Horror movies about cannibals have been a staple since Tobe Hooper took a big bite out of the genre with 1974's
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
. That micro-budget indie set the basic pattern for a score of sequels, remakes, and imitations: An inbred, monosyllabic sub-Mensa family - with a penchant for making masks and lampshades with human skin - trap, kill, and cook unwitting teenagers.
The Silence of the Lambs gave us an articulate, Euro-suave gourmand cannibal, but served up pretty much the same stew.
There's nothing formulaic about We Are What We Are, a brilliant, deeply disturbing religious allegory about an otherwise normal family in rural, upstate New York who subscribe to a generations-old belief that they will die if they don't consume human flesh.
Loosely adapted from Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's stunning 2010 shocker, We Are What We Are is the third feature from indie wunderkind Jim Mickle, who breathed new life into the vampire genre with 2010's equally riveting, innovative Stake Land.
An American Gothic yarn about the power of tradition, ritual, and sacrifice to bind a clan together, We Are What We Are doesn't waste time with cheap scares. Mickle keeps his story on a steady, slow simmer, transporting us minute by minute into the very heart of dread.
Ambyr Childers (Tee Master) and Julia Garner (Martha Marcy May Marlene) give deeply moving performances as teenage sisters Iris and Rose Parker, who find themselves the heads of the family when their mother is accidentally killed in a violent storm.
Their father, Frank (Bill Sage), expects them to take up their mother's mantle and initiate their clan's generations-old ritual of preparing, sacrificing, and consuming another human being. Frank may be the enforcer who reminds the girls of the strictures of their strange covenant with the universe, but he's powerless to perform the ritualized killing himself: It's always been the matriarch's role.
Kill Bill's Michael Parks has a strong turn as Doc Barrow, who begins to investigate the family when his autopsy of the mother reveals a shocking secret.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Mickle's film is that it elicits sympathy for Iris and Rose's singularly melancholy family.
Shot in an area of New York state that still bears the scars of Hurricane Irene, and fortified by amazing sound design and an exquisite eye for visual rhyme and rhythm, We Are What We Are is suffused by an eerie, biblical atmosphere.
It evokes such terrifying scenes as Noah's Flood, Moses' sublime confrontation with God, and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, reminding us that the sacred can manifest itself as a voracious monster.
Directed by Jim Mickle. With Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis, and Michael Parks. Distributed by Entertainment One.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, nudity, profanity, disturbing images, cannibalism)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse