Parenting Is a Horror Story in There’s Something Wrong with the Children

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Parenting Is a Horror Story in There’s Something Wrong with the Children

One day, an alert film journalist will have a sit-down with Roxanne Benjamin to ask the question that’s gradually defined her body of work: Why is she so damn scared of the great outdoors? In “Siren” and “Don’t Fall,” her contributions to omnibus horror films Southbound and XX, characters run afoul of occult and supernatural dangers waiting in the desert; in Body at Brighton Rock, a “man versus nature” horror thriller, a national park becomes an inescapable labyrinth populated by a corpse and a bear. Even Benjamin’s contributions to the Creepshow series use tectonic events and newly discovered insect species as precipitators of gnarly kill sequences.

Benjamin didn’t write the screenplay for her latest grim woodland stroll, There’s Something Wrong with the Children — that credit goes T.J. Cimfel and David White. It’s fun to imagine they had her in mind to direct, though, as if they couldn’t suffer the thought of anybody else pulling together the small cast, remote location, hidden font of evil, lurking dread, and body count that figure into the film. Anybody could direct this kind of story, and many already have. But There’s Something Wrong with the Children is right in Benjamin’s wheelhouse, and her skill with this familiar set-up is a major boon.

The film focuses on two couples: The DINKS (dual income, no kids) Margaret (Alisha Wainwright) and Ben (Zach Gilford), and the cool young parents Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Carlos Santos). They’re on a weekend getaway at a secluded spot in the forest, lounging by campfires, grilling their meals, playing with devil sticks, and enjoying Mother Nature with Ellie and Thomas’ kids, Lucy (Briella Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle). On their last day, Ben cajoles the gang into a hike, leading them to a disused structure housing an ominous, seemingly bottomless well. Lucy and Spencer take one look and immediately fall entranced by its vast emptiness; the adults don’t think twice about this clear warning sign.

The next morning, the kiddos are acting strange at best and sinister at worst. Anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie knows that they’re no longer Lucy and Spencer. Ellie, Thomas, and Margaret have apparently never seen a horror movie in their lives. Luckily, Ben has. To him, it’s plain as day that the kids aren’t alright, but his role in There’s Something Wrong with the Children is the discounted witness. Try as he might, he can’t get his friends or his girlfriend to take his concerns about the siblings seriously. The movie doesn’t need to put an exclamation point on the subtext: Ben is child agnostic, a career uncle figure to his friends’ kids with no firm aspirations toward fatherhood. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the children. Maybe there’s something wrong with Ben – awful, terrible, child-hating Ben.

Guiza and Mattle devour their lunch playing the time-honored roles of the believed versus the disbelieved; Gilford plays his with a mix of wide-eyed terror and slack-jawed frustration as his concern about the obvious danger is overlooked. Unnerving as those woods are, Benjamin actually has far more fun unpacking the social implications of Ben’s behavioral shift toward not-Lucy and not-Spencer. In fact, There’s Something Wrong with the Children hits peak tension by playing cat-and-mouse between them, with Ellie, Thomas, and Margaret at the game’s periphery and the audience on the sidelines, wondering when, or whether, they’ll accept that Ben isn’t crazy, or an asshole, and that he’s right.

Benjamin wrings so much squirming, anxious dread from her character dynamics that There’s Something Wrong with the Children’s eventual segue into full-blown monster territory feels like a pressure release. Even as a body count builds and blood is spilled, there’s relief from having the truth out in the open. It’s a clever play on expectations: Normally, we’d anticipate a horror movie’s escalations of fear; There’s Something Wrong with the Children doesn’t stop being scary in its third act, but it’s scary in entertaining, genre-friendly ways that aren’t especially real. The conflict between the adult characters over the kids, on the other hand, does feel real, which makes the stretch of the film where Ben acts as doomsayer warning about the children much more effective – not to mention deeply upsetting.

This dynamic works in There’s Something Wrong with the Children’s favor. The only element that brings the movie down is The Gifted’s score, which too often threatens to overwhelm what’s happening on screen, instead of enhancing it. But Benjamin keeps the audience’s focus where it belongs: on Ben; on those rascally, infested children; on the existential panic of parenthood; and especially on the woods from which, in Benjamin’s vision, nothing good emerges.

Director: Roxanne Benjamin
Writer: T.J. Cimfel, David White
Starring: Alisha Wainwright, Zach Gilford, Amanda Crew, Carlos Santos, Briella Guiza, David Mattle
Release Date: January 17, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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