Saturday, October 11, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #11: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

The Story: After his wife dies, a religious fundamentalist prepares his two teenage daughters to assume their mother's role in a dark family ritual. 

Expectations: I watched this mostly because it was made by the writer and director of STAKE LAND, which is one of the best vampire movies to come along in the last twenty five years.  (If you haven't seen STAKE LAND... stop reading this, go watch it, and come back.)  Unknowingly, however, I was breaking one of my rules for the "30 Days of Nightmares" experiment.  Apparently, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a remake of a 2010 Mexican film (SOMOS LO QUE HAY).  I have to plead ignorance on that one.

Reaction: In many ways, this film seemed to me like a dark fairy tale... not because it overtly reinterprets any particular fairy tale that I'm familiar with (although it made me think specifically of "Hansel and Gretel") but because it has a literary quality. As such, it reminded me a lot of Bruno Bettelheim's theory about "the uses of enchantment."

Bettelheim writes, "Morality is not the issue in these tales, but rather, assurance that one can succeed.  Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem.  The deep inner conflicts originating in our primitive drives and our violent emotions are all denied in much of modern children's literature, and so the child is not helped in coping with them.  But the child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and he often experiences mortal anxiety.  More often than not, he is unable to express these feelings in words, and he can do so only by indirection: fear of the dark, of some animal, anxiety about his body..."

In WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, the two teenage daughters are haunted by a family "curse" that essentially gives them an expectation of defeat.  When one of them is called beautiful, she responds, "I'm not... not on the inside."  And indeed there is a primitive ugliness inside her just waiting to get out.  Of course, this modern-day fairy tale also has a more traditional monster... not a witch or a demon, but the worst kind of father (the dark side of the absent, axe-wielding father in "Hansel and Gretel").  To his youngest child, a boy who cannot yet distinguish between the horrors of fantasy and the horrors of reality, dad is both a loving protector and the monster in the basement.

I'm probably making this film sound pretty heady, but thankfully it's not pretentious.  It's a slow-burning story about the corruption of innocence, amplified by excellent performances from Bill Sage (MYSTERIOUS SKIN), Michael Parks (RED STATE), Kelly McGillis (THE INNKEEPERS), Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner.  If you like the type of horror movie that stays in your mind for days to come instead of simply relying on shock tactics to produce a short-term adrenaline rush, this is your movie.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The film's variation on the slasher movie "sex=death" formula is powerful, but the thing that really got me was the implications of a single line of dialogue.  After his wife's death, the father starts talking to his oldest daughter about fulfilling a secret obligation to her her family, saying, "The seed shall become the tree that bears the fruit." 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10/14/2014

    I loved this movie (and Stake Land). I also was not aware that it was a remake when I first watched it, but I don't necessarily consider it a remake if the original is in a foreign language.