The modern horror genre continues its ongoing shape-shifting with the slower than molasses “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (Utopia).
Written, edited, and directed by non-binary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, the hyper-indie movie tells the semi-creepy story of high-schooler Casey (Anna Cobb “in her feature film debut,” as it says in the opening credits) who participates in the “World’s Fair” challenge so she can play the Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or MMORPG).
In the interminable first eight minutes of the movie, Casey, in her attic bedroom, welcomes viewers to her online channel. She introduces them to her favorite stuffed animal, Poe, and admits that she doesn’t “know what to expect.” She says “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times and then proceeds to gouge her index finger with a pin that has a changing image on the front. There are flashing lights from the computer screen as well as a rumbling sound. With the challenge complete, Casey vows to update viewers if she notices any changes.
One can certainly understand the attraction of an MMORPG for a high school loner, living with her single father amidst suburban depressed sprawl, an abandoned Toys R Us, and the snow and cold of winter. As she waits for signs of changes in herself, she watches videos of others, including one where a man who says he can’t feel his body repeatedly slaps himself in the face while running on a treadmill. When she dances around her room, talk-singing at 3 AM, she considers this a sign. Also, in a video made in the snowy woods, she says her body is numb and she can’t feel the cold (perhaps she has frostbite?).
Unable to sleep one night she unlocks the barn door and pulls out the gun her father has hidden in his workshop. Shortly thereafter, she’s contacted by JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an older World’s Fair player who has watched some of her videos and is concerned about her well-being. He shares his stories, drawings, and theories about the supernatural events connected to the game with Casey.
Is the creepiness of this much older man video chatting and direct messaging a high school student far younger than he is one of the elements of horror? If so, it’s definitely frightening. Forty minutes in, when we finally do get other examples
of terrifying content, they’re over too soon. For example, the kid with the crumbling skin who pulls out a strip of tickets from an opening in his arm is definitely a gross touch. This is soon followed by a scene in which another guy is on the World’s Fair site on his laptop when a pair of hands reaches out and yanks him through the screen. Also, Casey’s freakout, when she shreds her beloved Poe is more than a little unsettling.
Described by Schoenbrun as a “meme horror story,” there are times when “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” feels like an indictment of role-playing games, as well as serious commentary on the excessive reliance on screens by people of a certain generation. Ultimately, it’s a horror movie without much to show for itself.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.