IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On August 22, 2010 in Ohio, serial killer Edward Scarka is shot to death during a police raid of his farmhouse after his latest victim escapes with only her hand cut off. At the same time, married couple Sarah and John have a son, Miles, in Pennsylvania. Miles shows extreme wisdom and intelligence from quite a young age, and begins speaking fluently before he’s even a toddler. However, when Miles turns eight, he begins to exhibit violent behaviour – though he appears to have no memory of the things he does. Maybe a spirit is inhabiting his body?….
It seems like only last year when I interviewed filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy on the eve of the release of his 2012 horror film The Pact which, while I had issues with a few things such as its final act, was a pretty impressive directorial debut, with McCarthy showing quite an elegant directing style and a real skill at creating an unsettling atmosphere. Since then he’s turned out To The Devil’s Door which again proved his helming skills though suffered a bit more from some weaknesses as a screenwriter, almost remade the French horror Livid with the full blessing of its filmmakers, and contributed a short film about the Easter Bunny to the horror anthology Holidays. What I wanted to see was McCarthy directing a feature again, but maybe working with another screenwriter on the script or even leaving the job of all the writing to someone else, freeing him up to concentrate even more on his direction and the job of making the very most of what he’s been given to film.
Well, I can’t not say that I wasn’t disappointed when The Prodigy turned out to be another evil child movie. Yes, I do usually enjoy evil child movies, but pretty much everything that can be done with the idea has been done and one had the right to expect little more than a tired rehash. Well, that isn’t entirely what we get. Yes, the overall themes and many of the situations are very familiar and the script by Jeff Buhler [also writer of the upcoming Pet Semetary and Jacob’s Ladder remakes] doesn’t go out of its way to surprise us in terms of its story. It’s very predictable even when it probably thinks that it isn’t. You’ll be reminded of Child’s Play, Orphan and others. However, it’s surprisingly dark and even nasty in places, with a few very uncomfortable situations which are quite surprising to find in a mainstream horror movie these days and which may leave you wondering how far the film is going to go. In the end it stops short of crossing the line, but one thing that it does keep up is its very powerful feeling of dread which McCarthy expertly maintains all the way through, even when the script falls rather short of making sense towards the end. In fact said script has quite a few problems throughout, such as when it doesn’t bother to explain how reincarnation happens in the film. It’s just simply stated that we have reincarnation without further explanation, and the swiftness with which it’s decided that it’s reincarnation is daft, with no medical tests or what not before. Lazy. But by contrast Buhler and McCarthy are rather good at manipulating the viewer so he or she feels genuinely uncomfortable, and there are times when the film really is frightening, while the jump scares, of which there are some but not too many as in so many modern horrors that end up becoming little more than a series of Boo moments, are very well timed. And this kid easily belongs in the top twenty of Scary Movie Children.
A slow pan into the door of a shack is suddenly interrupted by a woman bursting it open [five seconds in and we get our first jump!] and fleeing before startling a surprised motorist. She’s Margaret, who’s narrowly escaped from a serial killer but not before he chopped off her hand. Police soon arrive at the house and gun down Edward – while at the same time Miles is born with two differently coloured eyes, the bullet wounds on Edward briefly materialising on Miles. No secret or surprise, we know the link between serial killer and child immediately. After years of trying, Sarah and John are finally happy to have a child, though John is a bit perturbed at Miles’s extraordinary intelligence. Personally I could have done with this section of the film being a bit longer and slower so that we properly get to know this family and more gradually build up to Miles turning nasty, but then the obvious intention here was to make a really tight picture that has no fat on it without going as far as the likes of Happy Death Day 2U which felt more like a collection of parts of scenes rather than actual scenes. Things go wrong beginning with a game of hide and seek where Miles loosens a light bulb in the basement before hiding. Zoe the babysitter walks down the stairs to find him while barefoot and steps on some broken glass, getting a large shard stuck in her foot. I don’t know about you but I find moments like this especially queasy because I can relate to them and have even done similar things. I still even flinch when John McClane walks on all that glass in Die Hard and god knows how many times I’ve seen that movie. When Sarah talks to Miles about the incident, he claims to not remember even playing the game, let alone how Zoe ended up at the bottom of the stairs with a bloody foot. Days later at school, he attacks a classmate with a wrench he obtains from the janitor’s closet. Then, while asleep, he talks some gibberish that turns out to be “I’ll cut your eyes out and watch you die, whore.” in Hungarian. And then the family dog goes missing.
As our poor couple try to find out why this is going on – and I will say that there’s one point where Sarah makes a “realisation” and I felt like saying out loud “you just NOW figured that out?”, one is allowed to be both frightened of this poor boy and to sympathise with and even feel sorry for him, bearing in mind that it’s not his fault that he periodically becomes evil. One of the best moments in the entire film is when Miles pleads with his mother while they are both in bed: “you’ll still love me, no matter what I do?”. It’s touching, but given a really sinister edge by Miles’s hand creeping over his mum’s shoulder. Jackson Robert Scott, who you may remember as the adorable Georgie from IT, is really impressive in the role, but also very strong are Taylor Schilling and Peter Mooney as the parents who find their relationship deterioting as a result of their son’s actions. They get a lovely scene together in which Sarah and John head out for a date night, which culminates in them drinking beers inside their car as they wistfully reminisce about their days together before they became parents. Unfortunately John just can’t deal with what’s going on, partly because he was beaten by his father as a child and doesn’t want to go down the same route himself. Mooney suggests this really well without the script laying it on. However, it’s Sarah who really goes down some dark paths. You don’t get many films which end up hinging on whether the heroine will murder an innocent person in cold blood or not – while kind of understanding why she’s attempting to do this. In probably the best performance I’ve seen in a new horror for several months, Schilling is truly excellent throughout in quite a tricky role to successfully pull off.
Sadly any supposed twists are nothing but and the final act seems to jump forward a bit and also be a bit confused, though there’s some cruel irony at play and I guess that, all in all, things finish at their logical conclusion – though a sequel set-up is totally unnecessary. There are a few kills, one of which is quite disturbing the way Miles seems to thoroughly enjoy slowly slicing the stomach of his victim, but probably more memorable are some of the bits where Miles taunts and threatens people, most notably a scene that, given how sensitive so many are about certain things these days, I’m surprised remained in the film. Sarah brings Miles to visit Arthur a psychiatrist. He meets with Miles privately to hypnotise him and to bring out the good Miles personality before the other one takes over. Miles appears possessed and starts scratching into the couch before Edward starts to speak for Miles, who responds by threatening Arthur with making it look like he’d been drugged and raped if Arthur tries to fix Miles – and in very graphic terms. Rather than have the young Scott deliver them, McCarthy had a voice-actor imitating Scott’s voice for the crudest lines, which is an understandable choice. I get why this was done, and I respect the decision, but it’s rather obvious and jarring. In any case, while not a full-on gore fest or anything, it’s so nice to have a mainstream horror that doesn’t feel the need to hold back, and this is almost enough to make one forgive the fact that so many plot turns are familiar from other films – I mean you can tick them off while you watch!
McCarthy and cinematographer Bridger Nielson really make the most of the main house setting, showing a knack for putting the camera in the best possible place for maximum effect, while again McCarthy employs the slow zoom in time and time again so it gets a little disorientating. He and the sound mixers also made the decision to emphasise Joseph Bishara’s score so that it almost dominates proceedings at times. There’s a lot of it too, but this must be one of the horror veteran’s best efforts at being musically frightening so it certainly didn’t bother me and it adds to the way that the film really tries to get under your skin. Cliches – well yes, the film’s full of them – but most of what happens is so well done that I’m not sure that it actually matters too much, McCarthy and many of his collaborators managing to rise above the weaknesses of their material and still deliver a pretty strong and at times scary movie – and surely if a horror film is scary then that’s the most important thing?