Ole Bornedal proved himself an unusually skilled purveyor of macabre suspense with 1994’s NATTEVAGEN, a.k.a. NIGHTWATCH. He was subsequently offered a multi-picture deal at Miramax, which yielded a poorly received (but actually quite memorable) English-language remake of NIGHTWATCH in 1997 and the same year’s MIMIC (produced by Bornedal and directed by Guillermo Del Toro). Following that Bornedal moved back to his native Denmark, where he made the middling epic I AM DINA (2002) before returning to his horror roots with VIKAREN, or THE SUBSTITUTE, in 2007.
The film was released in the U.S. straight to DVD in 2008 via the Sam Raimi headed outfit Ghost House Underground (the reason the film is mistakenly credited in some quarters as “Sam Raimi’s THE SUBSTITUTE”).
In a sleepy Danish town a new substitute teacher, a vivacious blond woman, has taken the local school by storm. The teacher, Miss Harms, is in fact an extraterrestrial who’s crashed to Earth and taken over the body of a local woman. Her aim is to find out what makes us humans feel empathy, as her race has none.
The students of Miss Harms’ sixth grade class, including the rebellious Carl, are immediately suspicious of her, and with good reason: she’s unusually mean and can read their minds. Furthermore, one of the nerdier students does a search on his laptop computer for her name and can’t find it registered anywhere. The kids also sneak into Miss Harms’ house and spy her devouring a live chicken.
Carl, who’s been severely traumatized by the death of his mother, is further vexed when Miss Harms unexpectedly shows up at his house for dinner. There she demonstrates her powers by exploding her face into a mass of slimy tentacles…and then immediately reforming it!
The following day Carl’s father agrees to tag along for a field trip undertaken by Miss Harms. The trip is to a remote farmhouse, where the substitute presumably wants to call down her alien chums to take the kids and Carl’s father back to her planet. It’s up to Carl to face down Miss Harms and make things right!
I really wish THE SUBSTITUTE were stronger conceptually, as it never plays like much more than the umpteenth retread of monster teacher clichés (as established by the likes of INVADERS FROM MARS, CLASS OF 1999 and THE FACULTY) that it is. Yet Ole Bornedal is such a skilled filmmaker it works—not as well as NIGHTWATCH, perhaps, but it works.
The film has been taken overly seriously by some commentators, who assume that (apparently because it’s foreign) it must have some profound hidden subtext. In truth it’s precisely the type of horror fare we’ve come to expect from Hollywood: lightweight, derivative and effects heavy, only better made than most such films.
Bornedal has a master’s talent for building suspense, and here demonstrates a love of the outrageous. There’s also a fun, lip-smacking performance by Lars Von Trier regular Paprika Steen as Miss Harms. It might have helped, of course, if Miss Harms’ powers were more clearly delineated (as her abilities seem to vary from scene to scene) and if the CGI were better (as Steen’s terrific head-bursting dinner table gag is compromised by the primitiveness of the effects).
The bleakness and grotesquerie of NIGHTWATCH have been toned down considerably, although THE SUBSTITUTE is still quite strong for the alleged kids movie Bornedal claims he was aiming for. The film is extremely dark, literally, with desaturated photography that favors shadow. But make no mistake: Ole Bornedal knows what he’s doing, and, even if he didn’t entirely deliver on his stated aims, did succeed in crafting a rousing scarefest that’s above average in every respect.
THE SUBSTITUTE (VIKAREN)
Thura Film/Ghost House Underground
Director: Ole Bornedal
Producer: Michael Obel
Screenplay: Henrik Prip, Ole Bornedal
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Editing: Thomas Krag
Cast: Paprika Steen, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Falkenberg-Klok, Emma Juel Justesen, Mollie Maria Gilmartin, Josephine Wormslew Gents, Emma Caludia Sondergaard, Jakob Fals Nygaard, Andreas Gram Nielsen, Mathias Peter Kjaer, Sonja Richter