Sometimes horror isn’t as horrific as it is tragic. As any good horror fan knows, many of the best horror films traffic in the kinds of Shakespearean irony that renders comedies tragic, tragedies comic, and in the case of horror, they can render fear weirdly bittersweet and empathetic. Such is the case with Carrie, for example. The ending of the film is horrifying, to be sure, but it’s also so damn tragic. Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead) recently programmed a 24-hour scary movie marathon for the Onion, and put the emotion created in the viewer by Carrie thusly: “The great thing about the movie is that a lot of horror films are about a monster trying to destroy everybody. Here, you have a very sympathetic human being who really doesn’t want to hurt anybody… every time I watch it, I want Tommy Ross and Carrie White just to have a nice night. I don’t want anything bad to happen. [Laughs.] Every time I watch it, I naïvely think, ‘Oh, maybe it’ll be okay this time.’ You don’t think about those things if you don’t care about the characters. So as much as I enjoy the Grand Guignol climax, it’s a tragic end for her, and she’s an incredibly sweet character, you’re with her all the way.”
I like this quote, as I think it nicely captures one of the most difficult tricks to pull off with horror, but also one of the earliest and best: the protagonist who becomes the antagonist while never ceasing to be the protagonist either. I say earliest because, well, that’s the truth: Frankenstein was one of the first and the most insightful in this way, fusing what I call the “sympathy for the devil” narrative with genuine pathos and emotion stirred by what is ostensibly the monster. It’s a tactic that disrupts our standard expectations, while also doing the kind of artistic heavy lifting that most horror would rather avoid. Far easier are the kinds of tropes one often sees in “sympathy for the devil” narratives - the most routine being the friend/relative who becomes the nemesis over the course of the film. You know the routine, a character who is likable and means a great deal to our hero suddenly uncovers a secret/gets a taste of power/discovers a new side of themselves/etc. and proceeds to lose all humanity and audience empathy. By the end of the movie, I don’t give a fuck about those mean bitches in The Craft, no matter HOW nice they were to good ol’ Robin Tunney at the beginning of the movie. A movie like Carrie is so powerful, and so effective, because we remain on Carrie’s side throughout - no matter how badly we want her to get revenge on those jerks, we also don’t want her falling victim to her own power, because we know it will ultimately cost her the very humanity that makes us care about her so. And the tragedy that drives the arc of Carrie is so rarely seen in horror that I always get a kick out of discovering a new addition to that subgenre - the tragic horror film.
And this is where We Are What We Are squarely nestles itself, falling into a lovely position on the tragic horror spectrum, somewhere halfway between Let the RIght One In and The Fly. At its heart, We Are What We Are is a sad little domestic drama about a family that collapses when the father dies. Analyzing the ways in which the fractured bonds of a dysfunctional family are often held together by only most gentle and tenuous of threads, the mother, two sons, and daughter of the story become a case study for the grief that can tear loved ones apart, and the feelings of impotency and rage generated by senseless loss. It’s just that, in this case, the family also happen to be cannibals. The film begins with the death of the father, a socially awkward man who (it’s quickly revealed) was bad at steady employment, and even worse at marital fidelity. Avoiding bills only to squander the family’s finances on prostitutes, the father barely squeaked by as a watch and clock repairman. Nonetheless, the elder of the two sons, Alfredo, loved the man dearly, although the younger son, Julian, and daughter Sabina receive the news far more sanguinely, yet still experiencing conflicting emotions about it in their own right. The mother promptly locks herself in her room, of little help to anyone, though, as Sabina quickly points out, SOMEONE has to get to work putting food on the table, and as the new “man” of the house, she feels that responsibility falls on Alfredo’s tender shoulders.
Turns out, Dad was essential in one key respect: he found and kidnapped the victims that the family dined upon. Numerous facts of the cannibalism remain unspoken in the film - the family obliquely refers to the necessity of “the ritual”; candidates are apparently not all equal (the mother vetoes a whore, Julian doesn’t want to eat “a fag”); and there are seemingly crucial aspects to the transfer of power necessary in making Alfredo “the leader,” a transfer that will then require all members of the family to obey him, even Julian, who has always been the more violent, emotional brother. As they try to find a new victim to eat, the police begin to track them down, and the internal tensions in the house slowly lead to one mistake after another. The mother, in particular, seems to have lost her tether to the familial bonds with the passing of her husband; several times, things seem to pick up for the children, only to have their actions violently undone by the grief-stricken rage of the mother. Eventually, of course, in their fumbling attempts to re-start their family and a new ritual, they make one mistake too many, and the film’s climax ends with their discovery by the police.
I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice it to say, there’s a real sense of futility, frustration, and tragedy in the way that the titular family comes undone. This is not to say that it all ends in death for everyone - the movie’s bittersweet denouement makes clear that “the ritual” will continue, one way or another - but the ending really does traffic in the kinds of emotional ambiguity that can easily be overplayed, either through pushing the horrific aspects of their nature until the repel us, or toning down the violence to make sure we still like everybody (films that betray their lack of confidence through this maneuver frustrate me to no end). And it’s a tribute to We Are What We Are's sense of itself that it has the confidence and commitment to keep pushing all sides of their characters, right up to the end. Humans are messy, complex things, and maintaining the ugly side of themselves right next to the good (which, let's face it, is a bit more difficult than usual when someone's unpleasant side is their tendency to kill and eat innocent people) allows the audience to experience that inevitably tragic sense of disharmony, between our compassion and repulsion, between our sympathy and our alienation. As we near the end of the 30 Horror Films in 30 Days project, it feels nice to have a film that deftly balances family drama with such a classic horror trope in a plausible, realistic way; the unsettled empathy you feel for a sad, splintered family of flesh-eating depressives doesn't go away. And really, when your own family offers so little succor in this cold, cruel world, who wouldn’t want to try and seek out some human intimacy any way they can, even if that intimacy ends up in the stomach?