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Where the Scary Things Are (2022) – Review by Jonny Numb

February 9, 2023

Where the Scary Things Are (2022)

By Jonny Numb (@JonnyNumb on Twitter)

Grade: B+

Where the Scary Things Are addresses a lot in a relatively compact 93-minute run time. It takes the notion of the horror genre as our most fertile artistic arena for articulating real-world fears and holds a mirror to the kids (and grownups) who inhabit our modern-day society. It’s a “monster movie” where there’s a literal monstrous Other (in this case, an urban legend known as “Lockjaw”) that is besieged by the whims of some particularly monstrous teenagers looking for cheap thrills.

Depictions of bored, amoral youth seeking the social-media spotlight often suffer from sledgehammer-subtle depictions of youth and out-of-touch depictions of social media. When films commenting on the corrosive effects of social media are good, they are very good: think Ingrid Goes West; Like Me; or last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies. Each of these efforts are keyed into the boredom and delusion that play into depictions of online celebrity.

The kids in Where the Scary Things Are aren’t on the level of the junior sociopaths in a Larry Clark film, but they are well on their way. After being caught breaking into a Halloween park (Field of Screams in Lancaster, PA), the group is sent home. Writer-director B. Harrison Smith stages the parental fallout in a heavy-handed way that nonetheless gives valuable insight into the kids’ home lives, and the type of discipline they are (or aren’t) receiving.

But the youth – led by Ayla (Selina Flanscha, in a breakout performance) – are not “all good” or “all bad” per se. Even the adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door reimagined characters to provide a somewhat moral center. Here, we have hangers-on like the soft-spoken, diabetic Mighty (Riley Sullivan) and the conflicted yet consistently peer-pressured Snack (Peter Cote). Even the characters who appear on track to become future prison statistics are not without moments of relatability. In coming-of-age horror films like Deadgirl, teenagers are either on the edge of committing horrible acts…or diving full-on into the abyss simply because they can.

Angst can manifest in abused or neglected kids by bullying those weaker than them. When these teens are given the assignment of “creating an urban legend” for a class project, a real one literally falls at their feet. Looking like the Tarman from Return of the Living Dead, Lockjaw (whom the kids rename “Crocamole” to fit the fiction of their project) subsists on the fear of its victims. When the kids chain it up in an unused part of the Halloween park, they see an opportunity not only to ace the project, but get even with people they dislike.

Smith creates an atmosphere of desensitization from the outset – the kids’ “clubhouse” is a room with a replica of a disemboweled corpse on a dinner table – and depicts the teens as always seeking an adrenaline rush. This, coupled with a sense of indestructibility, leads to a reduced understanding of physical and moral consequences. 

The script doesn’t affix a default “blame” to any of the characters, but shows how even the most good-natured intentions can create ripple effects that result in death and destruction. Mr. Lewis (Paul Cottman) is the teacher who assigns the “urban legend” project, and is clearly concerned with his students’ inability to discern fact from fiction. Not only does he have to deal with the everyday bureaucracy of the public education system; he also must take his students to task for the disturbing “reality” of their gone-viral “creation.” In the end, even authority figures tasked with teaching the up-and-coming generation aren’t immune to repercussions.

John Avarese’s score is appropriately moody, lending a distinctive weight to the proceedings. It’s ominous without being generic, and one of the film’s standout technical achievements. That said, the conceptualization of Lockjaw/Crocamole is admirably minimalist – a sentient black void that, in a none-too-subtle way, acts as a mirror to the cruelties visited upon it. Smith wisely keeps the creature in low light, thus accentuating the details most obvious to the naked eye.Films that address the seamy side of teen life – or just life in general – and don’t paint the world as all ice cream, rainbows and falling in love often face an uphill battle, especially when done well. Where the Scary Things Are may not have the overt exploitation elements of a Larry Clark film, but it is honest about its subject. Those who can look past the actions and attitudes of these characters and view the commentary beneath will be rewarded with a thoughtful – albeit frequently and appropriately unpleasant – take on humanity.

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