Review: The substitute

A sci-fi horror thriller for 9-12 year old kids, helmed by one of Denmark’s leading genre directors, Ole Bornedal.

It seems like you can’t make a movie for children or teens without relating it to their school situation, so when Ole Bornedal, director of the Danish horror hit Night Watch (1994 – and its 1997 US remake) created The substitute (original title; Vikaren) he placed the plot smack down in the middle of the classroom. And not only that, the story also revolves around something most children have experienced; getting a substitute teacher for a day or for a week. In this case, the teacher Ulla (Paprika Steen) seems to be made of a different fabric that the usual subs, and some of the children find out that she is actually an alien from another planet, sent to Earth to learn about what love is – and not because they are sweet aliens!

The school is a place where most children feel safe, but at the same time, most kids have had that substitute teacher who was either a fool or just plain scary. Perhaps scary just because you did not get to know the person in just one day, but in The substitute this is taken to the extreme with a teacher who ridicules children and eats dead chickens and takes over the bodies of other people. This is the film’s most interesting part; take something very familiar and inflate it to an extreme level. Children who watch this can relate to it, while being exposed to the horrors of the “blonde alien”, be it verbal abuse or deadly violence. The scares are spread out evenly and to most children in the right age group, the film will be a rollercoaster of danger, horror and thrills.

Being a family film (sensitive children should not watch the movie alone), to seasoned adults The substitute is not so much a rollercoaster as it is a series of clichés, stereotypes and predictability. That ranges from individual scenes (baddie looking through toilet stalls) to the main character (young boy traumatized by the death of his mother). In particular the heroic children and Ulla the alien, but also the supporting characters are off-the-shelf content. It does not seem to be the intention of Bornedal to create something new and innovative, and if the film is in any way unique, it is only because of its Scandinavian origin. Granted, the region produces plenty of fantasy drama for children, but not so much with horror and sci-fi elements. Still, the aim for this movie can not have been freshness but rather something that is enjoyable for both kids and their parents. And Bornedal chose to be safe. It’s hard enough to get funding for genre movies in Scandinavia as it is, without going  outside the familiar path.

Speaking of funding, I hope that had nothing to do with the messy second half, where plot holes the size of Paprika’s UFO pepper the plot. As if a reel was missing, or the film was shortened to meet the 90 minute mark.

Coming out as a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Men in Black – for kids, of course; there is no real amounts of blood, gore or graphic violence – The substitute is trying hard to be a good genre entry for a young audience, like The Goonies was (more successfully) in the 1980s, and probably works well for its unexperienced target audience.

Directed by Ole Bornedal.

Denmark, 2007.

Rated 6 of 10.

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