It’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Released in 2010, Jim Mickle’s Stake Land arrived without huge fanfare, the bold individuality of the production belying the modest budget which certainly did not contain allowance for a vast marketing campaign, yet the invention and dedication of the cast and crew was evident in every gritty line of dialogue and every bleak yet tragically beautiful frame. Working from a script co-written with star Nick Damici, it took the vampire genre in a new direction, into the days beyond the fanged apocalypse, giving it a realism and honesty so often lacking in major studio productions.
It is apparent that confounding expectation remains in Mickle’s blood, as his followup is that commodity most despised among serious aficionados of cinema, an English language remake of a foreign language film, in this case the appropriately grim and bloody Somos lo que hay, written and directed by Mexican native Jorge Michel Grau.
Like his bold contribution to the disappointingly variable anthology The ABCs of Death, it was not fantastical in any way but a stark, bloody dissection of an unnaturally close knit family existing under already terrible circumstances where the two sons find their responsibilities and burdens increased following the sudden death of their father.
In a departure from the typical model, Mickle’s interpretation, once again co-written with Damici, takes only the most basic premise of Grau’s original, transplanting the sweaty claustrophobia of Mexico City to the southeast of New York state. With the arid template replaced by saturated hues, the rain and the mountains and the trees, thunder in the distance as the camera pans across the river, a leaf floating downstream, misty recollections of visits to Twin Peaks helped by the ethereal soundtrack. Rather than the logging processes of a lumber town, instead the focus is on meat, cut, minced, rendered palatable for consumption.
While flood warnings are being issued across the county, for the deeply devout Parker family it’s time for their ritual fast, no flesh, no fruit, no grain. Unlike the cobbled together partnership of Martin, Belle and Mister of Stake Land, the Parkers are a real family, father Frank (Bill Sage), daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and young son Rory, but they are damaged, broken people, thrown further into disarray by the sudden death of mother Emma.
Unlike the antagonistic rivalry of the brothers of the original when they are forced to take the mantle of their dead father, Iris and Rose are good children, devoted to each other, their brother and their daddy, their love filtered through their fear of his temper, every word uttered barely escaping their lips, the barest aspiration so afraid are they of being noticed.
With their mother gone, Iris knows what must be done in preparation for the feast and that there is no way she can avoid the obligation of her inheritance. Rose wishes for a way out, for a normal life, to be like everyone else, but Iris is resigned to the inevitable. “I’m the eldest. That’s the way it works.”
Other factors further complicate their lives; Marge (Kelly McGillis, who also appeared in Stake Land), the kind hearted neighbour who lends emotional support to the children and Frank; Doctor Barrow (Michael Parks), a man still in mourning for his own missing daughter, vanished years before, who finds indications of early onset Parkinson’s when he performs the autopsy on Mrs Parker; Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell), who was fond of Iris when they were in school together, now tasked with tracking the origin of the bones which Doc Barrow found washed downriver by the floods, bones which show signs that they may have been cooked, bones which the doctor believes are human.
While not as brash as Stake Land, the colour palette is the same, drained and washed out, the whole town tired of living, and the honesty and intensity of the performances drawn by Mickle matches that of his earlier ensemble. “Kindness shall be met by kindness,” Frank tells Marge, and singing to his children of Jesus to calm them when the power fails during the storm, there is no doubt that his love for them is terrible and fierce, but brought up with a fervent devotion to the Bible and to the tradition of his own family, this man of intense feeling but few words refuses to deviate from the path he is on.
Told in flashbacks as narrated by the diary entries of ancestor Alyce Parker, the backstory of the family dating to the pioneering days is out of keeping with the rest of the film, the unnecessary intrusion of period costume drama doing no favours of credulity, but that is a minor misstep which diverts but does not derail a narrative which, unlike the Parkers, diverges wildly in every significant way from its predecessor.
Where Grau’s film was delightfully crude and vulgar, murdering prostitutes and picking up fresh meat at gay nightclubs, Mickle’s horror is wilfully understated, the dread boiled down to a thick stew served with a helping of penetrating stares which speak volumes without saying a word. Needless to say, other than one moment of painful schadenfreude as the rising waters quite literally bring Frank’s misdeeds to the surface, also gone is the bloody humour of the original, though in this most adept translation it was a necessary sacrifice. In the words of Alyce Parker, “It is with love that I do this, God’s will be done.”
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are is released on DVD on 3rd March; Jorge Michel Grau’s original version is available now