In 2009, Jaume Collet-Serra’s terrifically tense Orphan pushed the boundaries on what a ‘bad seed’ movie could be. Ten years later, Nicholas McCarthy’s similarly-taglined The Prodigy attempts to follow in its footsteps as it shirks a story involving supernatural possession or the devil incarnate and instead, puts a dark spin on reincarnation.
But while the former horror thriller waited to reveal its twist (aka Esther’s screwy secret), “what’s wrong with Miles” is laid out in The Prodigy’s opener. After a young woman escapes the clutches of a mad man with a penchant for amputating his victims’ hands, armed police are seen circling his home. Meanwhile, Sarah (Schilling) goes into labour and her partner John rushes them to the hospital. As the film jumps between scenarios and the shots start syncing up (serial killer Edward gets fatally shot and the couple’s newborn bloodied chest mirrors where his bullet wounds are), it becomes apparent that Edward and Miles are one and the same – or at least becoming so. It’s a curious decision, as knowing the mystery so early on zaps the film of tension as we watch the parents play catch up to what we already know.
Fortunately, the adult leads are engaging enough and turn in decent performances despite their characters’ clichéd trappings; Mooney’s John is mostly the doubtful, distant husband and Schilling’s Sarah, the increasingly manic mother. It’s Robert Scott – who successfully flips his physicality between wide-eyed little ‘un and scowling older-man essence – who really impresses though, and the sense of unease he creates between himself and his onscreen mother adds some serious chill to standout scenes. One in particular sees Miles curl up behind her in bed one night and with Schilling’s increasingly uncomfortable face in focus, he’s obscured as he reaches a pale hand over her shoulder and whispers into the darkness. As the camera lingers, you expect a jump scare – his face popping out from behind her, perhaps – but it never arrives, and it’s in those unconventional moments that the film shows glimmers of brilliance.
Its willingness to lean into a bleak, narratively frustrating final act is intriguing too; it just could have done with showcasing it sooner. Because it takes so long for Sarah and John to buy that their kid is playing host to a sinister soul (despite his violent tendencies, high intelligence and ability to spew Hungarian profanities in his sleep), most of the film is set-up for a solution or confrontation so when the film delivers something a little different, it feels like it couldn’t conclude certain things rather than wouldn’t. There’s enough about The Prodigy to please genre fans, it’s just a shame it’s not the groundbreaker it sets out to be.