The filmmaking method of peaking beneath quaint communities to expose their dark underbelly has taken different forms. David Lynch’s dark drama Blue Velvet (1986) and Joe Dante’s suburban comedy The ‘Burbs (1989), are two polarising examples from the ’80s. In director John Mathis’ Where’s Rose (2021), there’s no surreal cabaret act or humorous antics of men playing suburban heroics. Instead, the director’s fantasy horror explores social issues around white privilege and male entitlement.
The story centres on popular high school football team captain Eric (Ty Simpkins), who is leaving his hometown for college on a full academic and athletic scholarship. One evening when his parents are out, his little sister Rose (Skyler Elyse Philpot) disappears while neighbour and family friend Jessica (Anneliese Judge) is babysitting. When she returns the following day, Eric is the only one to suspect that something else has returned in her place.
Unlike other films that see a fevered attempt to prove the case for possession, Mathis instead nestles Eric into the confused mindset of how to respond to the situation. The director effectively builds suspense, teasing the intentions of the mysterious presence, that seems to have no malevolent intent. She, or rather it, seems drawn to home comforts and a curiosity about what this thing called love is, that she says we all live for.
It’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion of Mathis’ film without inferring information. His creative choice to nestle into confusion is borne is out of necessity, because the story needs to employ smoke and mirrors tactics to distract viewers ahead of a revelation that will turn the story on its head. This is the point of the film’s maturation, but it’s also an unsettling moment of violence. The violence is conveyed with a visual subtlety, relying on a few words to express the horror.
In as much as the story is about the pleasure of genre aesthetics, it’s also about the audience’s seduction by the charismatic Eric. Where’s Rose is full of voyeurism and scenes that build suspense to keep viewers on edge. Mathis plays on our susceptibility to being manipulated by the way we identify with a character’s point of view. We often see what we want to see, or the director might be playing on the way we habitually look the other way, either not wanting to get involved in a situation, or wishing to avoid the fear of guilt and shame for jumping to the wrong conclusion.
Eric’s deferential nature, addressing his elders as “sir” comes across as politeness’ however, it also positions men as the dominant gender. When his father’s friend and Jessica’s dad jokes in a diner about Eric enjoying himself with women while away at college, it reeks of masculine bravado. Worse, it’s objectification in the presence of his daughter, whom it is suggested the young man next to her as feelings for. Eric is polite to women, but in the shadow of the aforementioned, it positions women as either wives, mothers and daughters, or conquests.
Indeed, beneath the façade of the charismatic and popular high school student lurks white privilege and a sense of entitlement. The revelatory flashback, heavy on exposition, is susceptible to accusations of formulaic storytelling. In the buildup, Mathis is never disrespectful towards his audience. He offers viewers reasons to excuse awkward interactions, suggesting there’s something underlying the narrative we’re being fed.
Where’s Rose is a story about deception and how abusers who are aware of the optics create false narratives, thereby silencing the voice of their victims. Mathis could still be accused of manipulating his audience, but what he reminds us is that people are rarely open books, and we should always be wary of how well we think we know someone.
Eric might transform from charismatic protagonist to the story’s antagonist, but if he’s in part a victim of his shadow complex, it complicates the moral implications of how we read the film. This is not trying to excuse his choices. Instead, it’s an attempt to open a dialogue about how misogynistic attitudes no man is born with, take root. Are we as a society doing enough to counter misogynistic attitudes? It’s an insidious force that thwarts efforts to create equality between the genders.
Where’s Rose reminds us that patriarchy and misogyny can conceal themselves from our view, and more broadly agents of inequality, lack of fairness, and indifference can too. We spend much of the film afraid of the monster conjured up to torment Eric and his family, but the truth is that darkness lies not in the dark recesses of our imaginations that give birth to the monstrous but lie behind the charismatic personality and smile. Mathis’ film suggests that patriarchy and misogyny are too vicious to remain hidden; they will always expose themselves. The challenge to society remains: we must end nurturing misogyny in our young men.