Lionsgate (ala Ghost House)
MSRP: $14.98
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
• Director’s Commentary

The Pitch

“A blend of The Faculty and Phantasm, for the kids.”

The Humans

Actors: Paprika Steen, Ulrich Thomsen, Sonja Richter, Jonas Wandschneider

Director: Ole Bornedal

The Nutshell

Ah, the 6th grade. I fondly remember feeling kinda funny… like when you used to climb the rope in gym class, after your sadistic teacher (who’s really an E.T. in a flesh-suit) invaded your brain with her psychic powers and mocked you in front of your peers with snide remarks about your dead mother… almost like it was yesterday.

You could be hard-ass like Tom Berenger or Treat Williams, but you can catch more flies with a re-enactment of Basic Instinct‘s interrogation scene.

The Lowdown

Across the strait from Sweden’s Let the Right One In, comes another genre tale of children, monsters, and the human condition. Denmark’s Vikaren (The Substitute) never reaches the status of Masterpiece like its neighbor’s vampire contribution, but it still remains a gem that I’d rather not get lost in the DTV shuffle. I was pleasantly surprised that Raimi’s Ghost House Underground label picked this up for distribution through Lionsgate, as it doesn’t fall into the obvious category alongside GH’s other titles: The Grudge, Boogeyman, 30 Days of Night, or even their acquired-from-Finland dvd, Dark Floors.

“Fowl Play” Joke #1!
Authorities suspected that Gonzo the Great was an old school Morman fundamentalist, but a sex slave ring-leader?

Vikaren’s tone varies from touching to funny to scary dexterously, and endeavors to be more artful than GHU’s mostly camp and more teen-aimed Dance of the Dead. But Vikaren is not a horror movie per se, at least not in the modern sense. Its premise comes from a more 50s/60s sci-fi sensibility (Twilight Zone or Outer Limits) mixed with the PG/PG-13 80s coming-of-age vibe that I grew up on (Explorers, Monster Squad). Categorically speaking, Vikaren is a kid’s film, in much of the way King’s Stand By Me and It are. The main protagonists are kids, with a few parental figures along for the ride, but the film isn’t afraid to creep you out or make you think.

Close Encounters of the JAZZ HANDS!

“I am not a monster… I am honest.”

The movie’s villain is clearly the alien invader (played by the committed Paprika Steen), who takes a field-trip to our planet in order to understand what makes humans tick, and how a warring species can still be so full of love for each other amidst all of Earth’s constant conflict. It seems like a clear motive, but Ulla’s ultimate plan, methods, and powers are mysterious. The kids immediately suspect their new sub isn’t simply the latest authority figure in their school daze, and her behavior just gets weirder from there. Furthermore, the ages of the main characters successfully adds to the story’s tension and nurtures audience sympathy. The deliciously bi-polar Ulla’s an antagonist for the alienated (the parents don’t believe them) class, but she’s also a catalyst. In a more-harsh-than-clinical effort to learn about homo sapien Empathy and our connection to our fellow man, Ulla causally forces the children to band together against the supernatural teacher. Speaking of, the boy who plays Carl, the lead pubescent, is a natural. In addition to empathy, Vikaren is also a study in grief and the coming to terms with personal loss. All the kids give fine performances in their archetypal roles, but 1st time actor, Jonas Wandschneider, is a standout and solid keystone for these thematic journeys.

When the unfortunate boy discovered his parents were none other than the International Man of Mystery and Melissa George, everything gelled.

Having a brain in your script and some decent actors is fine and all, but if the film-makers botch the execution, it’s all for naught. Fortunately, Ole Bornedal (director of the Danish Nightwatch & US remake, producer on GDT’s Mimic) is in charge of this genre mash-up. As one of the script’s co-writers, he took the helm as director, imbuing his film with soul, levity, and atmosphere to spare. Dan Lausten’s (Mimic, Brotherhood of the Wolf, LXG, Silent Hill) cinematography is beautiful. Handheld is utilized, but each shot is carefully planned out and uses the painterly and wide style of the Panavision classics. With the dark/light contrasts on display, I could easily picture this film in Black & White presentation, like Darabont’s The Mist. Marco Beltrami (Scream 1-3, Mimic, The Faculty, Blade 2, T3, Hellboy) also gives the film a professional polish, by weaving a score which ranges from “horror to weird beauty” and compliments the top-notch eerie sound design nicely.

“Right here. ‘… 30 days to return product for a full refund, excluding dismembered protocol droids, re-purposed Speak & Spells, and especially unwrapped anal probes.’ See?”

I like that it doesn’t have to rely on gore or jump scares to create unease. I also admire the film’s ability to present genre clichés (prey hiding in the bathroom stalls while predator inspects each one, for example) and still manages to remain fresh and truthful. I’m a tad mixed on some of the flick’s more left-field moments (especially in the climax: shrinkage?), but I’ll forgive the silliness, as a fan of WTF genre films (Phantasm!) and considering the possible younger demographic. Vikaren is rated R, but other than language (the kids hit each other and curse like real kids do), and possibly some of the more mature themes (not Let the Right One In mature, but…), I can’t see how this wouldn’t be a tiny edit away from TV-acceptable. As it stands now, it’s PG for Canadian audiences. Go figure. I would have probably loved this atmospheric movie growing up, taping it off of HBO, and watching it with friends/family. Remember Roland Emmerich’s sorta-charming dubbed oddity, Making Contact? Amongst the mourning plot, that movie made blatant Easter Egg references to E.T., Poltergeist, Close Encounters, etc. Vikaren feels more of their ilk (in craft and quality), instead of, like Emmerich’s, just making cheaply evocative callbacks to them.

Of course, there’s an American remake of The Substitute in the works.

“Fowl Play” Joke #2!
After leaving one of her Bestiality Anonymous group sessions, Beverly Switzler finds a single white feather in the pocket of her worn Cherry Bomb band jacket… and regrets NOTHING.

The Package

Lausten’s exquisitely lit and composed photography looks superb on this disc and Beltrami’s weirdly beautiful and nuanced score accentuates all the varied themes clearly throughout the effective Dolby mix. The default English dub is Terrible (adult voice actors playing kids), so you’ll want to switch to the Danish track and subtitles option ASAP. The Substitute’s all too lean on special features, but the relaxed director’s commentary fills in a little of the behind-the-scenes magic. I definitely prefer this image, which brings to mind stories similar to Weekly Reader Book Club’s classic, My Teacher Is an Alien (or Goosebumps’ Creature Teacher for the newer generation) or I Married a Monster from Outer Space, instead of the generic and misleading (albeit more horror-oriented for the close-minded genre-snob) ghost/zombie (?) image on the cover. It seems like Ghost House is trying to pull a fast one here with this import. Fortunately, this bait and switch still results in a quality viewing experience. Hopefully this review will prepare you for Vikaren‘s invasion.

8.5 out of 10