Written by Boaz Yakin
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Available on VOD and select theaters this Friday is Boarding School, written and directed by Boaz Yakin. As legions of kids, teens, and young adults prepare to head back to classrooms in schools, academies, and universities next month, we can only pray they fare better than the protagonists in this psychological creeper. Indeed, Boarding School will haunt moviegoers long after the final credits roll. This film has teeth and claws, and the wounds they inflict will fester! High schools and private institutions have been the settings for countless genre offerings, as the perils of adolescence make for horrific subtexts, tapping into shared anxieties and primal fears. Still, Boarding School is unique, not just for its creative spins on established tropes, but for going to some truly dark places most filmmakers simply wouldn’t dare to tread. While it’s not quite as devastating as Ari Aster’s Hereditary, the harsh realities and brutal undercurrents explored may leave thrill-seekers similarly dismayed. Indeed, Boarding School is one of those films that can’t easily be forgotten.
This isn’t your stereotypical private school. Though architecturally grand with an aura of elitism, the manner feels more like a prison than a place of growth and learning. Like another private school-set horror movie, The Woods (2006), it’s extremely isolated, creating an atmosphere that’s both Gothic and claustrophobic. Though Boarding School never ventures into supernatural territories, the dark hallways, long shadows, and whispered conversations only barely overheard create a nightmarish reality that borders on the surreal. As the film descends into unimaginable madness, we realize phantoms or specters would be less terrifying than the actual perils our young protagonists are facing.
There are barely over half a dozen students, and though they differ vastly in ages and abilities, they’re all lumped into a single classroom under the harsh tutelage of Dr. Sherman, played impeccably by Will Patton. Though he liberally dispenses corporal punishment for the slightest perceived transgressions, it’s his calm assurance that they will all reach a point of “clarity” in two short weeks that produces a palpable sense of dread and foreboding. Each student has his/her own issues, and while their abnormalities explain why they’ve been removed from the population at large, the curriculum (or lack thereof) seems at odds with their individual needs. For example, Dr. Sherman uses Bible verses as a potential cure for Tourette’s syndrome. As the days pass and the promised date of clarity approaches (with little noticeable changes in the student’s personalities), Boarding School conveys a palpable sense of impending dread. Something devious is afoot, and it takes both the characters and the viewers a long time to unravel this harrowing and heartbreaking mystery.
As previously stated, Boarding School goes to some very dark and controversial places, and I’m not just talking about kids getting killed (something that’s becoming less taboo as fear practitioners push envelopes to new, previously-uncharted extremes). Adolescent gender fluidity is tame compared to the introduction of a 12-year-old girl who’s both a psychological sadist and a sexual masochist. One student is clearly a gifted academic though extremely disfigured. Another is barely functional, hardly able to eat or groom himself. Then, there’s a couple of affable twins with nothing overtly unusual about them whatsoever. Discovering the common thread that binds them reveals the true horror of Boarding School. While they sometimes feel incongruous with the majority of the film, flashbacks to atrocities committed during the Holocaust prove their relevance in Boarding School’s jaw-dropping 3rd Act.
While Patton is an underrated treasure, a thespian who can emote trustworthiness and madness with equal legitimacy, it’s the film’s young cast who carries Boarding School, keeping viewers rapt until the explosive and devastating finale. Luke Prael has only been in 2 films besides Boarding School, and only began his acting career in 2016; still, his turn as Jacob proves he has star potential and a bright future ahead of him. 14-year-old Sterling Jerins is unnerving and arresting as Christine, showing a depth of talent and maturity far beyond her years. Nadia Alexander is a scene-stealer in a supporting role that I’m hesitant to describe in detail, lest my description lessens the impact of her initial reveal and soul-crushing performance. Nicholas J. Oliveri aptly tackles one of the film’s most difficult roles with stunning authenticity.
Like the best horror films ever made, Boarding School will leave viewers both devastated and empowered. If it doesn’t get the attention it deserves in 2018, it’s destined to become a sleeper hit fans will unearth in the years to come. While I despise the term “elevated horror”, there’s something about Boarding School that absolutely reaches the strata of high art. It’s a film that’s not just worth seeing but studying. If you’re a fan of films like The Woods, The Moth Diaries, The Blackcoats Daughter, and The Devil’s Backbone, you won’t want to miss Boarding School. Don’t be surprised if it ends up on more than a few Best Horror Movies of 2018 lists. It’s not a slasher, not a supernatural horror, not a monster movie, but it’s thrilling and captivating enough to please horror fans all across the spectrum. I can’t wait to give Boarding School a second (and third) viewing.
Boarding School serves as a reminder that some of the best horror films coming out these days never get the theatrical releases they deserve. While themes and tropes are recognizable, it’s as close to unique as just about anything produced in the 21st Century. I often end my reviews by reminding readers that a single film can’t please everyone. Boarding School, however, may just be the cure for the common cookie-cutter horror movie. I loved it!