By John Hanlon
There’s Something Wrong with the Children begins with a simple premise. Two couples take a weekend trip to some isolated cabins in the woods. One couple brings along their two children. The other couple doesn’t have any children but are thinking about it.
During a hike through the woods, something happens to the children but only one of the adults -- one of the two pondering the idea of having a child -- seems to realize it.
Zac Gilford and Alisha Wainwright star here as Ben and Margaret, the couple without children, while Amanda Crew and Carlos Santos co-star as Ellie and Thomas, two young parents trying to rebuild their relationship. Although Gilford is the star here, many of the early scenes feature the four of them together onscreen. For the film’s first thirty minutes, the children Lucy (Brielle Guiza) and Spencer (David Mattle) play minor supporting characters.
Thirty minutes in, the group of six find a mysterious shelter in the woods. It’s then that the children, who are immediately intrigued by a ditch in the shelter, start acting strangely. While searching for the children the following day, Ben witnesses something traumatic and realizes that the two youngsters have changed in some weird, disturbing way.
Writers T.J. Cimfel and David White then take their time focusing in on Ben’s perspective, showing the audience what Ben sees and experiences. The movie is no longer about the adults spending time together. In fact, Ben grows distant from his fellow adults as the children start playing subtle little tricks on Ben and quietly taunting him. At times, the camera zooms in on Ben, capturing his claustraphobic predicament.
If the children seem okay to everyone else, Ben starts to wonder if everything he’s experiencing is simply in his head. Director Roxanne Benjamin, who previously helmed episodes One of Us is Lying, knows how to capture Ben's isolation and paranoia and she sets it up so that even the audience may start to question Ben’s sanity.
In the third act when certain realities comes to light, Benjamin captures a number of truly suspenseful sequences as the situation escalates. There’s an edge to the film's final third as the filmmakers change the focus to Margaret, who starts to question her own reality.
Despite some solid surprises, there are elements of the story though that don’t work as well as they should. Although Gilford does a solid job in the lead role, there’s an element of vulnerability that seems to be missing in the film’s second act when the camera's focus is on him. That vulnerability and fragility — which was evident during Gilford’s tenure on Friday Night Lights — never comes across fully onscreen, leaving a certain distance between the viewers and his overwhelmed character.
Later on, when certain things are revealed in the third act, the filmmakers add an interesting layer to the story about Ben's past but his history is never explored as well as it could’ve been. Additionally, there are moments here where the writers seem to be borrowing from the playbook of films like The Shining and Pet Cemetery but not adding enough of their own flavor into the proceedings.
There’s enough here to recommend the feature, especially for fans looking for a creepy thriller, but there are times here when the film never “shines” as well as it could have.
There's Something Wrong with the Children is now available on demand.
John Hanlon is a film and television critic. This article was published here with his permission. All rights reserved.