Nicholas McCarthy, the director of the new bad-seed movie, The Prodigy, works in a low key that still somehow scrapes your nerves, so when the nasty stuff arrives, you realize (too late!) that you’ve been softened up for the kill. The film is cruelly well-made.
Not that there’s much heft to Jeff Buhler’s script, which is equal parts cunning and hackishness. The Prodigy is a New Age variation on The Exorcist and The Omen: Out go the Antichrist, demons, and martyred priests, in come metempsychosis experts complaining that Western minds are closed to the irrefutable evidence of reincarnation. The scenario is refutable in any form — it’s bunk — but at least this makes a change from all those fake-pious Conjuring films.
The title character is born at the same instant that a SWAT team guns down a serial killer of women (he has a fetish for severed hands), after which splotches of blood appear on the baby’s chest in the same pattern as the bullet holes. The boy, Miles, shows an intelligence that’s “off the charts,” but by the time he’s 8 (and played by Jackson Robert Scott), he has mangled a babysitter and a student who crossed him and turned the family dog into a nervous wreck, among other things. Also, he douses his food with paprika: What’s that about? His mother, Sarah (Taylor Schilling), consults with all the right people and makes all the right loving-mother noises, but the kid is incorrigible. He even freaks out himself. In some shots his face is bisected — light and dark, life and death. Scary.
In fact, it is scary, even when you know what’s coming, because McCarthy’s beats are always in unexpected places. You wait for a face to appear in a pool of darkness behind Sarah’s head — and it doesn’t, but the space remains charged with menace. A scene in which the whimpering Miles settles into bed beside his mom and his hand inches up along her bare shoulder is eerie beyond reason — and eerier still because Sarah lies paralyzed, eyes open, her face conveying an irreducible mixture of terror, disgust, and despair. Grisly revelations are mercilessly drawn out but then come swiftly, so swiftly that even if you’re prepared, you’re not. (Tom Elkins and Brian Ufberg are the crack editors.) The composer, Joseph Bishara, scores all the Conjuring and Insidious movies, and his work in The Prodigy consists of low growls and thunks that only rarely coalesce into a melody. It’s not especially imaginative, but the minimalism works.
Horror movies can’t get by on style alone, though — they need an overarching metaphor. For The Prodigy, you have to look past the New Age Van Helsing (Colm Feore) and the pop-up grinning psychopath (Paul Fauteux) to the film’s heart: a mother who can’t give up on the idea that her child can be reached, even amid the mayhem. Her husband (Peter Mooney), who grew up with an abusive father, shuts down almost completely in the face of his son’s wayward spirit — he’s useless. So, it falls to mom to reconcile things that can’t be reconciled, even if it means becoming a monster herself. The climax, in which Sarah engages the one woman (Brittany Allen) who managed to escaped the killer is so exquisitely staged and acted that for a few minutes you forget the whole wannabe-horror-franchise context.
Taylor Schilling joins Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Essie Davis (The Babadook) in the pantheon of disintegrating-horror-movie moms. She’s a fiercely credible mother — her Sarah is bound to Miles, whatever he is. She listens to her son — listens hard — and the effort of trying to separate his truths from his lies wears her down before our eyes. Her last moments onscreen are so agonizing that I resented the dumb, formulaic denouement that followed. She deserved better. We deserved better. But studios are like vampires these days, always on the prowl for full-blooded premises that they turn into franchises and suck dry.