While the makers of the Saw franchise and their fellow torture-porn practitioners busy themselves cooking up ever more grisly splatterfests, filmmakers outside Hollywood have been proving that you can do much more with the horror genre than simply overwhelm the viewer with Shock and Gore.
We Are What We Are, the debut of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau, is a fine example. True, his macabre film has its share of grisly moments, but more importantly, it also has something to say.
The film opens with a shot of an empty escalator in a gleaming shopping mall in Mexico City. Slowly, the figure of a shabby, grey-haired man looms into view, clutching his stomach. Shambling past the window displays, he could almost be a stray zombie from George A Romero’s 1978 horror satire on consumerism, Dawn of the Dead. He isn’t a zombie, as we will discover, but he does embody an equally sharp social critique.
The man stops in front of a display of bikini-clad mannequins, gropes his way to the window and stares in pain and bewilderment at his own reflection. An irate shopkeeper emerges to shoo him away, pausing to wipe his smeary prints from the windowpane. A moment later, the man falls to his knees, spews up some black viscous liquid and expires.
In a trice, observed coolly and dispassionately by the camera from above, a couple of uniformed staff appear and cart his body away, followed immediately by a cleaner who, with no more heed than the shopkeeper earlier, removes all traces of this member of the city’s dispossessed.
It turns out that the man is the patriarch of a family of cannibals that has been preying on those even further below them on the city’s social pecking order, notably prostitutes and the homeless. How, though, will the family survive without its head?
Sabina, the daughter, urges her elder brother, Alfredo, to take his father’s place and preserve the mysterious “rite” by which the family lives. He, however, is too timid and listless to take the lead, his brother, Julian, too hot-tempered and violent. Their angry, bitter mother does little but scold.
While this dysfunctional clan squabbles and simmers, a venal, bungling cop is trying to track them down, motivated more by the prospect of money and kudos than by any sense of civic responsibility.
Grau’s film doesn’t have an obvious hero with whom you can relate, which makes his portrayal of a dog-eat-dog, or rather man-eat-man society, all the more unsettling. “You’d be surprised how many people eat each other in this city,” says the mortician who performs the autopsy on the father, digging out a finger from his stomach.
Describing his film’s themes as “family disintegration, urban violence, social deprivation, the fight among minorities to survive and be noticed,” Grau certainly gives his viewers something to chew on, even if the fare is a little hard to stomach.
On general release from 12th November.