By Thomas M. Puhr.
[While] the narrative structure proves flimsy…. it’s an admirable effort, and the film’s underlying commentary on parenthood separates Benjamin’s film from some of its lazier competitors.”
Children often seem to exist in a world few adults can access. They develop their own sort of language: a shorthand for communicating that’s nonsensical to outsiders. Moods shift with unsettling rapidity. Innocuous smiles feel laced with malice. You see one looking off into the distance, laughing at nothing, and wonder what the hell is going on in that little head.
Like its many horror predecessors – some to which it pays direct homage – There’s Something Wrong with the Children (2023) taps into how, for lack of a better word, weird (and morbidly funny) kids can be. And while it never quite congeals into a cohesive whole, director Roxanne Benjamin’s sophomore feature dutifully ticks off the requirements of the evil-children subgenre, all while managing to tinker a bit with the formula.
The film follows two married couples spending a long weekend at a secluded campground. Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Carlos Santos) have their hands full, wrangling two kids – Lucy (Briella Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle) – and struggling with marital tensions. Margaret (a scene-stealing Alisha Wainwright) and Ben (Zach Gilford), their old college friends, chose the “we still want to travel and focus on our careers” route, though it appears Ben’s caught baby fever.
These opening scenes point to something of a mumblecore-esque marriage drama, and they work so well that I almost forgot I was watching a horror film. As they drink and gossip, we learn of Ellie’s quasi-infidelity during a botched foursome with another couple. Of Margaret’s reservations toward getting pregnant maybe – just maybe – having something to do with Ben’s history of mental illness. We come to care about these couples; when things go horribly wrong, they’re more than just would-be victims. There’s something actually at stake here.
While hiking, the six come across an abandoned building and decide to explore the grounds. Behind a crumbling brick wall – was someone, or something, trying to conceal it? – they discover a very wide, very deep hole. The children seem inexplicably drawn to it, referring to the mysterious chasm as “the place that shines” (some readers may pause here, as the plot is somewhat similar to that of Lee Cronin’s overlooked The Hole in the Ground). For reasons too convoluted to pick apart here, Ben is later the only one to witness the pair jumping down the hole, to their presumed deaths. Traumatized, he returns to the campground only to find the youngsters laughing and playing with their parents.
This midsection is where There’s Something Wrong with the Children falters. Ben knows these things aren’t really little Lucy and Spencer. They know he knows, and what ensues is a prolonged, tedious bout of psychological warfare between him and the kids, who do everything they can to make him look unstable in front of the other adults. Part of the problem may be that these scenes are deflated of any really suspense because there is never any doubt that the children are imposters. Wouldn’t it have been far more unsettling to wonder – like his wife and friends – if this is all just in Ben’s head? Another part of the problem is that Guiza and Mattle aren’t especially effective as the devilish rugrats, their performances a series of monotonous line deliveries and coy smirks. It’s pretty crucial in a creepy kid movie that the kids be, well, creepy.
The film finds it footing again when it leans into full-on horror. With her sweeping Dutch angles and creature POV shots, Benjamin shows her affinity for Evil Dead-era Sam Raimi, and the cast all gamely embrace the mayhem with straight faces. Some shoddy effects – like the kids’ glowing eyes, straight out of Village of the Damned – only add to the B-movie charm. We’ve seen this sort of climax a million times before, of course. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and I had a lot of fun watching Benjamin let it rip.
Yes, screenwriters T.J. Cimfel and David White’s narrative structure proves flimsy, its sluggish midsection weakly connecting the stronger opening and closing acts (transitioning from earnest marital dramedy to balls to the wall splatterfest is surely a tough maneuver). But it’s an admirable effort, and the film’s underlying commentary on parenthood – at its core, the story is about the fear and uncertainty that comes with starting a family – separates There’s Something Wrong with the Children from some of its lazier competitors. As far as Blumhouse one-offs go, this one delivers most of the goods with verve and style.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.