REVIEW: Appetites Go Awry in Nifty, Nasty Horror Import We Are What We Are

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You might want to catch We Are What We Are before its inevitable, much-too-glossy remake brightens the walls of American multiplexes. I saw it last fall at the 2010 Fantastic Fest in Austin, where writer/director Jorge Michel Grau's deft confidence at rendering his tale of family dynamics gone horribly awry in Mexico City got his film a jury prize.

Grau understands that his tale has so much going for it that he didn't need to elevate the stakes by hosing it down with meaningless visual flair. If sometimes it feels overly controlled, so be it; what Grau does is like having someone whisper an urban legend half-stolen from a news story after way too many tequila shots just before dawn. The very woozy nature of the story itself works -- it doesn't demand a shout. The result is as impressive a filmmaking debut as I've seen in some time: a 1970s Wes Craven film - the era of the original The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left -- as directed by Claire Denis.

A grizzled, dirty old man drops dead while staring at mannequins in the window of a mall store; blood erupts from his mouth before he does. And his family -- a dour mother, two sons (one volatile and the other with red-rimmed sympathetic eyes) and a daughter looking for someone to emerge as leader -- is left to fend for itself. Grau takes his time dropping details, and gets superb support from his cinematographer, who frames the shots as catching life for a documentary in "We Are..."

I'm trying to not to give too much away; I had the advantage of catching the film at a horror/fantasy film festival where I had the benefit of being surprised. The set up is this: A skeevy coroner who takes way too much pleasure in his work says -- after working on the father's corpse -- "It's shocking how many people eat each other in this city," the line both is and isn't a metaphor.

Grau seems to have been inspired by horror comics as much as the grim fairy tale theme employed by Guillermo del Toro. And cannibalism as brutal allegory as George Romero supplied in Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, the ending isn't much of a surprise, unless you've never seen a horror movie before. But the way he uses anger as a family trait to dramatize the family's battle to survive is fascinating; it's both congenital and driven by circumstance. Everyone is competitive; even the lowlife cops hustling to investigate (which Grau handles with hilarious, low-key cool; it's his relief pitch) all are finally done in by their appetites.

Grau's talent is for shutting out the Red Bull overstimulation of current horror movies and concentrating on what matters in We Are What We Are. (That's even though the movie brings to mind a line from the Ke$ha song with a similar title: "Hot and dangerous, if you're one of us...") When someone -- Michael Bay, let's say -- gets his hands on it to remake it, it probably will be called "We R Who We R." That's when the real horror will start -- unfortunately; and you'll probably be able to tan yourself from the light bouncing off the cast's teeth.