We Are What We Are, Dream Home, Let Me In

Not all horror films have forgotten how to frighten.

We Are What We Are (15) dir: Jorge Michel Grau
Dream Home (18) dir: Pang Ho-cheung
Let Me In (15) dir: Matt Reeves

For viewers who are hostile to Hostel or who see through Saw, it can look periodically as though the modern horror film has reneged on its basic obligation - that is, to frighten, rather than merely to repulse. Indelible horror no longer arrives in the sort of waves documented by Mark Gatiss in his splendid, tender BBC4 series A History of Horror, but there always seem to be enough rejuvenating visions to ensure that the genre's vital signs never quite fade out. Last year, the undead lived again in Sweden's Let the Right One In and in two no-budget ghost stories, Paranormal Activity and The Disappeared. Like those pictures, the three horror movies released this month recognise the importance of establishing an evocative sense of place, even if they vary in the success of their efforts to put the "fear" into atmosphere.

We Are What We Are is a clammy Mexican shocker that begins with a man dropping dead in a shopping mall. When the news reaches his wife and adult children, they are commendably practical. The sons even pull themselves together and go out shopping for dinner. Rather inconveniently, however, dinner proves reluctant to be eaten.

This is a family of cannibals, so it isn't simply a matter of filling the trolley and swiping the loyalty card. They go browsing in society's cut-price aisles, singling out first a group of homeless children under a motorway flyover and then a group of prostitutes. The older son (Francisco Barreiro) follows a young, gay clubber in a pursuit that blurs into courtship, but his witch-faced mother (Carmen Beato) isn't impressed when the pair of them roll in after midnight. "I'm not eating a faggot!" she spits, much to the house guest's confusion.

It's a spot-on line typical of this neat, nasty, but entirely moral movie. Its writer-director, Jorge Michel Grau, presents cannibalism not as some unimaginable perversion, but as a social survival mechanism. How fitting that his picture is being released just as the coalition government is smacking its chops and preparing to feast on the poor with the same ease and sense of entitlement with which the film's characters use the streets as their own buffet.

We get a pungent whiff of warped priorities early on, when, after the father's body has been briskly stretchered away, a cleaner restores the mall's blood-spattered floor to its antiseptic sparkle. No wonder his widow knows she can pull over on a highway to lug a corpse into the boot without fear of alerting suspicion. Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman and Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs both made a similar point with equivalent creepiness, showing how the economically undesirable can simply vanish. The jabbing, string-based score in We Are What We Are only twists that knife. It is the sound of an entire world's guilty conscience.

Dream Home, from Hong Kong, keeps it political. This sob story about one woman's struggle to reach the first rung of the property ladder exhibits a gentleness of purpose that somehow survives many gruesome scenes of Jacobean excess. It is a film built, like its protagonist, on a schism - we're watching Wall Street one moment, Dario Argento the next. There is the naturalistic strand, in which the timid Cheng (Josie Ho) dedicates her life to buying a chic apartment. But these episodes, showing Cheng caring for her sick father or trying to flog dodgy loans in a call centre, are interspersed with glimpses of her nocturnal life, in which she carries out cruelly inventive murders that suggest she saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at an early age and never quite twigged that it wasn't meant to be inspirational.

It would be spoiling one of the film's surprises to reveal the motivation behind her rampages; let's just say that the director, Pang Ho-cheung, makes his points well about how capitalism coarsens us all. The picture suffers from a preponderance of explanatory flashbacks to Cheng's childhood and it can be guilty of signposting its ironies. But its incidental details have a mournful authenticity, from highlighting the common but rarely fulfilled ambition we all have to improve our parents' lives to hinting at a culture of businessmen who use golfing holidays as a cover for practices even more reprehensible than golf.

Dream Home is a serious-minded film with a shocking and anarchic sense of fun. How else to explain the sight of severed fingers landing on a rotating turntable? There's even a sex scene that ends with that textbook passion-killer, penile dismemberment. Perhaps the best joke comes in the first few seconds: "Based on a true story", says the title card. Dream on.

Those with fond memories of Let the Right One In should preserve them by avoiding the US remake, Let Me In. It's reconstituted cinema, a computer's idea of what made the original tick and click. The new version is faithful to the story of a downcast, 12-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriended by a tween bloodsucker (Chloe Moretz). Entire scenes seem, at first glance, intact. But despite a convincingly crummy setting (1980s New Mexico), the soul is gone. There is no feeling for the gradations of emotion that made the original more than just a vampire film. This one is all murk.

One sequence stands out - a car accident shot entirely from the back seat, so that the passengers seem to float magically upwards as the vehicle flips. It's the only time Let Me In turns the world on its head.

“We Are What We Are" and "Let Me In" are both on release. "Dream Home" opens on 19 November

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.