Accept no substitutions.
When a group of sixth-graders learns they’ll be having a substitute teacher for a while, they get ready to raise all sorts of trouble. This comes to a halt, though, when they meet this teacher, Miss Ulla Harms (Paprika Steen, Stealing Rembrandt). This sub derides the kids with crude, hateful insults. What’s even more frightening is that she seems to know what they’re about to say before they say it. Sensing something is up, the kids get sneaky and attempt to find out what Ulla’s deal is. The truth is wilder than they suspect, as it appears Ulla is from outer space and has some very sinister plans for her students. When no other adults will believe their crazy story, the classmates know it’s only a matter of time before they fall prey to The Substitute.
Made in Denmark, The Substitute is a curious watching experience. This horror/sci-fi/kid movie hybrid features a lot of gloom, with some child actors who are really good at acting really, really scared. But there’s some random weirdness in the movie as well, mostly involving chickens. This will likely throw off some viewers.
Let’s start with the good. As I said above the kid actors in the movie do some great work. They act like real kids, without overdoing it and becoming obnoxious. One of the threads running through the film is that they’re mostly disparate at first, divided up into various cliques and loners, only to come together as a group and forge some friendships as they investigate their teacher’s evil. Just don’t mistake this for crazy adolescent fun in the vein of The Goonies or The Monster Squad. The lead protagonist is Carl (Jonas Wandschneider, Anna Pihl), who is dealing with some personal tragedy as the film begins. His character’s seriousness hangs over the rest of the kids, so they know the stakes are high and their lives are on the line.
As the titular substitute, Paprika Steen gets to play the fun role, acting psychopathic in front of the kids and then acting like a caring educator in front of their parents. Steen walks a fine line, portraying the character as sinister without ever going off into full-blown “Look at me! I’m evil!” mode.
The Substitute is excellently filmed. Outdoor scenes are normally under a grey, cloudy sky. You’d think that would be bad, but it’s actually kind of beautiful. It adds to feeling of doom and despair the kids are going through. One visual highlight is a sequence when the kids are boarding a bus to go on a class trip with Ulla. They’re crying, begging their parents to let them stay, but the parents just think this is the usual “leaving home for the first time” jitters. There’s a marvelous slow motion pan across the side of the bus as it pulls away, with the teary-eyed kids staring down at their parents from the bus’s windows. Some of the young faces show great sadness, some show anger, and some look like they’ve accepted their eventual grisly fate. It’s a powerful, emotional moment that really draws you into the film.
What about this movie doesn’t work? That would be the chickens. I have no idea why writer-director Ole Bornedal (1997’s Nightwatch) chose to make this movie so chicken-centric, but he did. One of the first images in the film is that of a chicken, and what happens to it is so over-the-top silly, that I initially thought this would be a Scary Movie-style parody film. There are other images of chickens throughout the movie, and its final third takes place at, you guessed it, a chicken farm. Who knows, maybe the Danish think chickens are really scary.
The anamorphic widescreen picture is crystal clear, providing a lot of nice detail despite a lot of dark scenes. The 5.1 sound is also sharp, in its original Danish and in an English dub. Definitely stick with the original. The dub has adult voice actors trying to mimic the children’s voices, and the effect is not convincing at all. For extras, there’s a low-key director’s commentary and gallery of trailers for other films with the Ghost House Underground label.
Combining scary and quirky is a tough trick to pull off. The Substitute doesn’t quite get there, but the creators deserve applause for giving it a shot. If you’re looking for something outside the norm, or if you just like your horror to be chicken-centric, then give this one a rental.