WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
As Miles, a gifted child, grows from being a developmentally advanced baby into an exceptionally intelligent eight-year old, his parents start to notice that his brilliance is matched by increasingly worrisome behaviour. Are Miles’ increasingly anti-social actions a result of mental illness or something far more sinister? And what does the death of a ruthless serial killer on the day of Miles’ birth have to do with all of it? As mother, Sarah, and father, John, find their loving relationship taking strain, Sarah finds herself in a battle for the soul of her son, even as he becomes a greater and greater risk to them both.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It’s been weeks since I finished watching it, but I’m still basking in the glow of Netflix’s sublime The Haunting of Hill House and it’s hard for me not to judge any horror film I happen to see against it. This is both massively unfair to the film in question as even the best horror movies would struggle to match The Haunting of Hill House on just about any level and a renewal of my faith in a genre that can be so great but is, more often than not, so, so bad. Horror, at its best, tends to move us on a base, visceral level, in a manner that’s basically the mirror image of truly transcendent comedy, and it often uses its supernatural trappings to comment on some aspect or another of the human condition. As recently as last year, we had a Quiet Place, which was both terrifying and a smart exploration of the lengths that parents would go for their children.
The Prodigy certainly comes nowhere close to being the instant-classic that a Quiet Place or the Haunting of Hill House are but it says something that it doesn’t entirely fade into irrelevance when held up against obviously superior horror films. The Prodigy is very much not a classic as – ironically considering its title character – it never really makes the leap from being rock-solid to something truly special. It’s just not scary, inventive or substantial enough to make too much of a lasting impression. And yet, director Nicholas McCarthy and writer Jeff Buhler clearly understand the genre and they have put together something that is both adequately creepy and smartly allegorical; something that can easily be, at the very least, mildly recommended to even the most critical of horror fans.
Comparisons to a Quiet Place are not just a matter of quality, indeed, because while the horror of John Krasinski’s nail-biter was all about the love of a parent for their child, Prodigy is mostly about the fear of a parent for – and of – their child. Tapping into a paedophobic (fear of children) horror tradition that stretches back to stuff like Village of the Damned, one of the more impressive things about the film is how it balances that with the more personal fear of what may become of the person you made and raised. It’s let down somewhat by far too many cheap jump-scares (and one very effective jump-scare, to be fair) but as a metaphor and as a source of at least some creepiness, the Prodigy acquits itself well.
Much has been made of this being the horror debut for Taylor Schilling, the awards-winning lead actress of Orange is the New Black – and she is good here – but its in the casting of Jackson Robert Scott as Miles that the film really struck it lucky. Another in an impressive recent line-up of excellent kid-actors, Scott is key to the film working at all as a scary movie as he switches with impressive ease between being a cute, likeable eight-year-old kid and something a whole lot more unsettling. McCarthy may well be a director to watch but he doesn’t have quite the knack with atmosphere-creation of someone like Mike Flanagan so it was essential that he got the right child-actor for the part and that he could get the right kind of performance out of him – and he very clearly did in both cases.
Like so many twisty horror films, one can’t really talk too much about the film for fear of giving too much away. What can be said, though, is that for all that there’s nothing extraordinary about the Prodigy, it does successfully counter some of its lack of ingenuity and its over-reliance of horror tropes with a willingness to be, by turns, nasty, smart and humane, depending on what the narrative calls for at any particular moment. Greatness may elude it but there’s definitely something to be said for a genre picture that is this (mostly) smartly and efficiently put together.