Director Roxanne Benjamin Gender-Flips Gaslighting and Parental Tropes in Horror Film 'There's Something Wrong With the Children'

'To me, [the film] was more about the idea of family and what it's supposed to look like,' the director tells Metacritic. 'You might have to fight against that continually until you die.'

Danielle Turchiano

David Mattle and Briella Guiza in 'There's Something Wrong With the Children'


Warning: This story contains spoilers for There's Something Wrong With the Children. Read at your own risk!

Creepy-kid horror, domestic horror, supernatural horror, horror-thriller are all ways director Roxanne Benjamin describes her latest film, There's Something Wrong With the Children.

The film, from writers T.J. Cimfel and Dave White, takes place during what is supposed to be a relaxing weekend away for young couple Margaret (Alisha Wainwright) and Ben (Zach Gilford) and their friends Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Carlos Santos) — even though Ellie and Thomas brought their kids along (played by Briella Guiza and David Mattle). But nothing stay simple, let alone relaxing for long (this is a Blumhouse title, after all!).

From the jump, there is tension in Ellie and Thomas' marriage, but being around the kids also makes Margaret and Ben revisit whether or not they will start a family. And then there's the aftermath of a walk in the woods, when the group finds an old military fort and deep abyss that intrigues the kids and causes a nosebleed. Once they return to the cabins they are renting, the kids stop acting like themselves, which leaves Ben to suspect they are no longer the same kids at all, but rather something supernatural replacing them. But Ben has struggled with his mental health in the past and is on medication, which means that it takes a much bloodier turn before his concerns are believed.

Benjamin tells Metacritic that she wanted to "make it more about the male character getting gaslit in the gender-swap of the traditional horror movie set up of, 'Us ladies can't be believed because we're hysterical!' So it was really important to me downplay that and have it be we see what he sees."

So, for as much relationship drama as the film examines, which is both emotional and psychological, there are equal amounts of physical action elements that, yes, often come with a lot of blood. They just happen to have a deeper meaning than simply being there to make you jump out of your seat.

"To me, [the film] was more about the idea of family and what it's supposed to look like. Margo can't get past that society will keep throwing thrusting this upon her no matter how many times she tries to kill the idea or [say] that this isn't what she wants. Society's still like, 'Yes, but diaper ads!'" Benjamin says. "There are these images that, of course, we all have to see every day, [but] not everyone wants that same thing. And, you know, you might have to fight against that continually until you die."

Here, Benjamin talks with Metacritic about the motherhood metaphors within the movie, shaping the characters' relationships amid the chaos, and how the real filming locations informed the mythology of the story.

First, set the scene on where production took place and if you think that affected the vibe or mindset of your cast and crew, being isolated in a rural area as their characters also are.

We filmed outside of New Orleans, but everybody was staying in the city. It was still during COVID so there's not a lot of people who are at the hotel and there's not a lot of places to go. I do [think it affected] the actors because where our location was, was maybe 10 to 20 minutes from our base camp. So, they were far enough away that once you were on set, you were just on set. There were rooms that they could go to, but it's not like the traditional [shoot where] everyone's got their own trailers and going back to Crafty and then going to your trailer and read to read a book. They were far enough away that once you were on set, you were just on set. Everyone was kind of stuck in the same room, summer camp style.

The frame of mind of characters is so important in this film, specifically Ben's because he's the one who sees something unexplainable happen with the kids and the audience follows his perspective, but his friends don't necessarily trust his judgment. How did you work out how to depict those parts of the story in a way that wouldn't have the audience just calling him crazy?

In my head, I'm always on his side of, "Oh yeah, I know what I saw," so you're just waiting for everyone to catch up, in a way. The only one who handles it with any delicacy at all is Margo when she's just tiptoeing around, "How are you? How have you been feeling?" — just to bring it up, just to say, "Let's just check in.' But even in that, I feel like that scene is more about her saying, "Everything's fine. Let's not worry about their dumb kids." She just wants it not to be an issue over the weekend, in my head.

And even when they get into the fight and his pills are out and [Thomas] is saying, "So you're on a mood stabilizer, so what?", that was something I added in [because] "Who isn't?" I was always thinking of getting up in front of the audience when we had our screenings and being like, "Who here is on any sort of anti-anxiety or anti-depressant or has ever gotten any psychological counseling?" It's gonna be 90-percent of the audience. There was a big string of these type of horror movies in the '70s and maybe early '80s, even late '60s that [say], "Oh they're unreliable because x' because it was a hugely taboo and it was shoved under the under the rug and not something that was openly talking about. But now, here, you discuss your diagnosis and your meds like trading cards, so it does not hold the same stigma, doesn't seem to hold hold the same weight in a horror movie as it did before. We are trying to use the known trope to play against the trope.

That's not the only stigma you seem to be commenting on and trying to make less taboo, so to speak. There's also how Ben is the one who is playing with the kids and wants kids, while Margaret seems ambivalent. There's that part where Ellie says maybe it's not that she doesn't want kids, but that she doesn't want them with Ben, which also speaks to what we were just talking about regarding his mental health.

That was a big thing for me because the DNA of the original script is great — all of the the main plot things were there and the scenario was great and the whole storyline about the relationship issues with the one couple, that really is what drew me to it — but one of the things I felt like I was missing is, originally the intent of this weekend way was Margo and Ellie trying to sneakily convince Ben to have kids because Margo wanted them so badly. And it was like, "Maybe if we can just get him to spend time with your kids he'll see how much he wants them and I'll finally get what I want." She was very much maternal, like, "This is all I want. This is everything I need in life." And he was dismissive of her, in a way, and gives in and things go awry, and then she's apologizing for ever wanting more in this final scene.

You have to have something, I feel, as a director to draw in your own experience or draw in like something that's new and interesting to you in any kind of horror movie when it comes to the horror stuff and when it comes to the characters. And I am of an age where all of my friends are becoming the haves and have nots of either married or not married, or kids or no kids, or kids but not married — all these different iterations of that — and it's been really fascinating see this weird pressure that gets put upon the groups who don't have kids to "join us." Usually it's not even a, "Don't you want..." it's a, "Your life is an empty, meaningless tragedy," like, oh my god, they've been replaced with pod people in some cases! And then you also have your friends who are kind of like '80s parents, like my parents were, where they're just like, "They're gonna be fine, I'll rub the dirt off, they'll live." So I wanted to play with that too: making the couple that has kids still be people, which I think the script did really well — showing that they have all this relationship stuff going on that is not related to their kids other than their kids are kind of in the way. 

It was a very big to deal to me to get Margaret and Ellie's relationships to feel more fluid and realistic to today. And also to change that dynamic between Margo and Ben.

I don't know if ultimately Margo does or doesn't want to have kids. I'm sure after this experience she doesn't! I feel like a lot of her character comes from her frustration of feeling like she's on her own on this and when Ellie says, "Maybe it's not that she doesn't want them, maybe it's just not with you," that is, I feel, maybe one of those things you say to a friend that isn't something they realize about their self yet. Telling someone a hard truth about themselves that they're not ready to hear can be very jarring to someone's sense of personhood in general, so I feel like that's the big step the friendship can't come back from. That's still one of my favorite scenes, regardless of being a horror director.

Well, that is still a horror scene. Not a supernatural one or one that includes a traditional jump scare, but the idea of facing something you don't want to and/or potentially losing a friend? Both horrible to people in different degrees. But that said, I do want to talk about the more traditional horror in this film because the audience is in the experience with the characters, who don't have time to really think about what is happening or why, they just react to it. But how much of the mythology of all of that did you actually have worked out?

That's always really important. In general, I feel like I hate the scene that's like, "We gotta get the thing from the whatever demon and because they touched the demon stone, that means we have to go to the wishing well and rub it three times." It's never scary, it's never what you want it to be, it's never like as strong as what you've come up with in your own mind about what's going on. I trust my audience to be able to fill in the blanks.

Did you treat the actors the same way, or did you share the backstory and mythology with them?

I give book reports to the actors of the history of Ellie and Margaret: here's when they met and here was the first party they went to and here's the first time Margo held Ellie's hair back when she was too drunk — the emotional roadmap. And it's kind of the same thing with the mythology.

But when it comes to what they were actually looking at, yeah, we had those talks — and why they are the way they are, what has happened to them, and who it is they're taking, why they're taking them there.

What are you willing to share with our audience about that mythology?

A lot of it did change because originally this script was called The Ravine, and there was a whole different mythology that was going on there. I built on some of the elements that were there, but we shot down in New Orleans and there's no ravines in the river delta. There's no peaks; there's no mountains to climb; there's nothing like that within where we had to shoot that match the mythology, and a lot of those locational elements in the script, besides two cabins. So I had to figure out on the fly what we had available and then really pull it back from a very overt mythological thing because I don't want it to be known as that; I want it to be thought of more in the terms of those relationships.

But it's the idea that it's something from the natural world taking over — just this idea of insects and nature and the dark birth canal things you don't know in the woods. I can't believe I got away with putting a giant, green birth canal in the woods! I don't know how to get more metaphorical than that.

You just said you put it in the woods. Do you mean physically and practically you shot that in the woods, not on a soundstage?

That was in the woods — a place called Fort Macomb inside New Orleans that's an abandoned military fort sinking into the sea, which is why I added the lines about the old military fort. They'd never go to any structure in the original script, they'd just go up to this lookout that was kind of Grand Canyon-esque. And this is what we found that fit and also gave something to look at. I shot a movie before that was all in the woods, and you can only shoot so many directions. You think you're making these different looking areas and then you look back at your dailies and it looks like we just turned the camera around when we were really two miles away. So, I wanted to have something that they were going to find in the woods that is different, that shouldn't be there, and it's also the idea of a man-made structure over a natural thing, and it's like society's view of what the structure should look like -- like a family or motherhood, or what have you — built over the natural world, and the natural world is like, "F--- you, I'm going to do what I want."

And within that, there are the children. They're in the title; you called this a "creepy-kid horror" film. So what was it about these Briella and David that made them the perfect creepy kids?

They both have very different personalities, but they both have a real intensity on screen. Our casting director John McAlary went through maybe 600 auditions [to find them]. We went to our lead actors [with] offers and it was much more of an open call to find these kids, but they appear that they were the product of Carlos and Amanda, and we were hoping to find at least one who was bilingual. Carlos is basically speaking Puerto Rican Spanish throughout the whole movie. David speaks Spanish, but he's not from Puerto Rico. So that was fun to watch them bond while he was teaching him Puerto Rican slang. I'm glad that he got to bring that.

Finding them was definitely a process. My producer and I went through at least 70 or 80 [auditions] personally. The two of them, it really was just talking to them. It had to be done over Zoom, too, because we were down in New Orleans already and they were in L.A. and Texas. It was [about] getting a sense of the personality, how they're going to feel under pressure with eyes on them. They had such good intensity, without even just saying anything, just these little glances. They were so good at doing the creepy stuff, and then you'd cut and they'd be like, "OK!" They're naturals.

There's Something Wrong With the Children is on digital and on-demand platforms now and will stream March 17 on MGM+. 

Get to know Roxanne Benjamin:
The filmmaker is a triple threat as a writer, producer, and director. Thus far, she is best known for producing the V/H/S franchise, as well as writing, producing, and directing segments of XX (Metascore: 64) and Southbound (58). However, she has also helmed notable episodes of television, including on Creepshow (64), Riverdale (68), and One of Us Is Lying.