“The Substitute” (2007) – A.J. Hakari

If The Substitute came out in the ’80s, it would’ve been a cult classic by now. The very premise echoes that most cheesy of decades, a sci-fi tale that would’ve appealed greatly to the budding movie hound I was back in the day. Instead, this Danish genre picture now finds itself a part of Lionsgate’s dubious Ghost House Underground line-up. But while The Substitute isn’t anything that’s about to rattle the foundations of science fiction as we know it, it is a much more slick and well-presented ride than you might expect.

Poor Carl (Jonas Wandschneider). You’d think this sullen preteen would have a hard enough time coping with the recent death of his mother. But one day, along comes Ulla Harms (Paprika Steen), a substitute teacher taking over for Carl’s class. But while a sub usually means no homework and getting to goof off, Ulla is all business. She proceeds to put her students through a gauntlet of physical and psychological torture, forcing them to run countless laps in gym class and mercilessly making fun of Carl’s dead mom. But it’s when Ulla starts to display strange psychic powers that our young heroes begin to suspect that something else is afoot. It’s only a matter of time before Carl learns the truth, that his teacher is actually an alien from another world. But while she proceeds to fool their parents, Carl and the kids band together to fight back against Ulla and stop her from completing her nefarious objective.

There are times when The Substitute felt like the “Goosebumps” book that never was. It’s a film that preys on our hatred for that one teacher in school that nobody could stomach, suggesting even more sinister and perhaps supernatural motivations at work. This is the sort of idea that could direct itself, as all the usual elements (including the oblivious parents) come pre-packaged and ready to add to the pot. But that’s not to say The Substitute is predictable to a painful degree. While you’re pretty much always in a position to figure out what’s coming next, director Ole Bornedal (both versions of Nightwatch) doesn’t quite throw in the towel. The man did a rather good job of sprucing the place up visually, casting the picture in just the right foreboding light. The special effects are a bit iffy, but when they’re good, they look great, especially the ominous clouds that churn upon the alien’s first arrival. The Substitute is pretty easy on the eyes by sci-fi/horror standards, not exactly crisp but slick enough for the atmosphere to draw you in.

But the real star of the show is Steen, hands-down. The Substitute would not have worked as well as it did had it not been for Steen’s completely off-kilter performance. It’s one in which her emotions turn on a dime, yet she makes her abrupt nature feel convincing instead of schizophrenic. In short, Steen really makes you feel like her character is out of this world, as capable of bawling her eyes out as she is of exploiting your innermost weaknesses. Even Wandschneider pitches in a decent performance as Carl, a troubled kid at the forefront of the rebellion against Ulla. Unfortunately, as great a start as it gets off to, The Substitute runs out of steam and tries to coast its way through the final act to no avail. The last twenty minutes or so feel really rushed, as if Bornedal painted himself into a corner and took the easy way out. Plus, Ulla is almost too powerful at times; if she has the ability to control the students’ minds, why doesn’t she get them to do her bidding right off the bat?

I know that nagging about such inconsistencies in a horror film is like criticizing the ocean for being wet, so I’m willing to cut The Substitute a break. I can’t say I enjoyed it completely, but if you think this looks like your average B-movie crud, you just might come away from the flick pleasantly surprised.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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