Horror — like metal and punk, its musical kissing cousins — is built on subgenres.
Slashers, ghost stories, zombies, vampires, monsters, aliens, torture porn, inbred hillbillies, exorcisms, splatter pics — the list goes on. You name it, there’s a sliver of horror devoted to it.
Tucked into the various and sundry subgenres of scary movies is one that is often overlooked, but is nevertheless effective if done correctly: the creepy kid flick.
The Omen (1976), which features young Harvey Spencer Stephens as the Antichrist Damien, is probably the granddaddy of the subgenre, and it certainly came with commercial and critical heft. That one was nominated for a pair of Academy Awards, and it brought composer Jerry Goldsmith his only Oscar for Best Original Score.
But there have been numerous other examples through the years. Like 1993’s The Good Son, where Macaulay Culkin turned his then-recent Home Alone persona on its ear as a preteen with a penchant for murder. Or Pet Sematary, the 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, which sees little Gage Creed (Miko Hughes, one of the all-time creepy kid actors) return from the dead after being placed in a mystical burying ground, only his return is marked by an evil streak and a newfound expertise with a scalpel.
Now, the creepy kid subgenre has again been resurrected with the recent release of The Prodigy, the type of brooding, modestly budgeted (it was made for a relatively paltry $6 million) thriller that that could seemingly only be released in early February. They could have just named the thing Early February Horror Movie — Creepy Kid Edition, and no one would have batted an eye.
This one centers on a young mother (Taylor Schilling) and father (Peter Mooney) who have welcomed their first child, Miles. The baby boy — born with heterochromia, i.e. eyes that are different colors, a fact that eventually plays into the central plot — almost immediately shows signs of advanced intelligence. In the opening act, we’re sort of fast-forwarded through the first several years of Miles’ life, getting glimpses of his talents and aptitude along the way. But right around the time Miles turns eight, his personality takes an odd turn, and the boy begins to act out in strange and, increasingly, violent ways.
There is just enough of an element of mystery surrounding why Miles — played by Jackson Robert Scott, who stole the 2017 remake of It as the early Pennywise victim Georgie — is beginning to blaze his own personal trail of terror, so I won’t dip into spoiler territory here. But just know that reincarnation, dismemberment, possession, hypnotism and a rare Hungarian dialect spoken by fewer than 400,000 people all come into play. (Yes, that old story again.)
One of the prevailing aspects of director Nicholas McCarthy’s film is just how grim it is. The Prodigy is a brooding, sullen, dirge of a movie, from nearly beginning to end. There’s hardly a moment of levity to be found. In a lot of flicks in the creepy kid subgenre, there’s a undercurrent of trashiness and absurdity, an ever-so-slight winking that lightens the mood just a tick. (We see you, Children of the Corn.) But there’s none of that here. The Prodigy goes dark from literally the opening frame, slaps you around for a while, lifts you out of your seat a couple times (there are a few very cheap, but very effective, jump scares in this one), drags you through a vat of black ink, then kicks your ass out of the theater. It’s a pretty solid low-budget winter scare pic, but “fun” isn’t a word many will use to describe it.
Young Scott is the standout here, and he’s got no small task. At times Miles is a frightened, emotionally fraught boy grappling with forces he can’t understand. At others he’s a foul-mouthed, cold-blooded menace. Scott is able to play both sides convincingly, drawing your sympathy one moment and scaring your socks off the next. After his appearance in It and this role in The Prodigy (some of the lines the 10-year-old has to say here are, frankly, shocking), I’d hate to see this kid’s future therapy bill. But, for now, Scott is really good at what he does.
The Prodigy certainly isn’t the best creepy kid horror movie. But with stylish direction from McCarthy, a solid central performance from Scott and a mean little twist in the last reel, it’s got enough juice to give you a thrill or two on a cold February night.
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