(2013, 1 hr 45 mins)
Opening Night started the festival off with the highly anticipated We Are What We Are, that some touted as an art house horror film. This creeping and haunting drama brings us the story of the Parker family in the midst of a grievous event: the death of their wife and mother Emma (Kassie DePaiva). As they cope with this tragedy, the head of the family, Frank Parker (Bill Sage), insists on upholding the traditions of their secretive cannibalistic ways. Clearly, something isn’t right in this household, and we aren’t the only ones who think so. The town doctor, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) has a creeping suspicion as well. His interactions with Frank’s daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) as they prepare for Emma’s funeral leaves him puzzled, and he is also haunted by the disappearance of his own daughter. When he discovers a gruesome find in the local creek after heavy downpours plague the town, his instincts lead him to a game of hide and seek that keeps you guessing and on the edge of your seat.
Director Jim Mickle and his writing partner/actor Nick Damici really outdid themselves. This “remake” was more of a re-envisioning to me and a film unto itself. Having seen the original written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, I was glad that this version kept basic elements of the original but succeeded in going in its own direction which is really difficult to pull off. Highlights for me were the sets and wardrobe that reflected the centuries old tradition the family was dead set on preserving. The sisters in high collared dresses and their father’s colonial suits, combined with the beautiful backdrop of upstate New York created a time capsule for the family secret. I was really impressed with the great performances by Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as sisters caught between what they have always known and their changing world. You could literally see their imaginary tails switching as the girls toil with loyalties and self-preservation. Bill Sage brought a Jonestown fervour as the tightly wound, seething patriarch Frank Parker determined to carry on the sinister family tradition despite the family’s loss and his questionable health. It also was great to see veteran actor Michael Parks as the sage and determined Doc Barrow, frustrated by his own instincts and lack of support, and Kelly McGillis as the curious and slightly weirded-out neighbour. Finally, in true Mickle/Damici style, smatterings of humour fooled you into relaxing for a moment only to be drawn into the suspense seconds after.
During the Q & A after the screening, Mickle and Damici gave the audience some insight into their process for the film. Mickle revealed how apprehensive he was when they were asked to do the remake. I believe he mentioned wanting to throw up in his mouth a bit after the offer. They went about the task by first flipping the parent roles from the original film, and setting it in upstate New York, an area that he has always loved.
When asked about the art house distinction, Mickle pointed out that horror is a flexible genre, so they wanted to go with a character driven drama instead of lots of action. In his mind, movies like Let The Right One In were his inspiration, as it is a story about the kids and their relationship first. Since it was more of a dramatic approach to the story, the soundtrack and scoring had to be subtle. He chose nostalgic country tracks, as well as scoring written by Phil Mossman (an original member of LCD Soundsystem), which was played during filming to create the right mood. And the rain! Apparently, it only rained once during the whole shoot, while the crew was on lunch. So they had to get creative and, well, make it rain. A lot. There was talk at the Q & A about a possible prequel and sequel, but they have new film (Cold in July) on the go, so all we can do is cross our fingers!
As a side note, I also got to say a quick hello to Mickle and Damici at the Pub After Dark. I really wanted to meet the duo, as I’m a big fan of their films Stake Land and Mulberry Street. The were really great guys, and Mickle loved hearing that We Are What We Are made me so tense I wanted to throw up every 10 minutes. No seriously, he did! We shared with the throw up! I mentioned to the very charming Nick Damici that I loved how diverse their films were, from subject matter to cast, and he agreed, saying that they weren’t about the generic, and worked hard to keep it that way. Amen to that, because I think they are the dream team of independent horror!
Six years after screening Mulberry Street at TADFF 2007, it was nice to have this talented team back to show us a beautiful, haunting and agonizingly tense film that I highly recommend everyone should see.