Friday, February 8, 2019

In Theaters: THE PRODIGY (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Nicholas McCarthy. Written by Jeff Buhler. Cast: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau, Olunike Adeyili, Elisa Moolecherry, Michael Dyson. (R, 92 mins)

From 1956's THE BAD SEED and 1960's VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED to 1976's THE OMEN, 1984's CHILDREN OF THE CORN and 1993's THE GOOD SON to the modern era with 2009's ORPHAN to name just a select few, the "creepy kid" has been one of horror's more durable subgenres throughout the decades. Mario Bava's final film, 1977's SHOCK, released in the US in 1979 as BEYOND THE DOOR II, also had a memorable creepy kid in Marco (David Colin, Jr.), who's become possessed by the spirit of his dead father. SHOCK had an unforgettably effective jump scare in a hallway involving a practical effect pulled off simply by smart camera placement, and that moment is replicated by director Nicholas McCarthy in his latest film THE PRODIGY, the newest addition to the creepy kid pantheon. It's clearly meant as an affectionate homage, as McCarthy knows his horror history and has obviously seen SHOCK. He's also seen THE EXORCIST and THE EXORCIST III, both of which are invoked to various degrees in THE PRODIGY, but McCarthy knows better than to take the film down those familiar and over-traveled roads. Jeff Buhler (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) is the credited screenwriter (he also wrote the upcoming remakes of PET SEMATARY, JACOB'S LADDER and THE GRUDGE), but I'm curious how much of this was rewritten by McCarthy. Discounting his hired gun gig helming the 2017 Investigation Discovery docu-drama FINAL VISION, McCarthy's films thus far--2012's THE PACT, 2014's AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR, and "Easter," his segment of the 2016 horror anthology HOLIDAYS--all share common themes of strong women, usually mothers or someone (an aunt, an older sister) put in the position of being responsible for children, perhaps going to great lengths to protect them, and some level of dysfunction or trauma that haunts a family over generations, a curse often passed down like a genetic flaw. These recurring themes turn up throughout THE PRODIGY, which takes the "creepy kid" trope and incorporates it into what must be considered McCarthy's obsession. THE PACT is one of the best horror films of the last ten years, and while AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR and "Easter" weren't bad, they didn't live up to the potential McCarthy showed with his debut. The uncompromising and unpredictable THE PRODIGY feels, seven years later, like the logical follow-up to THE PACT.

It's easy to fall into a trap of thinking THE PRODIGY is showing its cards too early, but it's obviously misdirection by design on the part of the filmmakers. A cross-cutting prologue depicts a young woman (Brittany Allen) escaping from the farmhouse of a rural Ohio serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who amputates the right hands of his female victims. At the same time she leads authorities to his middle-of-nowhere home and he's killed in a blast of gunfire by the cops, a baby boy named Miles is born in Pennsylvania to Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John Blume (Peter Mooney). Even before he's a year old, Miles is saying "Da-Da," and his cognitive abilities are accelerated well beyond his age as he enters his toddler and pre-school years. By the age of eight, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, best known as the doomed Georgie in 2017's IT) is a genius requiring a special school, though Sarah is concerned that his development is behind in other areas, such as his inability to adapt in social situations with other children. Miles has moments where he isn't himself, and when a babysitter (Elisa Moolecherry) is seriously injured in a basement trap clearly set by Miles, he says he has no recollection of anything. He starts having bad dreams and Sarah records him talking in his sleep in what she initially assumes is gibberish but what's later revealed to be a form of Hungarian but in a rarely-used and archaic dialect. As his actions grow more sinister, he tries to explain to his parents that he sometimes doesn't feel like he's in his own body, to the point where Sarah and John can no longer ignore that something is very wrong with Miles.

Based on that synopsis, you're probably assuming this is another rote possession film but that's just the set-up. It's not a spoiler to say that Miles' body is inhabited by the spirit of the serial killer, as it's plainly spelled out in the opening sequence. But McCarthy's interests lie elsewhere, whether it's the escalating tension of the situation and the various stylistic ways that it's conveyed (great use of mirrors, windows, and shadows),or how Sarah's distrust of her own son grows stronger and more panicked with each passing scene (John, still silently haunted by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his own father, is largely ineffectual when it comes to handling Miles; it's also John who serves as the requisite idiot, picking the worst possible time to tell Miles that they're taking him to a mental institution). As THE PRODIGY goes on, it ventures into some places that are pretty dark and disturbing for a commercial horror outing, particularly in one sequence--a one-on-one "regression" therapy session with Miles and a psychiatrist (Colm Feore)--that provoked audible gasps from the audience (trust me, you'll never be able to predict where their conversation ends up going, and both Scott and Feore play it perfectly), and in a shocking final act where Sarah resorts to extreme methods to help her son.

If you've seen McCarthy's past films, all of those concerns reappear here--dark family secrets, abuse and trauma, the notion of a spirit overtaking a body and "wearing it like a costume," as memorably stated in AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR, and a strong, determined mother who will stop at nothing to save her child--with the "creepy kid" tropes coming into play in unexpectedly subversive ways. THE PRODIGY also benefits from a strong and believable performance by Schilling and a remarkable one from young Scott, who fearlessly dives into this, getting to say and do things that earn the R rating, and he has a penetrating glare that isn't easily shaken, more than earning his rightful place among the horror genre's great creepy kids. McCarthy is one of horror's most promising filmmakers, and while THE PRODIGY is his first effort to get a nationwide rollout, he remains a figure that serious students of horror have largely kept to themselves, And to that end, I'm glad he hasn't quite broken out into the mainstream, opting (thus far) to create a body of work that chances playing the long game instead of directing something that will be forgotten two weeks after it's released. Like, say, the upcoming remakes of PET SEMATARY and CHILD'S PLAY, two trailers that preceded THE PRODIGY.

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