The Toronto After Dark film festival experienced some very appropriate technical difficulties at its premiere this past Thursday night. The proceedings kicked off with a few words from Festival Director Adam Lopez, followed by a quick intro from Jim Mickle, director of We Are What We Are, the opening night film. Then the screening got started—except it didn’t. For about two minutes, the lights were dimmed but the screen remained blank. It was a quick mechanical blip, but a fitting way to begin a horror festival: with the audience sitting in the dark, waiting for something to happen.
We Are What We Are is a remake of the 2010 Mexican cannibal thriller Somos lo que hay, but Mickle emphasized that the two films are very different. Each has its own setting, plot, characters, and ending. The American version transplants the story to a biblically wet Delaware summer, where the Parker clan is preparing for a mysterious family tradition. The children stay home and fast while their mother goes to the local store to pick up some suspicious supplies—spools of heavy rope, that type of thing. But when the mother is killed in what seems like a freak rainy-weather accident, it is left to the oldest daughter, Iris, to take on the burden of the family’s ritual. Which involves more than just cooking nightly meals.
While Frank—the father, played by Bill Sage—lords over the house with scowl-faced authority (and sometimes a crowbar), it is sisters Iris and Rose (played by Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner, respectively) who carry the film. They act out their father’s will with quiet indignation, shedding their childhoods along with plenty of blood. Their sopping Delaware trailer park serves as an aptly glum backdrop for this messed-up coming-of-age story.
During the Q&A, Mickle explained that while almost the entire movie takes place in the rain, there was only one genuine rain shot in the film. The rest of the downpour was created through elaborate garden-sprinkler contraptions strapped to windows and cars. Mickle and screenwriter Nick Damici also said that they came up with about thirty different endings for the film before settling on their final, divisive choice. Apparently when We Are What We Are screened at an upper-crust festival in France, the final scene elicited a theatre’s worth of boos from hundreds refined vacationers in salmon-coloured sweaters. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to see why.