THE PRODIGY (2019) is a horror movie that has its moments, times when it delivers some decent thrills and chills, but sadly for horror fans it’s ultimately done in by a script that suffers from a serious case of the stupids.
THE PRODIGY opens in chilling enough fashion as a young girl escapes from a serial killer named Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux). As the police gun Scarka down, the action switches to proud parents Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) welcoming their new son into the world, born at the exact moment of Scarka’s death.
It doesn’t take long for Sarah and John to realize that their son is special, a genius, a prodigy, and they enroll him into a special school at a young age. Time passes and the story settles on young Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) at the age of eight. It’s at this time that Sarah and John begin to notice troubling changes in Miles. It starts one night when he’s with his babysitter, and in a creepy game of hide and seek, he leads her barefoot down a set of dark basement stairs, and if you’ve seen A QUIET PLACE (2018) you know you shouldn’t walk barefoot down a set of sketchy stairs. Yup, a similar fate awaits the babysitter here, in a scene that is blatantly derivative from A QUIET PLACE. Of course, Miles blacks out and says he remembers none of what happened.
More weird things ensue, including a grisly end to the family dog. Miles’ doctor recommends that Sarah bring him to see a specialist in reincarnation. Jeesh! A guy who specializes in reincarnation? Who knew!
Anyway, this specialist, Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) is convinced that Miles’ body is being invaded by another human soul. He tells Sarah that he intends to hypnotize Miles, speak to this soul, find out what it wants, and then help it, because in past cases, as soon as the human soul got what it came back for, the human host became free. Blah, blah, blah.
Of course, there are some complications here. One, the soul inside Miles belongs to a serial killer. You can bet that whatever it is he wants is not very pleasant. And two, he’s a pretty smart serial killer, and he turns the tables on Mr. Jacobson, making him flee with his tail between his legs, a better fate than he gave the family dog.
Eventually, things get so bad that Sarah and John decide Miles should live in an institution, but John stupidly tells Miles about this decision before they do it, and faster than you can say THE OMEN John is fighting for his life. Finally, Sarah decides to take an extreme measure to help her son, which proves to be the most ridiculous plot point of the entire movie.
In terms of scares, THE PRODIGY isn’t bad. Director Nicholas McCarthy sets up his share of creepy scenes which for the most part work. There were a couple of times where I actually jumped, which doesn’t happen very often, and some scenes score very high on the creep-out meter, like when Miles asks to sleep in the same bed with his mom, and we see his tiny hand clasp her shoulder, and she squirms. You can almost see her skin crawl at his touch. Another plus is we’re not subjected to long drawn out scenes of people walking through dark corridors where nothing happens. The pace is tight throughout.
On the other hand, some of the scenes are derivative of other horror movies, like the aforementioned A QUIET PLACE. The ending also borrows heavily— too heavily— from THE OMEN (1976).
The best thing I can say about the screenplay by Jeff Buhler is that I liked the fact that this wasn’t a demonic possession story but a human possession story, which was a fresh take. It wasn’t any more believable, but it was different. I can’t say I bought into the whole reincarnation angle, though, and the script didn’t really offer any answers other than to say that’s what happened. We never learn how Scarka’s soul enters Miles’ body. It just does.
The worst thing about the screenplay is that sadly for a movie that has some good scares it’s not all that smart. Let’s start with the parents. Now, there’s a scene midway through where John and Sarah are on their date night, drinking beer in their car, which is a stupid thing to do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. In this scene, they reminisce about the days before they were parents when they were young and had fun. They seem like real people here. I can’t say the same holds true later on.
Their reactions to their son Miles seem a bit off throughout. Sarah’s behavior is oftentimes inconsistent. At times, she’s worried about her son, even afraid of him, but at others she’s fiercely protective of him, almost in denial of his issues. You expect her at some point to just up and realize her son is dangerous. It takes her far too long to make this realization.
John could have been a really interesting character. He had an abusive father, and once Miles learns this, he uses the information to get inside John’s head, trying to goad John into hurting him in order to use his actions against him. The few times this issue comes up are very interesting, but the screenplay doesn’t take full advantage.
This story would have been so much better had it worked harder at being realistic. I wanted to see John and Sarah take Miles to see as many experts as possible. I wanted to see the school’s reaction to Miles attacking another student. I wanted somebody to call the police!
The ending also didn’t really work for me. First, Sarah makes an extreme decision to save her son, which just didn’t ring true, and then the film goes right into OMEN territory for its finale, which was far too predictable.
Jeff Buhler also wrote the screenplay to THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008), in which he adapted a Clive Barker short story. That movie, which starred Bradley Cooper, was a much more ambitious one than THE PRODIGY.
Taylor Schilling, from Netflix’ ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013-2019) is decent enough as Sarah, although she’s playing a character who I ultimately didn’t like all that much. Likewise, Peter Mooney is fine as daddy John.
Jackson Robert Scott gives his fellow cast plenty of evil eye stares as the possessed Miles, but compared to other evil children in the movies he’s rather tame. Colm Feore is adequate as the ineffective reincarnation specialist Arthur Jacobson, and while Paul Fauteux looks plenty scary as serial killer Edward Scarka, he doesn’t really do much of anything.
THE PRODIGY is a passable horror movie. It provides a few scares here and there, tells a somewhat interesting story, but presents characters who don’t always seem that real and who make decisions that really can’t be described as anything other than stupid.
Not exactly prodigy material.