Writer and Director: John Mathis
Missing Halloween by a single day, John Mathis’s horror Where’s Rose (without the question mark) plays this week as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Economic and tight, this suburban chiller is both unsettling and ambiguous.
Rose is a young girl sad that she is losing her elder brother Eric to university life. He leaves in a few days’ time. He’s done well to get the grades and the scholarship. His parents are proud. He’s sporty but seems too sensitive to be a jock. He listens to motivational claptrap when he goes out running.
In contrast to the podcast’s life-affirming suggestions that Eric’s time is now and that he can achieve anything he wants, Rose’s favourite story is a modern day fairy tale preparing its readers for death; live a good life then death is nothing to fear is the moral the story bestows. She also has an imaginary friend too; a boy that lives in the woods just a few feet from her bedroom window.
But one night after her minder Jessica has read her the story, Rose disappears. When she returns, Eric is convinced that she is some kind of changeling, that another entity now inhabits the body of his sister. Where is Rose, indeed? The first clue that Rose has been swapped is that she no longer eats bacon, previously her favourite food. She looks oddly at Eric, telling him ‘I see you.’
Mathis uses familiar tropes to get his scares, but they fit perfectly into the confined space of the attic of the large home where Eric and Rose have their bedrooms, and then more widely into the suburban development where houses sit amid trees like dachas. As Eric cycles around, of course he will see figures standing at windows, silently watching him.
As Eric, Ty Simpkins in his first leading role is convincing as the teenager haunted by his young sister. The fact that she has, perhaps, been taken over by a sinister presence damages other relationships in his life, including that with Jessica, his neighbour who comes round to mind Rose sometimes. Possibly, there is one too many shots of Simpkins pulling his hair in rage; he ably demonstrates his confusion in more subtle ways, and these slow lingering glances at his sister or even at photographs of her are far more telling than his outbursts.
In a difficult role, Skyler Elyse Philpot ensures that we know something is wrong with Rose, and she is best when she is obsequious, agreeing with everything her mother says. Only Eric sees that the smile is wrapped in sarcasm. But slowly as the film progresses, you begin to feel that Rose is in as much danger as her brother. It’s a credit to Mathis’s writing and to Simpkins’s acting that Eric is a complex character and the camera refuses to take sides once the twist is revealed.
Apparently, Mathis has been inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but influences of American horror are here, too, such as 2000’s What Lies Beneath, another suburban horror about guilt, and more recently Hereditary with its family dynamics. And any film about possession has to be compared to such classics as The Poltergeist and The Exorcist.
It’s difficult for a filmmaker to escape horror’s set narrative, but Mathis’s impartiality means that we are not quite sure who the monster is in the end. In spite of the missing question mark, Where’s Rose is an intriguing addition to the new wave of social horrors.
Where’s Rose is screening at the Raindance Film Festival 2021 on 1 November.