Sometimes festival films come and go without much buzz. Some never even see a theatrical release. But sometimes, film fests are ground zero for the hype machine, and the horror films that are hits tomorrow are often the festival darlings of today (just look at the massive success of Paranormal Activity, for starters). Afflicted, The Green Inferno and We Are What We Are are all films that are being talked about heavily in advance of their release, and all three take brand-new approaches to dusty old tropes. Do they live up to the buzz?
The directors of Afflicted (Derek Lee and Clif Prouse, who also wrote and star in the flick) don’t want me to tell you what Afflicted is about, so I’ll try my best to respect their wishes, but the marketing team for CBS Films probably won’t. It’s easy to slip into the unknown during a film fest, but harder when you’re trying to get someone off their couch and to a cinema. When Afflicted’s marketing is full bore, you’ll likely know where the film is headed.
Realistically, the “surprise” in Afflicted is not a twist at all, but the specifics of the overall plot. Best friends Derek and Cliff set out to create an interactive tour around the world before Derek has to deal with the realities of a life-threatening brain tumor. Frankly, Derek shouldn’t be on the trip at all and after a one-night fling, things go from bad to worse. The horror of their situation is revealed maybe 20 minutes into the film, turning it from a pleasant doc-style travelogue into something much more akin to a traditional monster movie. We’ve seen found-footage witches and zombies and ghosts, but this is the first time we’ve seen this particular boogeyman through the first-person lens.
In its best moments, Afflicted is most reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London. Here’s another blackly comic tale of two best friends traveling Europe, who find themselves on the outs after one of the friends experiences life-changing horror. It’s quite a bit of fun, and it’s refreshing for a first-person, shaky-cam thriller to remind me so strongly of a horror classic. Even when writers Lee and Prouse noticeably paint themselves into a narrative corner by the film’s end, with no clear place to go, the journey to that limp finale is still an engrossing one. Lee is a dedicated, charismatic physical actor, and his performance, coupled with seamless effects work, keep Afflicted as believable as it possibly could be. An authentic approach to outrageous material doesn’t just sell the film as actual found footage, it also shows remarkable intuition by first-timers Lee and Prouse. These guys are going places and Afflicted will get you in on the ground floor.
The Green Inferno
At its best, The Green Inferno is a film designed to troll unsuspecting teenyboppers into seeing a depraved jungle cannibal flick at their local mall. At its worst, it’s every criticism people have leveled against filmmaker Eli Roth since he first showed up on the scene with the 2002 hit Cabin Fever. All of the films he’s directed have showcased unspeakable things happening to dumb pretty people, and now that he’s four films deep, we really can start to see some themes that unify them. An obvious one is xenophobia (even the uninfected yokels in Cabin Fever are unhinged weirdos like the “pancake” kid), and The Green Inferno wants you to be terrified of Peruvians.
Lorenza Izzo leads a TV-ready cast of 20-somethings who basically end every sentence with an unspoken “shyeah, right, whatEVER” eye roll (Sky Ferreira plays the human embodiment of this eye roll). Izzo’s Justine gets googly eyes over Alejandro (Ariel Levy), the scuzzy leader of a student activist organization, and decides against all good judgment to hop on a plane with strangers and chain herself to a tree. But that’s all an appetizer before the film’s main course, which finds Justine and the activists stranded in Peruvian jungle as prisoners of an indigenous tribe of cannibals.
Roth uses real natives to play the film’s cannibals, which is frankly kind of gross in a way that the grossest scenes (Kirby Bliss Blanton’s explosive diarrhea? One character masturbating while others force marijuana down the throat of a corpse with a stick?) can hardly touch. Not to get too political, but there’s something queasy about enlisting people with no real awareness of stereotypes into perpetuating a stereotype about their own people. It feels irresponsible and shortsighted, as if the assumption is that the natives are nonhuman enough to be okay with being depicted as nonhumans. It trades their ignorance for commerce, as well as a generally bad time at the movies, and the only significant payoff is a reinforced feeling that Eli Roth is terrified of anyone who isn’t an upper-middle-class millennial.
The digital photography makes the lingering overhead shots of the jungle look like smeared green pixels. Questionable CG involving killer ants and docile jaguars makes a cheap movie seem even cheaper. There are moments of gallows humor that are so off the mark they feel like they’re from an entirely different film. The Green Inferno is an all-around bust. As it turns out, unpleasant pairs better with doom than stupidity.
We Are What We Are
You can still make a cannibal film that manages to surprise. Jorge Michel Grau did it with the oppressive Somos lo Que Hay in 2010 and here’s Jim Mickle with the English-language remake, We Are What We Are, somehow doing it all over again. Mickle ditches Grau’s shadowy Mexico City for the Catskills, keeping the family dynamics of the central characters and injecting the story with a big dose of righteous American religious fervor.
It’s still an ensemble piece, much closer to a drama than a slasher, with Bill Sage as the widower father of a socially stunted backwoods family (Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Jack Gore) who run the local trailer park. With the Parker mother’s passing, the two young daughters find themselves responsible for preparing all of the family meals, which is a much deeper moral dilemma than food prep ever should be. Michael Parks is a welcome inclusion to the story as a country doctor who starts to play detective when seemingly unrelated events start to draw attention to the Parkers, and Kelly McGillis is wonderful as the Parkers’ caring neighbor.
The whole cast is great, in fact. Sage’s Bill Parker is a brooding religious fundamentalist hulk whose violence strikes like a thunderclap. Both of the girls -- Childers as the elder Iris, Garner as the more confused and terrified Rose -- are immediately sympathetic and likable, which is a quick way to draw audiences right in to the complexities of the situation. We Are What We Are’s very title reveals some of its thoughts on how little individual control we have over the way we’re brought up, and it’s up to the young cast (along with a killer script by Mickle and frequent cowriter Nick Damici) to reinforce those themes.
It’s a remake that stands as a companion, not a replacement, to its predecessor, finding enough of its own reason to exist to make it unique. The delicate nature of the horror in We Are What We Are feels like it could tip and shatter at any time, and when it does, it’s terrifying. We’re starved for adult horror that’s this mature and sure-footed, and when it does come along, we have to sing its praises out loud. This is a wonderful, riveting, unsettling film.
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