The Parker family of rural New York seem like good Christians to the members of the nearby town. Mother Emma, father Frank (Bill Sage), son Rory, and daughters Iris and Rose keep to themselves on their trailer park just outside of town.
But what the townspeople don’t know is that the Parkers harbor a dark secret, one that has been entwined in their family traditions for generations. Frank works tirelessly to keep their secret hidden away from the unsuspecting neighbors. But when a series of mysterious disappearances begins plaguing the town, suspicious eyes turn towards the reclusive Parkers.
As the family gets increasingly desperate to keep their secret under wraps, Frank will do anything to protect his way of life.
So, what’s the secret? (Spoiler alert!) Once a year the Parkers gather around the dinner table to practice the family tradition of eating human flesh.
While their cannibalism may seem like the most shocking element of the story, it is actually one of the least surprising parts of the film. The suspense that leads to the climactic conclusion of the story is still intact despite knowing this gruesome secret. Director Jim Mickle still manages to surprise you all the way up to the very end.
It says a lot for this movie that it can have its audience on the edge of their seats even with its lack of violence and sexuality (the two biggest attention-grabbers of the genre). It may seem odd that a movie about a family of cannibals wouldn’t include all the guts and gore we’ve grown accustomed to, but this was a deliberate choice according to Mickle.
“We wanted the focus to be less on cannibalism and more on people”, Mickle stated in a Q&A session following a screening of the film on Oct. 1.
With such a talented cast it’s no wonder Mickle uses screen time to explore the dark consciousness of the characters rather than focus on the gore. With the washed-out colors, simple soundtrack, and muted scenery, the characters are what really drive home the horror of the film.
Each actor rose to the occasion magnificently, especially Bill Sage whose twitching eyes and misleadingly cool composure are enough to haunt you for hours after you’ve left the theater.
The drama of the film is made more pronounced by the tensions that develop between the characters. The contrast between tradition and modernity seen in the relationship between Frank and his daughters creates a dangerous divide in the family that adds nerve-wracking suspense to the story.
The movie also lends its perspective on the debate between science and religion through the alternating storylines of Doctor Barrow and Frank Parker. The atypical combination of gore and beauty, most notable in the scene of Iris and Rose dissecting a corpse, makes for a very pleasing aesthetic despite the morbidity of the actual ceremony. These themes all come together to inspire a dark curiosity in the viewer.
“I wanted to look at the idea of doing things only for the sake of tradition”, said Mickle.
He explained that the Parkers’ ceremonial dinner was meant to allude to the American tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinner.
“Both meals [the Parkers’ and Thanksgiving] are bloodthirsty and absurd in their own way…why do we eat a turkey every year to celebrate the slaughter of Native Americans? And why don’t we question it?” he said.
Mickle also stated that he wanted his audience to confront the age-old debate of nature versus nurture. He claimed to have created such conflicting characters in order to really get people thinking about this question.
All of these artistic choices, both those on the surface and behind the scenes, work together to create a film that is more visceral, mature, and memorable than many contemporary horror films.