The Prodigy is the definition of a low effort horror movie. It very occasionally winds up being entertaining in spite of itself. Some of this is owed to the successful use of tropes from the “creepy kid” sub-genre of horror. The rest is unintentional amusement, occasionally outright comedy, derived from the way director Nicholas McCarthy insists on playing its most goofy elements as straight as possible. In spite of its shallowness and lack of character development, this is a movie that wants to be taken seriously and this just makes the proceedings all the more ridiculous.
The script, by Jeff Buhler, is an under-cooked collection of familiar ideas and story beats but lacks the wherewithal to take them anywhere interesting. Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is a prodigy, a hyper-aware and intelligent kid whose parents try to support him even as he develops some personality traits and… “quirks” that become increasingly frightening and dangerous. John (Peter Mooney), the dad, is often an afterthought in the story which leaves Sarah (Taylor Schilling) to deal with most of the spooky stuff on her own. She oscillates between thinking her child is mentally ill and the idea that something more unusual and sinister is happening to her family. We’ve seen this story before, many times, and this dynamic just doesn’t hold water when compared to similar ones in better movies like The Babadook, Mama, or Goodnight Mommy.
Schilling and Colm Feore are the only really recognizable faces in the movie. Both put in a valiant and unsupported effort to elevate the material but neither have much to go on. Schilling in particular would have had a better opportunity to make an impact if the movie gave her any character development whatsoever. Even a major and surprising decision she makes late in the movie is undercut by a fumbling, janky execution. Scott’s performance, on the other hand, provides one of the scant reasons to watch this movie. He’s very good and is able to manage layers in a way that upstages everybody else in the movie. Though viewers might hesitate to say there’s much character development even in his case, he’s the only one in the movie that gets any depth.
The horror in The Prodigy is effective whenever it relies on Miles. Unfortunately, it also includes the requisite jump scares, though one or two are effective. One is genuinely hilarious. The surprising part, which only contributes to the quality issues here, is how bleak the tone is overall. This lends itself to the unsettling and graphic violence, which is a more successful tool to spook and shock the audience but is continuously hampered by the movie’s insistence on its own goofy premise. If The Prodigy had leaned into camp, it might have been a really fun movie. Having said that, it’s possible that its grimness might be seen as campy enough for audiences to really dig into this as a “good bad movie” down the line.
Sometimes it’s easy to see a good movie lurking somewhere under the surface of the film, perhaps a draft or two away. Every time you begin to respond to it, it undercuts the moment with a character stating (out loud) an obvious plot point that was conveyed visually a second before, and this is only an example. The Prodigy is full of moments that signal a lack of trust in the audience as well as character decisions that can only be described as dumb. Some of these bits are entertaining and you may even laugh, but the movie is too dour to take it as intentional, so you’re really just laughing at it rather than with it.
It’s hard to tell who this movie is for. It’s too weird and Oedipal to be aimed at the teenagers, but too shallow and derivative to be taken seriously by horror fans. The current state of horror cinema is that a cheap movie can make several times its budget without having to actually be any good. As long as it has a few good scares and pays lip service to some familiar tropes, it seems that financial success is easy to attain. The Prodigy has none of the ambition or freshness that better horror movies offer. It has no psychological insight and no mythos, just an overly credulous and borderline condescending handling of a conceit so absurd you want to slap your forehead.