Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"The Substitute" ("Vikaren")

When I rent a movie that has been somehow handled by Lionsgate Entertainment, I am pretty much assured that I'll regret doing so. It won't be TERRIBLE, necessarily, just based on a derivative, quick-sell idea that has been bungled by fools during every step of the movie-making process. I mean jeez, they don't even know how to punctuate their company's name properly.

Yesterday I watched "Chill," which was leagues worse than even the WORST Lionsgate crap, so when I realized that the movie I rented TODAY was ALSO handled by Lionsgate I thought I was going to have to chop my own hands off, to prevent myself from doing such a thing ever again.

But no! It was "The Substitute" (or "Vikaren"), a beautifully-produced Danish film more fairy tale than horror flick, and it had more charm and invention than every other Lionsgate production combined. It's about an alien who poses as a substitute teacher in order to abduct a group of precocious pre-teens, and...well, that's it, really. The film is all about the children trying to resist her designs while their parents -- under the most ridiculously cheerful mind control you've ever seen -- literally drag their screaming kids back to class.

At the center of it all is actress Paprika Steen. As the alien teacher she is by turns sweet, bizarre, and absolutely evil, cruelly taunting the doomed children one moment and then sucking up to their parents the next. Steen deserves an award, but she probably doesn't need one because I suspect she relished the role.

On the downside, "The Substitute" tends to drag a bit and the ending effects are both jarring and unnecessary. What's more, the "love conquers all" theme is laid on pretty thick, ruining what should otherwise have been a relatively gritty story.

I wonder, though, if I'm the only person who has noticed that the story was ripped off from a piece of short fiction from the '80s. I'm afraid I can't remember the story's title or author -- I'll go hunting through my collection to find it later -- but it was about an alien who needs fresh recruits for her army, so she comes to earth as a substitute teacher in order to abduct children. She arrives in class and tries to teach the children about the politics and geography of her planet, and just when she's in the process of teleporting them all away, one of the kids manages to "pop" her like a balloon.

Sound familiar? To clinch it, the teacher in the story was (I think) named "Oona," and the teacher in the movie was "Ulla." Hmmmm.

Blatant plagiarism aside, "The Substitute" is far more interesting than the original short story was, and if you like a dark fairytale with a lot of humour, a few frights, and hundreds of chickens, this film is perfect. But take my advice: switch the audio to the original Danish, and turn on the English subtitles instead. The dubbing is terrible, and probably the only thing Lionsgate had a paw in.

PS: Here's a trailer...without subtitles I'm afraid.