Jackson Robert Scott in The Prodigy
I don’t have kids, but I am often paralyzed with the thought that if and when I do have kids, I could do my absolute best and they would still wind up being bad people. Granted, my kids are more likely to become garden-variety dickheads than possessed with the soul of a Hungarian serial killer, but the fact remains that it’s such an ingrained fear that it happens to people who don’t even have kids. It’s being mortally concerned about the outcome of a life that has not even begun — and that kind of fear is something that horror filmmakers have tried to tap into for years. There aren’t too many good “bad-kid” movies, I think, because the longer the image of a murderous little kid is seen, the more it loses impact. Two minutes of a little mewling kid with its head on backwards, bleeding out of its ears is creepy; 90 minutes of a little kid putting on a Cookie Monster voice and threatening to kill his mom is just stupid.
Alas, Nicholas McCarthy’s The Prodigy falls squarely on the stupid end of that pendulum. Almost entirely lacking in personality, The Prodigy chugs along efficiently but anonymously, a Mr. Potato Head of a horror movie whose various moving parts could be swapped without anyone really noticing. Taylor Schilling is Sarah Bloom, a suburbanite (I don’t think her or her K-Mart Chris Evans husband are ever given jobs or personality traits — except that once a week they have a date night, which apparently consists of chugging brews in a parked car) and mother of Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). Miles is preternaturally gifted in many ways, but also antisocial and standoffish with other kids. This seems chill enough for Sarah until she walks in on Miles tossing and turning in bed one night as he belts out orders in Hungarian. After consulting with a professional (Colm Feore), she comes to the conclusion that her son may well be the reincarnation of a serial killer who was killed by police mere minutes before Miles was born.
Resurrection, as you may have guessed, is a big talking point in The Prodigy. The film’s experts insist that resurrection is an accepted concept everywhere but in the western world, and that’s why it totally makes sense that a guy died somewhere and a baby was born elsewhere and they both became the same thing. I’ll give them this: for years and years, movies like this would pin the resurrection on some kind of cultural ceremony that they semi-understood, and the expert they would rely on would be a Haitian voodoo priest or First Nations Healer or something like that. The Prodigy is possibly too woke for this, but 100 per cent too lazy to look beyond the very surface of where it wants to go. Frankly, this straight-ahead, who-gives-a-fuck approach may be the best thing about The Prodigy — you cannot, from any angle that I can imagine, consider it pretentious.
Instead it’s mostly silly and rote, a pile-on of overblown jump scares centred around a cast that’s really not given much to do even within the scope of horror movies releases in February. From what I recall, there is precisely one piece of texture to the main characters and it’s delivered in the aforementioned scene where they drink beers in a parked car. Sarah expresses disbelief that they now live in the suburbs, because when they were young and cool, they would never have dreamt of such a thing. This posits a world in which a) these two protagonists were not willed into existence in puffy jackets at age 32; b) this movie might be interested in engaging with the idea of their son’s possession being something more than just a force that makes him stab people. Neither of these are remotely true.
Though more paint-by-numbers than actually incompetent, The Prodigy does put an extreme amount of faith in jump-scares and nauseating rumblings on the soundtrack. In one scene, Sarah slowly makes her way to the basement, which she discovers is covered in blood. In the middle of all that blood, she sees a bloodied rag — and the film puts more emphasis on the reveal that the bloody rag covers a bunch of maggots than it does the ostensibly emotional reveal of whose blood it is. Unlike most B-movie horror, The Prodigy doesn’t seem like it’s made exclusively for people who watch horror movies. It feels like the opposite, like an approximate collection of tropes and familiar twists thrown together with the hopes that it’ll pass.
Most crucially, however, The Prodigy doesn’t really have anything to say about parenthood. Miles is too rapidly drawn as creepy; there’s never that strong a sense that he’s anything but monstrous, an immediate problem to be dealt with absolutely. There’s no heft to the relationships, there’s nothing there at all. You may be sitting there, thinking to yourself that a simple dead-of-winter horror movie doesn’t really need to tap into anything real; it needs to have a little blood and some yelling and maybe someone’s voice turning creepy. But I come to this as a man who sometimes has trouble sleeping because my unborn, unconceived child might be sending unsolicited dick pics 16 years from now —it’s not that hard to make this scary. ■
The Prodigy opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 8. Watch the trailer here: