The Prodigy is the first true horror release of 2019 (Escape Room was more of a thriller than straight horror), and fans of the genre will be pleased to know that it delivers some solid scares. There have been plenty of movies about creepy children, the one that’s always first to come to mind is The Omen, and they’re almost always about a kid who ends up getting possessed by a demonic entity. The Prodigy flips the script a bit – its troublesome kid is still afflicted by something supernatural, but it’s far more grounded in disturbing reality than other films like it.
In a small, remote country town, serial killer Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux) is gunned down by police when they raid his home, ending his reign of terror. At the same time, a baby boy named Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is born miles and miles away. His parents, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) have been trying to conceive for a long time, and Miles is considered a true blessing for them. It quickly becomes obvious that Miles is exceptionally gifted – he’s walking and talking and solving problems much earlier than other children. His parents choose to enroll their son in a special school for children as developed as him, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Miles is still different.
After several unsettling episodes at home, and constant thrashing and talking in his sleep, Miles’ mental state begins to deteriorate. This all culminates in a shocking scene where he savagely attacks another student, leading Sarah to seek further professional help for her son. The Prodigy seems to serve as a metaphor for the hardships of raising a troubled child – despite the audience knowing that Miles’ ails are the cause of an evil persona within him, Sarah and John are in the dark. The two convince themselves that he’s just sick, and do whatever they can to enlist psychiatrists and help their son overcome his worrisome behavior.
In that regard, The Prodigy is a great portrayal of how stressful and upsetting raising a difficult child can be. Miles’ problems put an enormous strain on home life, marriage, school, and even the poor family dog. The family drama aspect of the film is one of its more compelling elements, due largely in part to a terrific and heartbreaking performance from Schilling as Sarah. Even when confronted with the reality of Miles’ situation, Sarah still tries to fight for her son that she knows is still there and convince herself that she can save him, despite the mounting terror, increasing horrific incidents, and the inability to ever be able fully trust the kid.
Director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact, At the Devil’s Door) makes excellent use of shadows and slow, ramping tension. He has immense patience and trusts the audience to have some as well, and that patience is rewarded time and time again by genuinely scary scenes, such as Miles terrorizing his babysitter or standing around in hallways in the middle of the night while muttering foreign languages. The deliberately steady horror is accompanied by a truly unsettling score by Joseph Bishara, the composer of all the Insidious and Conjuring films, and the music is always a cue that something bad is about to happen, but you’re constantly guessing at just what that may be. It also helps that despite the somewhat supernatural premise, Miles possesses no extraordinary abilities or anything like that, grounding the film’s horrifying violence in uncomfortable realism.
Jackson Robert Scott (Georgie from 2017’s It) is quite the talent, seamlessly switching back and forth between a poor, terrified kid and a twisted, maniacal killer. It’s fun being kept on your toes trying to decipher whether it’s Miles or Scarka that we’re looking at, it’s not always clear who’s in charge at any given moment. Unfortunately, in scenes where Miles’ body is taken over by Scarka for prolonged periods of time, the effect can become a little hokey as we’re forced to watch this child say lewd and perverse things over and over. The Prodigy’s biggest issue is its dialogue – several scenes treat the audience like dummies and it can become aggravating as the film slowly explains things that we already know. The film also struggles to further the plot past the point of its bare-bones concept, and by the time the third act rolls in, you’re more than ready for it to wrap things up.
The Prodigy has a good amount of truly terrifying sequences and imagery, perhaps relying a little too much on jump scares at points, but it never gets to where that’s all it has to offer. Your enjoyment of it may end up relying on how you feel about its ending, however. I personally found it to be far too sadistic and unsatisfying. To me, the horror genre is at its best when it’s about the perseverance and strength of the human spirit in the face of abject terror. The Prodigy simply doesn’t feel like it quite earns the callous ending it goes for, but if you’re into more horror-filled endings for your horror films, then you might end up having a better time.
3 / 5 Stars
The Prodigy is now playing in theaters everywhere.