There are plenty of “bad seed” evil children horror movies (check out Meagan Navarro’s recent well-curated list for some choice recommendations). You’ve got your possession films. You’ve got your antichrist movies. And who can forget the We Need To Talk About Kevin burgeoning psychopath films, where darling children are simply miniature killers in little adult skin suits?
Nicholas McCarthy’s new film The Prodigy is a bit of a mutt in that it’s combining a number of different elements from each of these evil children tropes. The pre-title sequence is classic horror movie nightmare fuel: in Ohio, a terrified young woman (Brittany Allen) battles her way out of a remote house in the woods, flags down a car on a deserted nighttime road and screams at the driver, “He took my hand!”. The resulting police raid is intercut with Sarah (Taylor Schilling) – a pregnant woman in Pennsylvania – going into premature labour; at quarter past four, the baby boy is born at the exact same moment that the killer (Paul Fateaux) is gunned down.
The Prodigy speeds through the next eight years, pausing every once in a while to introduce a new unusual behavioural tic that reflects Miles (Jackson Robert Scott)’s transition from “perfect” baby to “special” toddler to “sick” child. He’s exceptionally bright, but has difficulty connecting with other children; he develops a taste for paprika out of the blue; and, as he gets older, unexplained accidents and attacks begin to accumulate around him. To Jeff Buhler’s credit, the screenplay doesn’t treat Sarah and her husband John (Peter Mooney) like morons, though they’re as apt to apologize and explain away the strange incidents as they are to investigate.
This is, unfortunately, the film’s biggest flaw: not only is every plot point telegraphed in advance, the audience is always five steps ahead of the characters. This has the unfortunate effect of making the first half of the film an exercise in waiting for Sarah and John to catch-up. Even horror novices who are unfamiliar with the tropes of the subgenre will have no difficulty connecting the killer and the boy (a fact already made evident in the very spoiler-heavy trailer). It’s not a surprise when Miles’ body is revealed to be a battleground between the eight-year-old and the killer, though at least McCarthy has the sense to hire character actor Colm Feore to play the doctor who delivers the compulsory exposition with a straight face. If anyone can deliver a spoonful of sugar to make the laughable dialogue go down easier, it’s Feore.
As Sarah becomes increasingly concerned about Miles, John is essentially sidelined, which makes sense considering evil children films tend to force a rift between the parents. Mooney is a touch bland and perfunctory in a role that doesn’t give him a great amount to do, but the reality is that The Prodigy is really all about Sarah and Miles. Sarah isn’t a particularly rich or deep character, but Schilling is good, particularly as Sarah becomes increasingly exhausted, paranoid and fearful of her progeny.
The true MVP of the film, however, is Jackson Robert Scott, who convincingly alternates between child and killer, sometimes even in the same scene. He’s aided by some well-chosen camera angles to reinforce how threatening he is, though a lighter touch with Joseph Bishara’s shrill score would have helped make the scares a little less desperate.
Unfortunately, this is another area that The Prodigy is lacking. The film tends to rely on ominous dread, filling the screen with moonlit hallways and dark rooms with the occasional jump scare (credit where it’s due: the dream sequence jump scare is super effective). Most problematically, anything that is remotely scary (or gory) is so obviously telegraphed that it is effectively defanged, including what could have been a standout sequence uncovering a boarded-up section in the basement and another moment that evokes a (more effective) scene from last year’s A Quiet Place.
The Prodigy is at its best when it leans into its R rating and delivers something unexpected. A tense, well-shot encounter between Miles and Feore’s Dr. Jacobson puts a profane quip in the little boy’s mouth that elicited shocked chuckles from the audience (dirty language in the mouths of babes is always welcome and should be applauded).
And then there’s the final act, which is sure to be the film’s major talking point. Without spoiling any developments, the film’s climax and conclusion is highly contentious and will likely make or break the film financially. While so much of The Prodigy feels safe and expected, the ending is ballsy and brave. It definitely won’t work for everyone, but for audiences who are eager for something unexpected, it’s refreshing (so much so that it prompted both me and my Horror Queers co-host Trace Thurman to bump up the score a half point).
Here’s hoping that Buhler brings more of this gumption to his screenplay for this spring’s Pet Sematary remake. As for The Prodigy, it’s fine. It’s a little too obvious and straightforward, but for fans of the subgenre or rubberneckers intrigued about the ending, it’ll do the trick. If not, there’s always Orphan!