I’m not a huge fan of jump-scares in horror movies. I think they can work if they’re sparse, like in Stephen King’s IT. But too often, I think they’re used as an easy way to scare the audience, repeatedly forcing fear out of them by playing tense music and dropping a grotesque image suddenly into view. So, when there were three jump-scares in only the first four minutes of The Prodigy, I knew I wouldn’t like the film. And if you’re anything like me, you probably won’t either.
The Prodigy starts by telling us about young Miles, a boy who the movie portrays as both gifted and troubled. Miles seems to be a genius, but his sense of right and wrong is severely warped. He takes pleasure in others’ suffering and contemplating cruel thoughts, all while excelling in his advanced elementary school and appearing to his parents as an innocent, if socially awkward, child. After we watch Miles grow into an eight-year-old and his mother start to notice his dark inner self, the plot becomes a family drama about a killer in kid’s clothing. Miles’s parents must reject what they thought they knew about their son and, once they do, they must accept a dark and terrifying truth.
The problem with The Prodigy‘s jump scares isn’t just that happen too often, it’s that they take up so much time. It felt like every other scene is Miles’s terrified mother slowly creeping down a hallway or stairwell, approaching a door with something spooky on the other side, something that would leap out at us just when we couldn’t take the suspenseful music any more. These scenes can take up a minute or more to build suspense, which isn’t too much time on their own. But those seconds add up. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were twenty full minutes of this film that were just build-up and scare, build-up and scare, over and over again. In a movie clocking in at just 88 minutes, that’s a quarter of the total run-time. There’s hardly time in the remaining minutes to explain Miles’s affliction, how it works, and what his mother must do to try to fix it. It’s no surprise the plot doesn’t flow well.
Unfortunately, the story goes off the rails from here. Most of the movie beyond this initial set-up revolves around a twist, and though I won’t tell you what that twist is (because it’s what ultimately is wrong with Miles), I will say that the twist feels very unnatural. Instead of subverting what we saw int the intro of the film to make us realize a shocking truth, the twist directly contradicts it. From there, the story continues to suffer serious jumps in logic from scene to scene or more downright contradictions. And that’s frustrating, because there’s room for the story to make sense, if only they spent more time actually telling it.
What’s so disappointing about this film is that there’s clearly talent on both sides of the creative process. The director of this movie, Nicholas McCarthy, built a visually grim and tense world, and though I didn’t care for his jump-scares, they effectively got a reaction out of me each time. On the writing side, I believe screenwriter Jeff Buhler, had some really interesting ideas to work with. For example: Can you love someone truly evil? My ultimate problem with The Prodigy is that though I saw the characters struggling with these questions, I didn’t see them fully realized or come together in any resounding, emotionally connective way. The elements posed seemed to fight for control, with the story awkwardly and aggressively trying to prove itself in-between scenes that essentially served as visual jack-in-the-boxes.
“..[The Prodigy] awkwardly and aggressively tr[ies] to prove itself in-between scenes that essentially served as visual jack-in-the-boxes.”
As far as the rest of the film’s pieces go, nothing really stood out to make me forget about the weak story. Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling plays Miles’s mother, and though there are moments where you can tell she really understands her character, the script doesn’t give her much room to play anything but terrified. Miles himself, It‘s Jackson Robert Scott, can play one hell of a creepy kid, but his dialogue comes off so corny sometimes that his creepiness gets lost. Finally, I was thrilled to see Brittany Allen would be in this film, because I loved her in What Keeps You Alive. Sadly, she was underused, and the circumstances of her last scene border on the ridiculous. I only bring up the actors because I think they could have done a great job with their characters if they had a little bit more room to develop them. However, like the rest of the movie, their characters were sacrificed in service of a couple of loud bangs and flashed images.
But hey, I’m just one guy, and you don’t have to enjoy horror like I do. If you enjoy your horror solely by how much it makes you and your friends jump, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If so, you might want to check out The Prodigy, because I guarantee it will scratch that itch. Take the scaredy-cat you know who you enjoy forcing to watch scary things. Or the person in your friend group who just can’t stand creepy kids. Just don’t come into the film expecting any smart storytelling. That’s one build-up that will leave you waiting.
As always, we’ve got a ton of great movie discussion going on here at NOFS, so don’t stop reading here. For example, have you checked out Kimberly Elizabeth’s review of Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw? Or how about Jessica Rose’s review of Hulu’s Into the Dark: Down? Or, if you want to look back on a classic, Tyler Liston’s got a great little piece on the legacy of Ringu which is very much worth reading. Once you check those out, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep an eye out for more. And for all your horror movie news, reviews, and interviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.