Substitute, The (DVD)
Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Paprika Sheen, Ulrich Thomsen, Jonas Wandschneider, Nikolaj Falkenberg-Klok
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Distributed by Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Released in its home country of Denmark as Vikaren, The Substitute takes the old aliens coming to take over the world concept and condenses it into a very small, intimate story. Though far more sci-fi than it is horror, this is what I like to refer to as a “gateway” film -- a movie kids will watch that’ll give them a taste of horror, hopefully whetting their appetites for the harder stuff down the road.
When the students of class 6B are told they’ll be getting a new substitute for a short time, visions of goofing off and disobeying left and right cause them to jump for joy. When the sub (Sheen) shows up, however, they take a decidedly different viewpoint. She’s mean, harsh, and has no qualms telling the children how stupid they are. One of the students, Carl (Wandschneider), even gets a very real example of the fact that she can read minds, which sets him down a path to figure out just what the hell she really is.
What we know and Carl soon finds out is that she’s an alien, sent to Earth from her home planet to try and figure out what love is in order to bring the information back to her race so they can stop killing one another. There’s a very strong, sometimes overstated, theme of mankind being the only species (in this case in the entire universe) with the capacity to love, to feel empathy or compassion. While at times this message can lean to the side of heavy-handed, Bornedal does a good job of utilizing it to move the story along and never allows it to slow down the pace.
It helps, as well, that he managed to get a really good cast together, no easy task when you consider 95% of it is comprised of kids. And I’m not talking high school kids; I mean kids between the ages of 12 and maybe 15 at the oldest. The dynamic among these children helps make their plight so believable, even when they’re faced with the horrible truth that their teacher really is a creature from outer space. She’s got their parents fooled, of course, so they’re the only ones who can stop her from completing whatever kind of intergalactic terrorism she’s planning, and to do that they have to work together. Sure, they bicker and fight amongst themselves, but they also stand behind one another when faced with the fantastic, which really is the whole point of the film.
Don’t go into The Substitute expecting any kind of slimy alien horror story; in fact the moments of actual horror take up maybe a minute or two of the film’s entire runtime, and even that is pushing it. What makes the tale scary is imagining being in these kids' shoes when all this is happening, which is yet another reason why a strong cast was so important.
But what really helps make The Substitute work is its sense of humor. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments that help to both humanize the characters even more and break up some tension that may be building. The scene of the kids getting on the bus to Paris is probably one of my favorites; only some of them know the truth, but they are fighting the thought of being left alone with this woman with every fiber of their being. It’s both hilarious and tragic at the same time, especially if you can empathize with how these kids must feel not knowing if they’re going to be eaten before they reach their destination.
For such an interesting little flick, Lionsgate drops the ball on the DVD release as all we get is a commentary by director Ole Bornedal and a trailer. Yay.
Though most definitely not horror in the strictest sense of the word, The Substitute is still a fun, entertaining movie with a lot of heart that’s not afraid to put the audience in the minds of these kids for 90 minutes. I shudder to think how much of what works for the original will be lost when the American remake rolls in, but at least we’re getting it on DVD so you can all appreciate what a good time it really is.
4 out of 5
1 out 5
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