Stake Land director Jim Mickle’s remake of a cult Mexican horror flick about a very peculiar family discombobulates Scout Tafoya and gets him thinking.
If Jim Mickle can be said to have defining auteurist traits, his subtle ability to put years of life into any given location is his strongest. Ti West may be modern horror’s foremost tension builder, but he loves scaring us almost as much we love being scared. Mickle prefers creeping unease, a pallor that drifts over the land like fog, leaving much hinted at, but unspoken. His production design and eye for scenery are his sharpest tools.
In his first film, Mulberry Street, New York City is overrun by mutant rat-like zombies, and chaos reigns a little too heavily. But there’s no denying his intelligence in leaving the apartments of the besieged as messy as they should be. You learn more from the kitchens and cluttered shelves of the inhabitants than any decision their owners make during the course of the film.
In Stake Land, the bleak Pennsylvania locations ably stand in for a grey-blue, post-apocalyptic world without hope. Vampires, the smartest of them gathering in cultish hordes, give North America a curbstomping it won’t recover from soon. Yet despite its boisterous prologue, and the presence of Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis in the cast, Stake Land isn’t interested in being cool; it’s more interested in punishing those that don’t know when to let go. Every new hollowed-out ruin and junk-filled forest is a constant reminder of the need to prioritize human connection over everything else; because houses crumble, and possessions can’t watch your back or hold you while you sleep. One doesn’t invoke Terrence Mallick lightly, but if Mickle borrowed grammar from Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line it was in an attempt to do anything but make just another horror film. The director lets the editing and unmoored camera tell us what survival looks like; sad, unheroic and monotonous. Though in Mickle’s hands, it’s also beautiful.
Perverted religious beliefs and desolate settings return in earnest in Mickle’s latest film, We Are What We Are. Though based on Somos Lo Que Hay, a nifty, grizzly little Mexican thriller, We Are What We Are is the strongest expression yet of Mickle’s distinctive brand of horror. There are a few beautifully executed shocks and bumps, but the most frightening elements are behavioural. We learn a lot about the Parker family and their horrifying secret over the course of the film’s 105 minutes, but everything you really need to know about them you can tell from their surroundings. Their suitably spooky house is so vividly conjured you can practically smell it – stale cigarettes, damp wood, old hand-knit blankets, and just the faintest hint of copper.
The Parkers have an unusual diet. When we meet them they’re preparing for an annual feast that may or may not have something to do with the rash of disappearances that have plagued the area for the last decade or so. And all the information you need is right there in the production design. The nightgowns favoured by the Parker girls, skittish, not-quite-angelic blondes Rose and Iris, are not the kind of thing a parent gives to teenage daughters. Their slightly affected manner of dealing with strangers is a touch out of the ordinary, but a touch is all it is, and that’s a part of what sets Mickle apart from his contemporaries. Every detail remains credible, even as the story drifts into nightmare territory. These are believable people, not just characters in a horror movie.
The Parker’s overbearing (read: bonechilling) father comes across as a credible human being, even if the script calls for him to be a monster. Bill Sage plays him like a grizzly bear woken from hibernation too soon. He’s everything one could fear about a man you’re supposed to trust. His humanity remains undeniable, as in the moment he smells his dead wife’s clothing to conjure her memory. It’s more that he’s never had to change and doesn’t see any reason he should have to. There are many references to fables and fairy tales and the portrayal of the head of the family is further shaded in by his children’s stunted knowledge of good and evil. The careful footfall of his daughters, and the quiet voice of his infant son are evidence of what a lifetime under his roof does to the psyche. With their mother taken from them (in a truly upsetting prologue), they’re stuck with their dad’s version of parenting.
That would be crossroads enough without the attention of local doctor and bereaved father Barrow, played by the always welcome Michael Parks. Parks’ roster of indelible characters stretches back to the ’60s, but I don’t know that he’s ever been so warm, so familiar, so good natured, even if he’s driven slightly mad by his inability to move on, to get out before it’s too late. Parks’ world-weariness, as well as his ability to know when others are underestimating him, makes him a believable foil to Sage’s pietistic leviathan. You worry about his safety, not because he can’t handle himself (indeed he’s past the point of worrying about his own well-being) but because Pa Parker proves early on that he’s capable of anything, and lacks all but the most inextinguishable compassion. But Barrow doesn’t know this and the closer he gets to the truth, the more we fear what must come next. And that’s the unifying theme of Mickle’s work. How does one live, knowing what’s out there, knowing what comes next? Questions hang in the air, making each second more uncomfortable than the last. Stake Land pushed its characters through unstable framing, never sitting still longer than it needed. “How do we live now?” was the question pushing them onward. In We Are What We Are, the questions multiply: how much faith do the Parker children put in their father’s religion? How ugly will any given confrontation be? How angry can a man get when he’s never been calibrated for disappointment? Rather than relying on things that go bump in the night, Mickle orchestrates cringe-inducing inevitabilities and pulls us toward them, generating an ambling momentum, not wanting to get there before the tension has become unbearable. His images flow like fabric through a sewing machine; pleasingly tactile thanks to the attention to detail, stopping only to readjust the course. There are breaks in the rhythm – a neighbour (McGillis again, proving once again that Mickle’s direction is her best friend) and her unappreciated goodwill toward the Parkers, a local boy’s affection toward Iris, a few red herrings, a tense hunt for a firearm: expertly played diversions before we once again resume our course toward disaster.
Perhaps the most deeply felt of all the film’s threads is the burgeoning womanhood of the Parker girls. Their mother’s passing is a direct result of doing exactly as she was told, until it was too late. Robbed of a proper goodbye, they have only the haunted, sallow face of their father to look to for answers, and unsurprisingly it gives them nothing. A man being unable to cope with his wife’s death is understandable, but it makes him inarticulate at a time when his children need his guidance most. They know only that they’re expected to carry on in their mother’s footsteps. Iris seems ready at first, but when the hunky sheriff’s deputy takes a shine to her (more expert shading: they have a history. Even Rose knows that he’s gotten a haircut since his last appearance in their lives), she wonders for the first time what it means to be a woman and not a daughter or a sister. You can see the questions forming behind her fierce, if tired eyes, the best of which is whether getting closer to a boy shows the cracks in her conviction, or is her way of trying to step up and take over where her mother left off. Rose sees that her father won’t allow Iris to pursue any kind of contact with a boy, and begins to wonder what the future looks like. The bones of her father’s crimes begin surfacing (literally, in one fabulously grotesque sequence) and if she won’t be allowed to grow up, what chance does her brother have? We’re never told outright what conclusion she comes to, we know just by the way Julia Garner changes her hair, radiant and composed, as if until that moment the film had been in monochrome and with her appearance it’s suddenly rich in colour. In different ways, Rose and Iris have to decide what it would mean to become their mother and if they’re up to it. Without saying too much the climax has wicked, mythic bite to it; the family dynamic is chewed up and regurgitated in front of us. It’s sick, it’s Freudian, it’s crazy…but in Mickle’s hands, it’s also beautiful. The last remaining question, the one Mickle’s building a hell of a body of work upon: now that we know what’s out there, what comes next?
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