Evil children are no strangers to the horror genre. We’ve seen Regan’s head twist and violently spew vomit in The Exorcist, nannies sacrifice themselves to satanic Damien in The Omen, and plenty of prepubescent hellions in Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned. Stories have centered around demonic possession, the nature vs. nurture debate, as well as the concept of reincarnation. Nicholas McCarthy, director of The Pact and a producer on The Exorcism of Emily Rose, plays with common themes and tropes to provide a new spin on what can truly make a child evil. The unique nature of Miles’ situation is the film’s primary intrigue, but its strongest horror resides in the parental territory of exactly how far a mother will go to help her child. Now, I will preface this review by disclosing that I am not a mother. However, as a female, I do find that motherhood contains some elements and can be somewhat terrifying. There’s the fragility of carrying and growing a human lifeform in your body for nine months, the strenuous labor process, potential health issues involved, societal expectations with social, physical, and educational development, and the overall risk of losing a child. McCarthy and writer Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train, Pet Sematary) tackle several of these fears in a tangible manner, but lose some significance through dialogue and a discontinuous plot along the way.
The film opens with a life and death scenario - a life lost and a life gained. From the beginning, there is an existential theme established as Sarah (Taylor Schilling) gives birth to a baby boy named Miles who is born with Heterochromia, a typically benign condition causing his eyes to be different colors. In Miles’ case, he has one blue eye and one brown eye. Sarah soon begins to notice rapid intellectual development in her son as he speaks at an early age, and his motor skills are far advanced. It’s even suggested that Miles is gifted, a child prodigy in his own right which Sarah hopes to develop further. This is where Buhler and McCarthy really start to experiment and diabolically frolic within the subgenre. Normally, parents want their kids to be above average. However, McCarthy explores asynchronous development which refers to an unbalanced intellectual, physical, and emotional development commonly spoken as “giftedness” with increasing apprehension and dread. Sarah notices there is a disproportion in Miles’ intellect and his emotional capability. By the time he is eight years old, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) displays increasingly disturbing behavior that arouses alarm in Sarah and her husband John (Peter Mooney). He is able to engineer devices to eavesdrop on their conversations, his artistic skills are peculiarly strong, and his ability to power play adults in his life are well beyond his years.
The instances that cause grave concern aren’t abundant but when present, they’re pretty gut-wrenching. What’s noteworthy are the techniques in which they are applied. McCarthy has an astute sense of conjuring tension and framing. His shooting style allows audiences to insert themselves into the scene and therefore empathize with Sarah fairly easily. She wants the best for her son and dedicates her time and energy accordingly. After every ruthless act, she is there to provide motherly love however she can which is exhaustingly admirable. Sarah takes him to see specialists to explore a potential mental illness; but instead she discovers something (or someone) sinister which tests her strength, motherly devotion, and beliefs on life and death. Yet, the exploration into why he possesses these traits fall short through various encounters with doctors and psychiatrists. The road map to discovering what the problem is and how to solve it feels rushed and remiss instead of meticulous to create a more cohesive plot.
The chemistry between Schilling and Scott is palpable. Moments of adoration and security with a loving hug eventually decay to an engulfing fear that parents would be terrified to encounter. There is one chilling scene in particular where Miles climbs into bed with his mom because he’s scared. In a shaky voice he asks, “Mommy, will you love me forever...no matter what I do?” as he slowly inches his hand on top of her shoulder. Staring off into the distance, frozen in fright but anchored in love, Sarah replies, “of course...I’m your mother.” This uncomfortable scene is a prime example of the emotional entrapment which really secures the underlying horror of the film - the sacrifice and dedication of being a parent. However, the relationship between Sarah and her husband is more lackluster. While he does believe her, the writing for his character is disconnected. There’s even a period of time in which he leaves the house because he can’t handle the fucked up things Miles had said to him, leaving Sarah alone to handle everything. The use of CG also took me out of the storyline a few times during jump scare moments meant to frighten. The tension and suspense was watered down in certain reveals, but just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work well for others.
The plot sounds fairly standard which in a way, it is. Similar elements have been used in The Omen, The Good Son, and Child’s Play; but the truth behind what is wrong with Miles is what makes the film’s themes cut deeper, while the acting provides an elevated emotional impact. Scott was only ten years old during filming, and his performance is impressive to no end. He’s able to fluctuate between innocent and loving to menacing and savage at the drop of a hat. The gnarly gore and language are the primary reasons for the film’s R-rating, and are executed well while pushing boundaries. Overall, it’s an evil and entertaining initiation into the horror subgenre of creepy kid narratives, complete with razor-sharp tension and strong performances. While you don’t have to be a parent to get creeped out by The Prodigy, it might be comforting to go home to an empty house or pet, instead of a child.