Friday 22 February 2019

The Prodigy (USA/Canada/Hong Kong 2019: Dir Nicholas McCarthy)

Nicholas McCarthy's previous horror features, The Pact (2011) and At the Devil's Door (2014) were well received but rather abstract and at times obscure movies. McCarthy seems to have gone back to the drawing board for his third genre outing and made a film that pretty much signposts its influences, designed with a Saturday night crowd in mind, but which still has sufficient directorial tics to make it interesting beyond its surface appeal.

Taylor (Orange is the New Black) Schilling plays Sarah Blume, who has just had a baby, at exactly the same time that hand severing serial killer Edward Scarka - dubbed 'The Thrush Creek Killer' - has been shot dead by police. Sarah's new son Miles (an astonishing performance from Jackson Robert Scott) develops very quickly, being put into a special pre school at the age of two. Everyone notices that Miles' eyes are a different colour to each other - "he's like David Bowie" comments mum - which seems unusual.

But things are not right - as a five year old Miles callously kills a spider; he may also have been complicit when a babysitter cuts her foot badly on some strategically placed glass while playing a game of hide and seek with him, and he was definitely responsible for wielding a wrench on a classmate in school when he didn't get his way. Added to this Sarah notices Miles talking in a different language while he is asleep, which she finds odd enough to want to record. School psychologists try to explain it away with terms like Oppositional Defiance Disorder, but when Miles implies that he may be subject to abuse (a story clearly created by the boy), things begin to get out of hand. Psychologist Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) identifies the recorded language spoken by Miles as a specific form of Hungarian dialect only spoken by a small number of people, and also introduces Sarah to the very real concept of reincarnation. Could Miles have been invaded by a reincarnated soul?

McCarthy's film is, let's face it, bat shit crazy. But for a movie which seems concocted from bits of a dozen other movies, it's amazing that's it's watchable at all, let alone good. Which it is. The most obvious source is The Exorcist (1973) which McCarthy has admitted was a major influence, but it also reminded me of Jonathan Glazer's 2004 weirdfest Birth (in which a mother is convinced that her young son is the reincarnation of her dead husband) and of course the serial killer reincarnated in a children's doll movie Child's Play (remade this year, the first trailer for which was unveiled, tellingly, on the day of The Prodigy's release Stateside). There are numerous other cinematic references floating round the film too, ranging from Joseph Ruben's psycho child feature, The Good Son (1993), to John Carpenter's adaptation of The Thing (1982) and 1976's The Omen (the end credit font is also remarkably similar to the one used in that film). Oh and for those who know Maria Bava's Shock (1977), he's gone and nicked the standout effect in that movie.

So what makes The Prodigy worth seeing? Mainly, it's the performances. Taylor Schilling and Jackson Robert Scott are electrifying respectively as the mother who grows to fundamentally mistrust her offspring, and the child who transforms from loving toddler to evil infant. Brittany Allen also turns in a solid performance as Scarka's last victim; like all of McCarthy's films, it foregrounds a strong woman (Blume is married but her husband John (Peter Mooney) is little more than a bit part).

This is a film that isn't afraid to mount some jump scares, but does them in a way which restores their power in such a movie ie they are genuinely surprising. And there are also some creepy touches which almost go unnoticed, particularly a view of Miles, half in shadow, whose face briefly takes on the guise of someone much older. The film uses the same muted colour palette as his previous movies, which is unsurprising as the cinematographer is Bridger Nielson, who worked on all three of McCarthy's fright films, providing an increasingly claustrophobic feel. Jeff Buhler's script may be silly but in the mouths of its cast it's convincingly rendered (Buhler is currently working on reboots of Grudge, Jacob's Ladder and Pet Semetary over the next couple of years). As an all round package The Prodigy delivers. Highly recommended.

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