Horror creators have a challenge balancing realism and respecting their audience. A vampire could come out of the closet behind me and sink its fangs into my neck now. As a skeptic, I would be hard-pressed to believe that I was actually being bitten by a vampire, because vampires aren’t real even as one sucked my blood. So to write a character like me, assuming that my skepticism is close to that of the average American, writer of The Prodigy Jeff Buhler needs to capture that skepticism.
The other side of the coin, where Buhler and The Prodigy slip, is that watching a skeptic come to the realization that they’re truly dealing with the paranormal gets boring after the first fifteen minutes or so, because the audience knows what’s happening in the film. Adrean Messmer lays out why nicely in Beyond the Cabin in the Woods episode on Ginger Snaps.
The Prodigy opens with Margaret St. James (Brittany Allen, star of the excellent What Keeps You Alive) punching through a wooden door to freedom. Her scenes are contrasted with Sarah Blume (Taylor Schilling) going into labor with her first child. St. James finds her way to the highway, where she flags down a passing motorist. Blume arrives in the hospital. St. James leads the police to where she was being held. Blume is given a bed. The man who was torturing St. James comes out naked to confront the police. He pulls St. James’s dismembered hand from behind his back. The police open fire. He fills the frame, riddled with bullets, naked and director Nicholas McCarthy graphic matches it with an infant Miles, screaming.
The film takes place ten years later, with Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, Georgie from the new IT) struggling with violent impulses he can’t remember. This is where it gets frustrating: the movie gives the viewer no reason to doubt what’s happening, the killer (Paul Fauteux) is taking over Miles’s body. But Sarah, a rational agent, can’t bring herself to believe what’s happening in front of her. The film spends what feels like an hour with Sarah figuring out and coming to terms with what’s happening.
Miles speaks “a rare dialect of Hungarian only spoken near the Romanian border,” the killer’s family’s language. His psychiatrist brings in an expert who tells Sarah what’s happening. Miles Home Alones the babysitter. He hits a classmate with a monkey wrench. He does something truly awful to Tallulah, the family dog. Sarah sees the evidence, which the film makes abundantly clear, but refusing to believe what’s happening in front of her. It’s realistic, but boring.
Dramatic irony, letting the audience know things the characters don’t, can be effective. The Prodigy does it very well with the babysitter walking barefoot down a staircase with glass on the lower steps. But it fails with the bigger story arc, because Miles isn’t a threat to his parents until the third act. Because he’s not a threat to them, them not realizing he’s being possessed by the ghost of a serial killer is the only conflict punctuated by Miles’ violent outbursts.
Sarah and her husband John (Peter Mooney) refuse to see what’s in front of them. An expert friend of the psychiatrist tells them “Two entities can’t exist in the same body forever. One will become dominant and the other will be absorbed,” but they’re incapable of doing anything to solve the problem, which takes all the momentum out of the film. They can’t attempt to solve a problem they won’t admit. So instead of them struggling to save their son on screen, they take him to a therapist and talk about how there’s nothing else they can do. Therapy is great, and every adult I know could use some more of it, but watching a child go to appointments doesn’t make for a compelling horror film.
There are competent moments in The Prodigy. In addition to the foot-glass scare, there’s an excellent moment where Sarah is trying to pry a piece of wood off the bottom of a workbench. The camera is following Miles behind her, stalking her, with a hammer. McCarthy draws the moment out. When viewers think Miles is going to swing the hammer, he hands it to her instead. It’s a terrifying moment, one that shows great promise. The premise, a new take on possession (another human invading instead of a demon), is great as well. Jackson Robert Scott acts well, playing two characters in one body.
All of it goes to make The Prodigy more disappointing. It’s almost there, and those are the most frustrating movies to watch. Four or five changes, and this could be a classic.
The Prodigy Blu-Ray includes Commentary by Director Nicholas McCarthy; promotional featurettes on “Story,” “Genre,” and “Miles”; an image gallery; Theatrical Trailer; and A Sneak Peek of Child’s Play (2019), The Belko Experiment, and Death Wish (2018).
Wicked Rating: 5/10
Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Writer: Jeff Buhler
Stars: Jackson Robert Scott, Taylor Schilling, Peter Mooney, Paul Fateux, Brittany Allen
Release: May 7, 2019
Studio/Production Company: Orion Pictures, Vinson Films, XYZ Films, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Language: English, Hungarian
Length: 92 minutes