unintentional. Maybe Mickle and Damici should have recognized that their film is what it is — a grade A, meat-and-potatoes genre flick — and not added all the fancy fixin’s.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.