Most horror fans would welcome watching possessed kids run amuck with power tools above their head or wantonly parade paranormal powers instead of stealthily sliding cucumbers behind placid cats like normal children, but there’s nothing more maddening than seeing horror films shamelessly nip from the classics. Director Nicholas McCarthy’s The Prodigy is an evil kid flick which adheres to the textbook; adopting fladgets and tart devices while just about hitting plot beats and deviating enough so it’s not completely cumbersome.
Eight years after the birth of their son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott), Pennsylvania based couple, John and Sarah Blume (Peter Mooney and Taylor Schilling) are told their offspring has a freakishly high IQ and is advancing too fast. What they don’t realise (like viewers) is that Miles is possessed by the narked spirit of recently departed serial killer Edward Sarka, who plans to take permanent residence in the boy’s body after sieving his soul into nothingness. John and Sarah meet psychologist Dr Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) after Miles unflappably bludgeons a classmate with a wrench, then spend the rest of the film evading death while trying to figure out what’s wrong with him.
The set-up is snug and tailed with a nasty hide and seek game during which the babysitter comes a cropper. Miles does a bit of Oedipal mommucking, which the plot resists utilising to full effect like in Amityville: The Possession and Orphan. Then from here it unravels like a conveyer belt check-list of pattern possession/ classic horror movie clichés, re-contextualised, clumped together and moulded into a mechanical part pseudo-slasher that ticks boxes but has been blandly fashioned with little ingenuity and finesse.
Flat dialogue spats root a tepid made-for-TV air, rendering The Prodigy predominantly flaccid when compared to the films that inspired it, despite haunting, pale and ashen tones from cinematographer Bridger Nielson. Scenes featuring psycho-babble, hypnotism, exposition and Miles sleep-prating in a rare Hungarian dialect, echo The Exorcist while a bluebottle invasion recalls The Amityville Horror. An evocative but often Shining-like score hums persistently in the backdrop like an Ecto-1 air-con, sometimes during scenes that don’t require it, and is rendered ineffective due to this regularity.
The evil ghost/possession aspect arouses Child’s Play and Annabelle, suggesting creepy doll flicks have been mined, while the classic “kid running down the corridor” shot from Mario Bava’s Shock is directly, but less effectively, replicated. It surprisingly works best during family drama moments (where many horrors fail), thanks to terrific rapport between mother and son and decent performances, than when veering into predictable genre terrain; bar two unforgettable jump scares that are potent enough to up pulse rates.
The majority of the plot background context is relayed way too soon, wasting the opportunity to lace an air of mystery that would have granted Jeff Buhler’s screenplay great substance, but instead The Prodigy merely resounds as a mildly entertaining, by-the-numbers bad seed horror. Astral projection and reincarnation elements intrigue but are wonkily woven. It’s great to see new genre regular Britany Allen (Jigsaw, What Keeps You Alive, It Stains the Sands Red) in a small role during the final act. For the better part, The Prodigy strives to shock but feels predominantly contrived and fashioned more by the shape of the films that inspired it than its unique physiognomies.