Movie review: Tension builds to tough finish in 'We Are What We Are'

Review • Horror thriller earns its chills with dark atmosphere.
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The horror thriller "We Are What We Are" earns its chills gradually, turning the knob on our nerves so imperceptibly that you may not notice until, by the bloody conclusion, you're prying your fingernails from the armrests.

This remake of a 2010 Mexican thriller centers on the Parker family, who run a trailer park in the Catskills and otherwise keep to themselves. When the mother of the family, Emma (Kassie DePaiva), has a seizure and drowns in a rain gutter, patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) assigns his oldest daughter, Iris (Ambyr Childers), to take over Mama's role in the annual family ceremony coming soon.

What is this ceremony? It has something to do with the "monsters" that little brother Rory (Jack Gore) encounters in the cellar, and the noises their neighbor Marge (Kelly McGillis) hears. It also has to do with the 200-year-old journal, read by middle child Rose (Julia Garner), of the Parker family's desperate efforts to survive their first winter in the Colonies. And it has to do with the rash of missing persons around the area — including the daughter of the town's coroner, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose suspicions are aroused when his dog digs up a mysterious bone by the creek.

Director Jim Mickle and his co-writer, Nick Damici (who plays the town's sheriff), previously showed their horror genre skill with the masterful 2010 vampire-epidemic thriller "Stake Land." Here, Mickle — who also edited the film and supervised the visual effects — establishes the brooding, mournful atmosphere of the Parkers' farmhouse and builds the tension up to the big reveal of their awful secret.

Many of the scares are earned by the solid cast. Sage, a fixture of early Hal Hartley indie films, is commanding as the stern father who quotes scripture as a harsh rebuke to anyone who questions family tradition. He's nicely matched by Childers and the waiflike Garner, who convey the sisters' quiet yet urgent desire to slough off their outcast status and join the wider world.

In the big finale, the slow-building scares of "We Are What We Are" give way to bloody spectacle as Doc Barrow confronts Frank Parker and the daughters must decide their fates. The ending is intense, gory and cathartic — a release of the pent-up intensity Mickle has been ratcheting up since the start. —


'We Are What We Are'

A family's bizarre tradition plays out in an intense, atmospheric horror thriller that earns its shocks.

Where • Tower Theatre.

When • Opens today.

Rating • R for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language.

Running time • 105 minutes.