The Prodigy, 2019.
Directed by Nicholas McCarthy.
Starring Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Colm Feore and Brittany Allen.
The parents of a young boy begin to suspect something supernatural might be happening when their child develops seriously violent tendencies.
I can’t say I expected much from The Prodigy when I settled into my seat to watch what looked like another, pretty generic, ‘creepy kid’ horror movie. Within five minutes or so, a desperate female character was raising a bloodied stump of an arm to camera and declaring through sobs that “he took my hand”, providing an evocative chill at the beginning of a film that completely grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me through a surprisingly nasty, scary story with more than a handful of twists in the tail.
The aforementioned opening concludes with a bullet-riddled body that match cuts with a considerably less bullet-riddled newborn baby. Sarah (Taylor Schilling) has just given birth to Miles, her first child, who has different-coloured irises – “like David Bowie”, says one character. Eight years later, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is showing exceptional intelligence and talent at school – “he’s what we call a smarty pants” – but he’s also prone to bursts of violence. A babysitter is tricked into stepping on an enormous shard of glass, in a scene recalling the nail from A Quiet Place, and one of his classmates is battered with a wrench. There’s clearly something not quite right about Miles.
It’s certainly true that The Prodigy deals with a well-worn premise and trades heavily in the clichés and conventions of the genre, from some formulaic jump scares to the standard scene in which an expert turns up to explain what’s happening. But director Nicholas McCarthy – who previously made terrible horror The Pact – does a stellar job of executing these clichés with flair, creating a sizeable amount of tension from constituent parts that could’ve produced something tired and listless. There are a few scares in particular that will stay with me for a long time.
Much of this is down to the performance of Scott, who is even more malevolent than the average horror kid. One sequence, in which he delivers a fiercely explicit dressing down to the aforementioned expert, played by Colm Feore, is chilling in its pure aggression. He also narrows his eyes suspiciously while smiling during a crucial scene, as if daring his mother to believe the bizarre suggestions being made. Miles is a very disturbed child and Scott is able to portray that perfectly, while also never losing sight of the innocence and fragility of his youth. It’s an excellent performance. Taylor Schilling, too, does decent work as Miles’s mother, conveying her unravelling mental state with aplomb.
The movie is strongest in its middle act, but amps up the nastiness for a finale that is scarier than it is coherent and relies a little heavily on some clunky exposition. The script makes an odd call in withholding a revelation from the characters for at least 10 minutes after even the most naive audience member will have worked it out, but this builds to a final showdown of real ferocity. McCarthy’s movie is not afraid to gets its hands dirty, and that’s what separates it from the more multiplex-friendly horrors of recent years.
It’s unlikely that many of us will remember The Prodigy by the end of the year and there will certainly be better chillers shivering their way into cinemas than this one. However, given its status as pretty standard genre fare on the surface, the film goes down as a pleasant surprise and one that embraces its dark heart.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.