Film Review: The Prodigy
The Prodigy Tips Its Hand Early, But That’s Ok
The Prodigy, director Nicholas McCarthy’s new bad-seed horror film, is a fairly predictable tale that telegraphs its plot, but not necessarily its scares. A no-frills exercise in creepy-kid frights, the movie isn’t particularly worth writing home about, but through able direction and a nasty little performance by Jackson Robert Scott, it’s able to rise above your typical horror fare for a good amount of fun. Spoilers ahead...
Creepy child horror always revolves around the same basic mystery: “How did my precious angel become such an asshole?” Whether he or she is possessed, the spawn of satan, or actually a homicidal dwarf, the film typically takes its time to unspool the enigma of the demon child. Not so with Nicholas McCarthy’s new film, The Prodigy. In fact, the cat’s out of the bag within the first five minutes of the film. Opening with the harrowing escape of a serial killer’s would-be victim intercut with the birth of our titular prodigy, the movie wastes no time telling us precisely what’s happening: at the exact same time little Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, It) enters the world, murderer Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux) is ventilated with extreme prejudice by a heavily-armed SWAT team. It doesn’t take a reincarnation specialist to decipher the direction the film is going. The Prodigy’s premature reveal undoubtedly has more pros than cons; while it certainly deflates the air of mystery surrounding Miles’ condition, it also dispenses with the silly guessing game that usually accompanies these stories and goes straight for the jugular with some fun scares.
Director Nicholas McCarthy, who cut his teeth on horror films such as At the Devil’s Door and his cult favorite debut The Pact, proves to be a fine choice for The Prodigy. With a relatively pedestrian script by Jeff Buhler, the film is elevated by the team of McCarthy and cinematographer Bridger Nielson, who have worked together on multiple occasions. The Prodigy mixes generically effective jump scares with some more inventive ones, including one that’s ingeniously inspired by a certain Mario Bava film. McCarthy, like in his low-key but arresting debut The Pact, knows how to toy with the audience - dark shadows and closed doors are especially effective tools in his utility belt, and his jump scares almost always have an interesting twist to them. But the most inspired chills and frights come from McCarthy’s use of audience anticipation, as several of the moments that played best in the theater were ones that were blatantly obvious and telegraphed, but almost comedically built up, proving that knowing something’s coming isn’t always enough to temper a good scare. The Prodigy has some nifty tricks up its sleeve, but those expecting something new story-wise will be sorely disappointed. At 92 minutes, the film ends up flying through familiar beats and predictable twists, landing exactly in the same place where plenty of bad-seed films have before it.
“…through able direction and a nasty little performance by Jackson Robert Scott, [The Prodigy] is able to rise above your typical horror fare for a good amount of fun.
The cast of The Prodigy services the film in exactly the way you would expect it to, with Sarah (Taylor Schilling, Orange is the New Black) following the bad-kid mom protocol to a T. While Schilling is perfectly serviceable as the concerned mother, apt at conveying the emotions attached with raising a child from hell, the part doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to allow her to do anything new. The dad, played by Peter Mooney, fares even worse as a complete cipher that gets written out of the film not once, but twice. If anything, however, the film belongs to Jackson Robert Scott as Miles, perfectly balancing his cuteness and nasty serial killer alter-ego with panache. Some of the best moments of the film come from the absolutely ridiculous things he says as he’s possessed by a murderer, most of which left a lot of the audience in my particular theater mouths agape and chuckling nervously. There are also some savagely unnverving moments of violence, made even more disturbing at the hands of a child. It’s a fun role that showcases the child actor’s precocious talents, making Jackson Robert Scott a name to look out for.
In the end, The Prodigy is a pretty standard evil-child horror film that manages to rise above the confines of its genre’s trappings with some clever scares and deft camerawork. You won’t marvel at its storytelling or acting, and if you’re looking for a transcendent horror experience, you’ll be disappointed, but it’s certainly entertaining enough to separate itself from the crowd. The Prodigy is a perfectly palatable if somewhat forgettable experience, most suited for a gloomy February matinee.