A fun movie about an alien teacher, courtesy of NIGHTWATCH’S Ole
Bornedal. There’s nothing too profound here, but the film is skilled and
Ole Bornedal proved himself an unusually skilled
purveyor of macabre suspense with 1994’s NATTEVAGEN, a.k.a. NIGHTWATCH.
He was subsequently offered a multi-picture deal at Miramax, which
yielded a poorly received (but
actually quite memorable)
English-language remake of NIGHTWATCH in 1997 and the same year’s MIMIC
(produced by Bornedal and directed by Guillermo Del Toro). Following
that Bornedal moved back to his native Denmark, where he made the
middling epic I AM DINA (2002) before returning to his horror roots with
VIKAREN, or THE SUBSTITUTE, in 2007.
The film was released in the U.S. straight to DVD in
2008 via the Sam Raimi
headed outfit Ghost House Underground (the reason the film is mistakenly
credited in some quarters as “Sam Raimi’s THE SUBSTITUTE”). It’s also
slated for a U.S. remake in 2011 (sigh).
In a sleepy Danish town a new substitute teacher, a
vivacious blond woman, has taken the local school by storm. The teacher,
Miss Harms, is in fact an extraterrestrial who’s crashed to Earth and
taken over the body of a local woman. Her aim is to find out what makes
us humans feel empathy, as her race has none.
The students of Miss Harms’ sixth grade class,
including the rebellious Carl, are immediately suspicious of her, and
with good reason: she’s unusually mean and can read their minds.
Furthermore, one of the nerdier students does a search on his laptop
computer for her name and can’t find it registered anywhere. The kids
also sneak into Miss Harms’ house and spy her devouring a live chicken.
Carl, who’s been severely traumatized by the death of
his mother, is further vexed when Miss Harms unexpectedly shows up at
his house for dinner. There she demonstrates her powers by exploding her
face into a mass of slimy tentacles…and then immediately reforming it!
The following day Carl’s father agrees to tag along for
a field trip undertaken by Miss Harms. The trip is to a remote
farmhouse, where the substitute presumably wants to call down her alien
chums to take the kids and Carl’s father back to her planet. It’s up to
Carl to face down Miss Harms and make things right!
I really wish THE SUBSTITUTE were stronger
conceptually, as it never plays like much more than the umpteenth
retread of monster teacher clichés (as established by the likes of
INVADERS FROM MARS,
CLASS OF 1999
and THE FACULTY) that it is. Yet Ole Bornedal is such a skilled
filmmaker it works--not as well as NIGHTWATCH, perhaps, but it works.
The film has been taken overly seriously by some
commentators, who assume that (apparently because it’s foreign) it must
have some profound hidden subtext. In truth it’s precisely the type of
horror fare we’ve come to expect from Hollywood: lightweight, derivative
and effects heavy, only better made than most such films.
Bornedal has a master’s talent for building suspense,
and here demonstrates a love of the outrageous. There’s also a fun,
lip-smacking performance by Lars Von Trier regular Paprika Steen as Miss
Harms. It might have helped, of course, if Miss Harms’ powers were more
clearly delineated (as her abilities seem to vary from scene to scene)
and if the CGI were better (as Steen’s terrific head-bursting dinner
table gag is compromised by the primitiveness of the effects).
The bleakness and grotesquerie of NIGHTWATCH have been
toned down considerably, although THE SUBSTITUTE is still quite strong
for the alleged kids movie Bornedal claims he was aiming for. The film
is extremely dark, literally, with desaturated photography that favors
shadow. But make no mistake: Ole Bornedal knows what he’s doing, and,
even if he didn’t entirely deliver on his stated aims, did succeed in
crafting a rousing scarefest that’s above average in every respect.
THE SUBSTITUTE (VIKAREN)
Thura Film/Ghost House Underground
Director: Ole Bornedal
Producer: Michael Obel
Screenplay: Henrik Prip, Ole Bornedal
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Editing: Thomas Krag
Cast: Paprika Steen, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Falkenberg-Klok, Emma Juel
Justesen, Mollie Maria Gilmartin, Josephine Wormslew Gents, Emma Caludia
Sondergaard, Jakob Fals Nygaard, Andreas Gram Nielsen, Mathias Peter
Kjaer, Sonja Richter