Based on the title of this review, I'm sure some readers expect me to eviscerate Blumhouse's "There's Something Wrong with the Children." It's likely those aren't the same people who had diaper discount mailers sent out to them the moment they turned 18. Targeted ads assume having children is what some of us must do — despite our personal feelings or fiscal abilities to raise, birth, or adopt children. That's incredibly scary, as it reduces body autonomy to be a conditional term for non-parents. (Not to mention the cis-heteronormativity of it all that can trigger gender dysphoria and the deepest of sighs from those who don't want to have children or do but sadly can't in the queer community.)

Before I dive in further, I'd like to give flowers to director Roxanne Benjamin. Unequivocally, she captures how frustrating, confusing, and insulting this attitude feels through Margaret's (Alisha Wainwright) perspective. While the overall film might not work for me, there are vital frames here that strike at the heart of the matter: Having children is a choice, not a fate you surrender to as a sign that you're "growing up." Scary children is not a new concept for horror but zeroing in on the unneeded social pressures to have children is. I wish that idea had more space to flourish in this film and look forward to what Benjamin tackles next.

Mental Illness Is Not A Plot Device, Thank You

Ultimately, it's the film's story that underserves its compelling concept. Co-written by T.J. Cimfel and David White, "There's Something Wrong with the Children" opens with an intriguing premise. Margaret and Ben (Zach Gilford) are on a weekend vacation in the woods with their friends Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Carlos Santos) and their two children, Lucy (Briella Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle). With a cabin in the woods and a minimal cast, the film has the perfect setup for relying on interpersonal dynamics, shared histories, and undisclosed secrets to absolutely wreck everyone's lives. As copious amounts of wine and beer pour, it's hard not to root for a (or many) conflicts to take centerstage. Crew, Santos, Gilford, and Wainwright interact with the ease of decades-long friendships, which only makes viewers wonder and crave the inevitable mistake or falling out that will occur.

But then, a mystery box-like premise emerges. The families go into the woods and discover a tucked-away ruin with a bright light that only the children can see. Following this occurrence, the children start to act strangely. However, only Ben senses this, and due to his manic history, no one (including his wife, Margaret) believes him. But we only learn of his mental illness when he has to be believed — a tired and frustrating horror trope that undermines his character. Despite their concerns (read: insults) about his instability, no one previously cared that he's been taking Lithium while handing him beers, weed, and tequila.

Sometimes A Mystery Should Stay A Mystery

By the film's final act, we understand what happened to the children. But this is a rare case where not fully understanding what happened to them would elevate the thematic material. A large part of the film's discussion on raising children centers around how it will affect Ben and Margaret's lives, as they think parenting took some selfhood away from Ellie and Thomas. Having their kids literally start taking lives raises compelling questions about parenting that deserved some breathing room before pinpointing an othered cause to blame. I care less about why it's happening as I'm more invested to see how these characters interact with it and what says about their relationship to children, to parenting, to marriage, and their survival. Unfortunately, all that meaty material feels unexplored.

Often, the film pans away from depicting Lucy and Spencer's violence. Having more of their violence on-screen (or at least showing the children lingering in after shots of it) would dial up the metaphorical fear of what children could destroy in your lives. Instead, we spend more time hearing the children's chattering threats, which undermines their scare factor. Having them be "normal" while amidst bloodshed is way more terrifying. Yes, it's tricky to do this with child actors; however, director Ivan Kavanagh deftly balanced this in 2021's "Son." Choosing to pull back from this feels like putting the training wheels on an R-rated film.

A Fun Romp For A Friday Night

Still, some terrific performances deserve a shoutout. Watching Crew scream, mourn, and rage on-screen is a delight: She's guttural and raw. Despite the story's whiplash character direction for Margaret, Wainwright nails the tonal shifts well and grounds the film's uncertainty and tension. As always, Gilford delivers a subtle and charmingly understated performance that would become campy or overblown in another actor's less capable hands. Santos is the sturdiest character and helps the film's pivot feel believable and terrifying. For the most part, Guiza and Mattle handled the material well: Their body language is apt and chilling, even if their dialogue feels too on the nose. However, in the film's first act, they're absolutely endearing and hard not to root for as the story initially unfolds.

If you're looking for a creepy children horror film to watch, "There's Something Wrong with the Children" will deliver that in half-measures. But there are enough bloody thrills and dramatic tension at play here to make it a fun romp for a Friday night and bowl of popcorn.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

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