A Film Festival Double-Billing: We Are What We Are and Bounty Killer

So I am going to be doing something different. Not only am I going to make an early Blog post, but it is going to be a movie review: or more specifically two reviews back-to-back courtesy of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. I literally got an RSVP after applying for a Press Pass that allowed me to attend the opening gala of the Festival with one other guest–in this case my brother–for free. In exchange, however, I am to review both of the  films that we saw.

This has been a very busy but exciting time with regards to my writing, so let me get this underway: after an obligatory Spoilers Warning. The first film we saw was Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are. However, I would like to state that the film short–which the Toronto After Dark likes to include before every film–also bears some consideration.

It is an abstract film fittingly enough named Kin: which essentially is about a boy child who is on a quest to help a group of dancing shamans with strange masks summon a giant crow or raven. There is also a knight that was travelling by horse to the hilltop where the boy stands with his own wooden sword and shield. In addition, there is a small waif of a girl with pale blonde hair and a gossamer white gown who seems to have been waiting for the boy: only for him move past her, summon the creature, open his arms, and let the gigantic mythological blackbird either devour him or embrace him. The knight gets there just in time as everything ends and he and the girl just watch the sky where the boy had once been.

For me, it was an excellent segue into We Are What We Are because what we see is a child that, at first, seems to be challenging an ancient tradition or ritual while the adult–who seems to have power–almost helplessly follows him just in time for it to be too late. In fact, every time the boy stumbled, the knight seemed to stumble as well: which makes me wonder if the two of them are linked. Is the knight is an archetype that the boy pictures in his own mind before circumstances make him discard him: or pass him onto the girl? But in any case, and in the end, the boy–faced with the sheer power of mythology hovering in front of him–lets it overcome him on his own terms: leaving the idea of the knight behind to perhaps be born from the girl one day in order to continue a new tradition. This is what I got out of it anyway.

But in any case, Kin was an appropriate title when you consider what We Are What We Are entails. Just as it was outside the Scotiabank Theatre, so too was it raining at the beginning of this film. I will admit–much to my own eternal frustration–that there was a quote at the very beginning of the film that I can’t remember and it was even repeated verbally at the funeral scene. The reason I didn’t write it down at the time was because I thought it was a literary quote when, in actually, it came from a book that exists only in the film and I have not been able to find it since. I will get to that soon.

Essentially, We Are What We Are is a film about the Parkers: a family of cannibals that live in relative poverty close to a small town near the Catskill Mountains that eat human meat for religious purposes. In addition to this, the town doctor is still searching for his long-lost daughter amid a lot of flooding: flooding that carries strange objects with it in currents of water like flotsam and … old bones, for instance.

This seems pretty straightforward and not very original. However, there is more. The mother of the family drowns at the beginning of the movie: leaving her husband, two daughters, and young son in tremendous grief. And here we see something very interesting. The family patriarch Frank Parker–who is traditionally in charge of procuring their source of meat–could easily be portrayed as a complete and totally cold-hearted and  abusive monster. But he isn’t. He genuinely grieves for his wife’s death. It makes him completely fall apart to the point where his daughters–who love him–take care of him. If anything, it is the disconnect between what this family eats and how they still act as human beings that makes this film even more disturbing because you end up having sympathy for, well, the monsters.

It is no coincidence, when the middle child Rose Parker is reading to young brother Rory Parker about a “happy monster” that he says–after accidentally seeing the “animal” they were keeping in their basement–that the “monster is actually sad.” And the monster–the secret of the family–is sad. We find out that the Parkers’ holiday of Lamb’s Day began in the 1800s when their early settler ancestors ran out of food and nearly died in the wintertime. We find this out as Iris and Rose Parker are reading the book that has been passed down throughout all the generations of their family: detailing how the first patriarch’s two daughters found their father in front of the body of a woman and partook with him of her flesh. This was the beginning of the family spiritual epiphany: of that transgression to live and then ascendance beyond the taboo of eating human meat to find new meaning. This was the beginning of their Lamb’s Day: a man making a decision to undertake it and two girls deciding to carry on the tradition through their line. And, after all, don’t most religions begin with trauma?

There are, however, obvious consequences for eating human flesh: such as the lovely addition of Prion Disease: which includes tremors and tremendous brain damage. At the beginning, when their mother is trembling and essentially dies from the illness at the general store, a man says that the storm outside will “only get worse before it gets better.” And unfortunately for the matriarch of the Parker family, it only just got worse until it finally ended.

Yet the ending … The thing to understand is that the older daughters were thinking of abandoning Lamb’s Day and trying to become normal: hoping to find some way to get past their overbearing religious father. Unfortunately, this did not end well. The father begins to notice that the old bones of their previous feasts are drifting down the river and he begins to understand–even in his Prion-riddled brain–exactly how screwed they truly are. He also kills Iris’ boyfriend as they are about to have sex: as he is right on top of her. And then to add insult to injury, he puts arsenic in their Lamb’s Day stew–yes, that kind of stew–when he realizes they will all be discovered. So not only does Frank hurt his daughters–and you notice he never lays a hand on them, though he is so imposing he doesn’t even have to–but he betrays his oath to protect the family and the tradition.

What happens next is nothing short of watching a terrifying transgressive religious reformation of sorts unfold as his daughters, both dressed like Gothic Lolitas–fulfill their Electra complexes and consume their own father while he is still alive. Meanwhile, the Doctor–who figured out that Frank killed and ate his daughter–watches this all happen and, assuming they spared his life, I’m thinking at if I were him at this point of seeing this Bacchanalian horror unfolding in front of me I would really reconsider that long overdue retirement to Florida: provided a Dr. Lecter wasn’t staying nearby.

The ending was just beautiful to me in all of its gory horror. Iris and Rose manage to consummate their love and hatred for their father: defeating that monster that he is through even greater depravity. I mean, think about it: he and the family over many years at least prepared and cooked their food. These girls are eating him raw: while he is in agony. There is something more honest about this “back to basics” religious approach and also a rebirth. Because if they didn’t eat the Doctor at the end of the film or even kill him, while they are driving away with their baby brother and the ancestral book in hand what we might be seeing is the creation of a whole new kind of familial cult: of the women–who carried out the line–taking it away from the false civilized nature of the patriarchy and making it something new.

What is even more hilarious is this: at the end of the film, we got to ask the film-makers questions and one of the things that came up was that they not only planned a prequel to the film: in which we find out how Frank meets his wife, gets inducted into the Parker family and takes on the role of matriarch–of actually killing and preparing their human food–but there is going to be a sequel as well which takes place, of all places, in Mexico.

Now, let me make something else clear.

We Are What We Are is a revision, not a remake, of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican film Somos lo que hay which has all of the gender-roles reversed and a whole different ending. The idea was transplanted from Mexican social commentary into American religious criticism: and now is being transplanted in a weird sort of creative hybrid way back: to the point where the endings almost meet. I can only imagine Iris, Rose, and Rory Parker making a new family tradition: of only killing and eating criminals and otherwise bad people instead of the “shit where you eat” mentality and hypocrisy of their father who made them eat their town doctor’s young daughter. A shameful secret becomes a religious mystery once again and two girls come of age in blood and sacrifice. Perhaps now, when they finish reading their brother his story for the night they can now safely end it with, “And the monster was happy.”

So, after going twenty minutes later over schedule and a bathroom break my brother and I went to see the next film: which was Henry Saine’s Bounty Killer.

I don’t know how much I have to say about this one, but again the short L’Étranger was a nice and fun lead-in: an action sequence with a cowboy who, after killing and maiming everyone in a bar, was simply there to deliver a package on time. It was amusing.

As was this trailer for the following film.

Bounty Killer is a post-apocalyptic comedy action film that was originally taken from a Kick Start Productions comic book which Jason Dodson and Henry Saine also created–the latter of which seems to only be available in the iBooks Store–along with an idea for a 1997 animated series that never happened. So essentially what we are looking at is a film created from action, almost superheroic animation that didn’t completely happen, and a comic that in addition to its own self was made to help storyboard its very existence.

It is a tongue-and-cheek movie that takes place in a world that has suffered from the Corporate Wars: in which corporations eroded the world governments and caused mass chaos and suffering. In the wake of this, there is a Council of Nine formed in the Wastelands that creates the Bounty Killers: celebrity assassins that hunt down the white collar corporate individuals and their Yellow Tie minions as war criminals … though Darth Vader’s age-old admonition of “No disintegrations” seems to apply at least with regards to their heads.

As you can imagine, the violence is exaggerated not only in a stylized way–ala Matrix-level slow motion scenes cut with fast pacing–but it is literally parodied with some snappy one-liners and moments of pure, fun ridiculousness.

What is also really interesting is the way they set up two of the main characters. Mary Death is the former protégé and on again, off again lover of the first Bounty Killer Drifter: who is literally stylized violent sex. Drifter is not so much this, but he is an extremely pragmatic and clever man who used to be the head of a corporation before his company betrayed him by making weapons and he hunted most of his business partners down. As he put it, he was “sick of being behind a desk.”

In a sense, training Mary Death was one of his best decisions: as she unknowingly distracted everyone else from really looking at his celebrity status and into his past as a former Corporate. In fact, as I think about it now, Drifter most likely purposefully botched his kills–such as, well, disintegrating him–so that people wouldn’t pay too much attention to him compared to Mary Death and start hunting him.

Of course, this all changes as a bounty is seemingly placed on him by the Council of Nine: under his true identity.

Mary Death herself is a former member of a raider and infiltration group known as the Gypsies of all things. She approached Drifter ages ago to be trained by him in the arts of Bounty Killing: though how she actually knew what his real skills were like is unknown. She is a dangerous woman. Aside from my previous description of her, it is the best way to sum her up: although she does like to give autographs. She and Drifter a strange relationship in which she exercises independence and love by stabbing him non-fatally in the spleen and leaving him to chase her: at which on two occasions he has said, “She cut me … deep.”

What is really interesting is that Mary Death is set up in a way that makes her look like the protagonist of the film–even the film’s advertising has her as the central aesthetic figure–but the focus isn’t always on her. The film’s perspective alternates between Mary and Drifter: ending with Mary in an iconic sort of way. This film is also inter-dispersed with Heavy Metal-like animation and illustrations: making it not unlike, as others have pointed out, Kill Bill meets Mad Max.

Really, the film is crazy: just plain crazy. But it is crazy in a fun “what the fuck” way. It is also fascinating to consider how the “white collars” and Bounty Killers evolved as their own cultures in this post-apocalyptic future and how when you strip away that veneer of civilization a lot of this 1% to 99% we keep hearing about would become tribes of a different kind and the film definitely reflects the current cultural reaction against the former.

That said, there is one regret that I share with Henry Saine: namely, the exclusion of one aspect of Mary Death’s origin. He told us in the Question and Answer period that originally Mary Death was supposed to have been a child on an airplane during the Corporate Wars and that when the plane was being attacked; she was actually by what was essentially a bad-ass stewardess. Even though Mary Death was taken by the Gypsies after this, she never forgot that woman who defended her to the death–even though she had once worked for a corporation–and modelled her new uniform in her memory.

I did like this movie, but I have to admit that I was put off by the moral of love and independence being a knife in the spleen. But hey, if you are into that sort of thing who am I to judge?

And, after that film based after the Corporate Wars was over, we appropriately stopped off at the After Dark’s event at The Office Pub.

So this has been an ad hoc review of the Toronto After Dark’s opening salvo. I hope you enjoyed this and please, when you get the chance, watch these films. As for me, after seeing the last one I now definitely need to somehow watch Saine’s The Last Lovecraft: which was shown at an After Dark opening gala a few years back.

And I definitely need to do this sometime again.

About Matthew Kirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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