As much horror media as I routinely watch on an annual basis, I do tend to have a weak stomach for the so-called “extreme” end of the genre. Titles like Martyrs, Cannibal Holocaust, Inside, Salò, and so on typify a graphically cruel end of horror cinema that I tend to shy away from as I search for less emotionally scarring novelties like Frankenhooker & Ghoulies II. That’s not to say that there’s absolutely no value in “extreme” horror, a subgenre typically associated with French filmmakers in a modern context. Just a couple months ago I allowed myself to be swept up in the explicit, yet hypnotic cannibalism terror of the recent coming of age horror Raw, despite trumped up reports of the film eliciting vomiting and fainting spells during its festival run. The gimmick of distributing Raw along with accompanying barf bags to theaters around the country to play up its onscreen extremity actually did the film a disservice in a lot of ways, setting an expectation for shock value gratuitousness in a way the film, however violent, wasn’t especially focused on delivering. I’m not sure the same can be said of the recent Mexican-American co-production We Are the Flesh. We Are the Flesh is the taboo, explicitly cruel hedonism of extreme horror perversity that Raw was hinted to be in its advertising & early buzz. Its graphic, button-pushing sexuality and violence is typically the exact kind of horror cinema extremity I shy away from. I went into the film dreading the nihilistic ways it would attempt to dwell in trauma & brutality. What’s surprising is that I left it convinced it’s the best domestic release I’ve seen all year.
While both sexual & violent, We Are the Flesh never allows its extreme horror provocations to devolve into the sexual violence exploitation of most of the titles mentioned above. Instead, the terror in its sexuality commands a kind of cerebral, Cronenbergian quality that pushes its audience’s buttons through taboos like incest, necrophilia, and fucking in literal filth. While the explicit nature of its imagery is presumably intended to shock & disturb on some level, the film overall has a lot more in common with Luis Buñuel’s traditionalist surrealism than it does with Salò or Cannibal Holocaust, titles it risks being swept away with critically by choosing to deal in horrific extremes in the first place. The film lives up to the “flesh” aspect if its title, slathering the screen with writhing naked bodies, sometimes even documenting them in unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. Unlike with something like Love or Shortbus, however, the pornographic aspect of that display is not the main focal point of its depiction. Instead, the camera (along with the dialogue) breaks down the human body to its most basic components: meat, flesh, spit, semen, menstruate, etc. Like with all worthwhile surrealist art, there’s a darkly humorous reflection of both political and existential unrest perceivable just behind the facade of these evocative images. The anxiety cannot be fully understood and is cheapened by any attempt to put it into words, but it drives the heart of the work beyond the basic effect of shock value into much stranger, more transcendent terrain.
Two siblings emerge, hungry, from a post-apocalyptic cityscape to an industrial space where a total stranger has been seemingly going mad in his isolation. His madness initially takes the form of nihilistic displays of violence that would be right at home on something like The Eric Andre Show: destruction of furniture, off-kilter beating of a drum, nonsensical experiments involving large quantities of bread & eggs. Patterns & purpose eventually coagulate in this chaos, however. He uses the bread & eggs, provided from a mysterious source behind a concrete wall, as pay meant for the brother & sister duo to aid him in his work. Together, the three create faux organic spaces that eventually look like art installations in their now-shared squat. Broken furniture is arranged in geometric lines that recall crystal formations or spider webs. Walls & ceilings are carpeted over with flattened cardboard boxes until the rooms they create resemble ancient caves. The madman describes his creation as “the ultimate memorial of a rotten society.” He condemns the siblings for not fully believing in his work, exclaiming, “You wallow in your youth, though you’re nothing but rotting flesh.” Their initial caution towards his madness gives way to militaristic & cult-like religious devotion. He encourages them to engage in acts of incest, drugs them with a mysterious chemical dropper, imbues them with a fanatical reverence for eggs, and promises that devotion to the cause will lead to a transcendent epiphany, explaining, “Your skull unfolds and blooms like a gorgeous flower.” The whole thing plays out like an extended stream of consciousness nightmare. It’s unnerving, but strangely beautiful.
I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Within the film, the man-made, artificially “organic” environments become “real” caves without explanation, both recalling Plato’s Cave and calling into question the inherent artifice of film as a medium in the first place. The isolation of the central three characters in this space makes it seem as if they’re the only people left in the world, evoking a Waiting for Godot style stage play existentialism. Militaristic chants and national anthems conjure similar anxiety surrounding modern politics and bloodsoaked history. We Are the Flesh didn’t exactly unfold my skull so my mind could bloom like a gorgeous flower, but the overall effect wasn’t all that dissimilar. Its dedication to explicit sex & violence was a means to a much greater, more intangible end instead of being the entire point of the exercise. I greatly respect the overreach & surprising success of that ambition.
I wish I had seen We Are the Flesh in the theater with a live audience like I had with the last gratuitous cinematic provocation I’d fallen this in love with, Wetlands. Not only would it have been a joy to see its gorgeous camera work large & loud in a proper cinematic setting, but there’s also something special about squirming with discomfort in unison with strangers when confronted with taboo sexuality. I got a little tease of how that might have felt when I first saw The Neon Demon last summer, but only for fleeting moments. We Are the Flesh is a long, sustained deep dive into violence & sexual discomfort that should likely come with a laundry list of content warnings for the typically squeamish. However, speaking as someone who doesn’t usually find much value in this extreme end of horror cinema, modern or otherwise, I found it to be the exact balance of discomforting moral provocation and intellectual stimulation through abstract thought that makes the times I tried, but failed to find similar fulfillment in films like Martyrs or Baskin feel retroactively worthwhile. I can’t say in concrete terms why the film resonated with me so solidly, because it’s not the kind of work that deals in tangible, measurable absolutes. I can say that it pushed me far outside my comfort zone in a uniquely rewarding way, which is all you can really ask for from surreal art & “extreme” cinema.