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There's Something Wrong With The Children Review: Scary Kids, Scary Futures

  • The cast is great
  • It looks wonderful
  • There's a nice balance of psychological and supernatural tension
  • The character metaphors within the horror could have been explored a bit more

It's easy to imagine, even before seeing the rather throwback credits font for "There's Something Wrong with the Children," the same title emblazoned on a paperback novel tucked in a rack in a 1970s grocery store. It's an instantly evocative name for a horror story because right away it conjures certain expectations that it will either deliver on or completely subvert. It sets a certain edge for the viewer, and in the hands of a smart filmmaker, that edge can be titled one way or another with a certain deft ease, only to be switched back moments later.

With director Roxanne Benjamin ("Body at Brighton Rock"), "Children" manages to at turns make good and subvert the promises of its title, all while indulging in a certain pulpy feel that never lets go of certain meaty metaphors at the heart of its story. You're going to get creepy kids, and you're going to see those kids behaving in ways you might expect — and ways you might never see coming — but you're also going to get something else: a potent juggling of metaphors for transitional stages of adulthood that also happens to deliver consistent horror fun right up until the very last frame.

Family vacation

The children of the film's title are Lucy (Briella Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle), the respective daughter and son of Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Caros Santos). Though they're the catalyst for the entire story, Benjamin's film spends more time in the heads and hearts of Margaret (Alisha Wainwright) and Ben (Zach Gilford), the childless couple who meet up with Ellie and Thomas for a weekend in the great outdoors, complete with spacious neighboring cabins and a cozy firepit.

Benjamin takes her time with the horror reveals at the heart of the story, devoting the film's first act to unpacking certain character details, like Ben's mental health, Ben and Margaret's on-the-fence position regarding children, and Ellie and Thomas' rough patch as a couple. It is, like the cabins surrounding the characters, a bit of a cozy, relaxed way of getting us inside the heads of these characters, building a scaffolding that's helped along by the capable adult cast.

But of course, we're always waiting for something to go wrong with those children, and we get it when Ben leads the whole group on a hike that unexpectedly culminates in a massive abandoned building that is home to a deep, ominous pit. Everyone has their own reaction to this pit and the aura it gives off, but the kids in particular are strangely drawn to it — so drawn to it that their behavior after their first encounter will drive a wedge between the two couples, and maybe even convince everyone that Ben is going crazy.

There's a lot of fertile ground for a mixture of domestic terror and psychological thriller at work here, and that's before anything even remotely supernatural starts to happen with the kids. Benjamin and writers T.J. Cimfel and David White have built a relatable yet elaborate little nest of issues for each character to work through. The more they confront those issues, the more the knots holding them nest together start to tighten around them, building tension all the while. It's a great launching pad, and for the most part, the film takes full advantage.

With or without kids

Benjamin captures all this action with a strong visual sense that's both modern and recalls adventurous horror hits of the early 1990s, building a constant and compelling contrast between the natural beauty of the film's setting and the very human darkness at its core. Everything about the cabins, the fire pits, and the hiking trails looks very idyllic and fun, which leaves room for the filmmaker to use all that peace and quiet to her advantage, creating spaces where hard conversations can happen, and where darkness can slip in when everyone's too relaxed to be paying attention.

The darkness and those hard conversations are then embodied by the cast, all of whom rise to meet the blend of deeply embedded horror metaphors and supernatural fun suggested by the film's script. Wainwright and Crew are especially strong in the film, and Guiza and Mattle turn in performances that ensure all the creepy kid tension on which much of the story rests will keep working, whether they're looking angelic or demonic.

But what's perhaps most impressive about the cast, and the film as a piece of collective work, is the way they're able to balance the metaphors at work in the story while never letting go of the all-out, satisfyingly pulpy horror elements. This is a film about creepy kids who do creepy kid things, and if that's what you're coming to "There's Something Wrong with the Children" to get, you'll get it. But it's also a film about the anxiety of what happens when you feel like your co-parent doesn't understand you anymore, or your best friend is starting to slip away from you, or the plan you had for your entire adult life is beginning to fray at the edges and give way to something altogether more frightening and mysterious. Benjamin weaves these metaphors and concerns into every inch of the story, and the cast follows her with game intensity, but those ideas never fully dominate the narrative. If anything, they could almost stand to be more prevalent in the film's mix of psychological and physical dread. They're there if you want them.

That deft balancing act makes "There's Something Wrong with the Children" a satisfying, pleasantly squirm-inducing piece of horror filmmaking, one in which you never quite get all the answers and leave all the more thrilled by the possibilities the film leaves to your imagination. It's further proof that Benjamin is one of horror's most promising rising feature directors and a great way to spend a Friday night on the couch.

"There's Something Wrong with the Children" is available digitally and on-demand on January 17, and arrives on MGM+ on March 17.