Word to the wise: If your 8-year-old suddenly asks for paprika to season his or her food, you’d better watch out. They may not simply be exhibiting signs of a refining palate, they could be “manifesting signs of a former life” — and not in a good way.
That’s just one of the things that kicks off the crazy in “The Prodigy,” a tense and gripping, persuasively acted horror-thriller that evokes such evil-child flicks as “The Omen,” “The Exorcist,” “The Bad Seed” and “The Good Son,” while carving its own pulse-pounding, if inherently far-fetched niche in the process.
Another warning: Moms and dads — prospective and newer — may want to think twice before shelling out for a ticket to this particular vision of hell. The film is an often deeply unsettling look at the very concept of parenting, one that goes beyond the typical terror tropes. It actually questions the wisdom, daresay the sanity, of bringing new life into the world, given the potential pitfalls that await, and whether, instincts be damned, parents must always protect their child over themselves.
Essentially, it’s a case of “Be careful what you wish for, you just might spawn a death machine.” Oh, and pass the popcorn. (Dog lovers might give pause to this frightfest as well.)
For Sarah (Taylor Schilling from “Orange Is the New Black”) and John Blume (Peter Mooney), a happy, attractive couple living in suburban Philadelphia (Toronto and environs subbed), conceiving a child has proved elusive. That is, until Sarah finally gives birth to Miles and all is perfect in the Blume household. But is it really?
Not incidentally, just minutes before Miles is born, a serial killer with a hand fetish (Paul Fauteaux) has been fatally gunned down by police. Make of that what you will — for now.
By the time the angelic-looking Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is 8, he’s the light of his parents’ life: a brilliant boy who started talking way early, crushed his placement tests (and the occasional insect), and now attends a school for gifted kids.
But, said paprika incident aside, the worm is turning — and turning fast — as a series of dire events unfold involving Miles and a booby-trapped staircase, a wayward plumber’s wrench and some sleep-talking that’s hardly the innocent mumbo-jumbo it may seem at first.
It all leads Miles to be taken to see a friendly child psychologist (Paula Boudreau) who turns the clearly unnerving case over to a kind of reincarnation specialist (Colm Feore). That’s when all the jittery pieces start falling into place and, believe them or not — Sarah and John don’t until they do — give way to a twisty, sometimes predictable, other times startling downward spiral.
Suffice to say there’s a lethal connection between the weirdo dead serial killer and little Miles’ putrefying soul, which are in a battle for supremacy, may the best — or worst — entity win. Or as Miles boils it down for his terrified mom: “Sometimes when I leave my body bad things happen.”
The film’s third act is effectively nerve-racking and even a bit gonzo, with a corker of a climax. It also treads some disturbing, perhaps morally dubious territory that’s maybe not so surprising given the previous lines that are crossed in the eerie, propulsive screenplay by Jeff Buhler (he scripted 2008’s brutal “The Midnight Meat Train” and co-wrote the upcoming “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Pet Sematary” remakes).
Unfortunately, for all its strengths in the eye-covering, jump-scare category thanks to deft moves by director Nicholas McCarthy (“The Pact,” “At the Devil’s Door”) and Joseph Bishara’s creepy score, the movie is not without its unintentional laughs, plot holes and dum-dum moments. It could have been smarter without sacrificing pacing or chills. That’s not a dealbreaker — target audiences will likely be satisfied by its many pluses — but the film is good enough that you wish it went all the way.
Rated: R, for violence, disturbing and bloody images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Playing: In general release.