Directed by Jim Mickle from a script co-written by Nick Damici, We Are What We Are is constructed within a recognizable diegesis. There is the small town in upstate New York that has suffered the occasional disappearance of one of its citizens. There is the local doctor whose daughter is one of the residents to have vanished. He works with the small-town sheriff who lacks the imagination to see anything beyond the obvious. And, finally, there is the devout family that has roots as old as the distant founding of the town. It is a bucolic place of forests, rivers and wide green fields: the perfect place for serial murder.

The movie begins with a storm that causes a flood that is semi-biblical in proportions. Emma Parker (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), matriarch of the aforementioned well-rooted Parker clan, appears in the grip of some madness when she heads into town for supplies. She is distracted and ill at the local butcher shop and suffers a seizure on the way to her truck. She falls into a trough, knocks herself out and drowns in the pooling rain. She leaves behind her three children—teenagers Iris (Ambyr Childers), Rose (Julia Garner) and a young son, Rory (Jake Gore)—and her husband, Frank (Bill Sage). Frank seems to be suffering from a similar madness when introduced onscreen, but he is soon devastated by his wife’s death, making it difficult to discern grief from illness.

Due to the nature of her death, an autopsy is required, an obligation that falls on Doc Barrow (Michael Parks). Barrow is still looking for answers to the disappearance of his adult daughter and is in a constant state of imagining leads. In Emma he finds evidence of a specific form of dementia called “prion,” which is caused by cannibalism. Later in the film, his dog finds a small bone that Barrow believes to be human remains. No one in law enforcement feels any urgency toward this discovery because the recent flood took out the cemetery, but the doctor finds evidence of filleting on the bone. He enlists the help of Anders (Wyatt Russell), a young deputy who happens to have a crush on Iris, the older of the Parker girls. When Anders disappears, Doc Barrow does his best Van Helsing and heads for a showdown with his personal monster, Frank Parker.

The flood and Emma’s death have coincided with Lamb’s Day, a Parker family holiday that has been passed down for generations. There is a journal which is given to every Parker matriarch, written by a female ancestor who was present for the invention of Lamb’s Day. The journal is not embossed with the title “How to Serve Man,” but it might as well be, and with Emma dead the job of preparing the holiday feast falls to Iris. As you can guess, lamb is not on the menu, but the woman who Frank kidnapped on the highway and chained in the basement certainly is. Iris enlists Rose to help with the slaughter. They are both reluctant participants, but they have a lifetime of brainwashing between them and it takes a while for rebellion to develop. They dress as their ancestors did during that colonial winter when food ran short and the snow made travel impossible. They serve their father the traditional Lamb’s Day stew. None of the ingredients have been abandoned due to heroism.

The inclusion of cannibalism and the implication of children in the act are small examples of how the filmmakers defamiliarize a fairly standard horror narrative. The characters destined to meet their collective demise are apparent from the moment of introduction, and Frank’s growing madness imbues him with an invincibility akin to Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees or Leatherface. The climax of the movie hits all the expected notes, but familiarity screeches to a halt moments before the climax. The conclusion is shocking and absolutely takes the least expected turn. It is bonkers.

Mickle keeps the movie atmospheric and well-framed, but this is a film that belongs to the actors. All the casting was perfect for archetypes and ingénues, but Sage and Parks stand out as predator and victim of his malicious appetites. Sage fills ever frame he’s in with a lumbering malice; even when he shows affection to his children there is foreboding. Parks is an actor of incredible gravitas, his face expressing so much through stoicism. The inevitable confrontation between their two characters catalyzes attention and is worth the wait.

Streaming Hell can be a rough place to find a decent horror movie. There are hundreds of titles with intriguing thumbnails that fill row after row of your favorite streaming service, making it clear that a great deal of the budget of these films went to marketing. When you give enough of them a chance, your “Continue Watching” reminders morph into a digital graveyard of so-called horror movies abandoned after 10 minutes due to lack of frights. That is not the case with We Are What We Are, an utter gem of a film that is an absolute recommendation especially during the season for scary movies.

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