“We All Went to the World’s Fair” is a self-consciously moody horror film that’s more interesting as an essay on loneliness than as a source of frights. And even the “interesting” label has its limits.
Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun created a quasi-found footage story that breaks “found footage” rules, a “Candyman/Bloody Mary/Slender Man” riff about an online game where you say the magic phrase three times and your life goes to pieces. Only there’s no manifestation of a demonic Candyman or anybody else, really.
But she’s written and cast a fascinating heroine, a solitary suburban teen named Casey and convincgly-played by screen newcomer Anna Cobb as a mopey, downbeat Juno-next-door pixie who loses herself in horror movies and plays this “game” because “I thought it’d be cool to live in one.”
She keeps a vlog to document her solitary and exceptionally dull life — no suggestion of school (looks like this takes place over winter break), no job, no shots of “Dad,” who is raising her by himself, apparently. She just takes walks in the melting snow and interacts with her screen in her attic dormer bedroom, which she decorated with glow-in-the-dark stickers — probably when she was ten.
“I don’t know what to expect” she tells her possibly-imaginary audience as she downloads a video, says “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times and pricks her finger to smear the screen with blood.
Don’t expect much.
The changes are subtle at first, so subtle she turns on a sleep cam to see if weird things are happening in her sleep. Just a little, and nothing remotely like the “Paranormal Activity” her creepy biggest online fan describes it as.
The threat — glimpsed in her peek at online videos of others taking the “World’s Fair Challenge,” is that something or someone takes over and weird stuff happens to a player’s psyche and even body. One guy documents the string of fair-ride admission tickets that peel out from under scabs that covered his arms after entering the game. Another is seen via his webcam jogging on his treadmill, repeatedly slapping himself as he does.
That “biggest fan” is a helper/”expert” on the game (Michael J Rogers) who gets her attention, gets her on the phone and gives her both encouragement for her videos and concern for her mental and physical health. We don’t have to see “JLB” to think “Internet stalker/Incel.”
I got the feeling that I was watching a not-wholly-digested parable on a connected but isolated population, here the online horror community, and what they’re looking for in such Internet connections, tests and frights.
Schoenbrun opens the film with a long sequence of Anna’s preps to take the “challenge” and her rehearsals for doing that, all seen from the POV of her staring at her screen. We see the challenge’s introductory video as just flashes on her face, and hear its pitch. There’s an attempt to maintain that webcam/cell-phone eye-view, but Schoenbrun loses track of it here and there, and eventually abandons it.
In the montages of “I Want to Go to the World’s Fair” players we see both single-shot webcam clips, and what could pass for a C-movie of somebody’s horrific experiences playing it. We also glimpse the alleged video game (Hangman-ish) that unleashed it on the world. It’s dated 1994, while that is perhaps when it was uploaded to the net, the graphics are “Pong” era 1976 or so.
The lack of frights and jolts and general mesmerizing tone of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” make it “horror” only in terms of the mood. It feels more like a stab at social commentary and satire. Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil” becomes “The Banality of Online Lives,” teen and otherwise.
Casey’s changes are a slow spiral, but more of a “parental alarm bells” variety than “something evil has taken over” the kid. The movie’s highlight is an impressive dance/rhyme “performance” for her online audience that goes into “possessed” meltdown.
As for Schoenbrun, I think I get what she was going for, but I don’t think she got there. She was concerned enough to release a “director’s statement” on her film — always a bit late and a tad pretentious — and some lightweights are endorsing it based on that. But the evidence on the screen –which is all that matters — is the very picture of inconsistency, clumsily using a drifting POV strategy for telling a fairly dull tale of “possession” by online game.
Cast: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jane Schoenbrun. A Utopia release.
Running time: 1:26