The Substitute,
a.k.a. Vikaren,
directed by Ole Bornedal
(Lionsgate, 2007)

I couldn't help but worry when what I thought was a pure horror film (it certainly looked like one, and it is one of the Ghost House Underground films, after all) opened with the words "once upon a time." A somewhat confusing opening and lots of obviously bad dubbing (this is a Danish film) did little to reassure me. Once the "substitute" showed up, though, I quickly found myself being drawn into this quite unusual film. Let me assure you that this is a really weird movie -- surreal, actually -- and some people will undoubtedly hate it. As for me, I loved it. They should have stuck with the original Danish title, though -- Vikaren -- because that sounds so much cooler than The Substitute -- and this is one seriously cool movie.

I think most of us loved substitute teachers when we were kids because it meant a free period of quiet reading or anything that didn't involve actual learning for that day. Of course, it's a different story when a regular teacher is going to be out for an extended period of time -- but it's not like some strange woman is going to come in and terrorize the kids with extra-sensory powers and prepare them for a mass alien abduction. Unless you're a Danish kid going to the school portrayed in The Substitute, that is.

Here, the new substitute reads the minds of the kids and uses that to begin terrorizing them from the moment she walks in (well, she makes a pencil stand up balanced on its tip first). It's especially hard for young Carl, who is already dealing with the recent horrific loss of his mother. Despite his outcast status among his classmates, he manages to convince the others that something is seriously wrong with their new teacher. A suddenly clique-free class then comes together and discovers that Ms. Ulla (Paprika Steen) is actually an alien who is planning on taking all of the kids back to her home planet for some nefarious reason. Naturally, their parents believe none of their kids' stories about the new teacher because Ms. Ulla is from the Education Ministry and she wants to take the class to Paris to show off all of their newly ingrained smarts (and because parents never believe their children about anything).

Have I mentioned how weird this movie is? As we are told at the beginning of the film, the alien who lands outside a chicken farm has come to Earth to help her warlike people learn about love, and apparently the best way to do that is to space-nap a class of catty sixth graders. Speaking of chickens, they prove to be an integral part of the story. If you haven't guessed, there is a measure of dark comedy permeating this little gem of a film, and you will laugh. Steen is simply fantastic as Ms. Ulla, who is more than capable of humiliating a kid one minute and crying her eyes out for the benefit of the parents the next. The kids are great, too. So what if this is more science fiction than horror? It's still brilliant in its uniquely quirky way.

Granted, it doesn't quite fit in alongside the other Ghost House Underground titles, yet it's probably my favorite of the bunch. If this is the kind of movie they're turning out in Denmark, I say we start importing more Danish films right now.

review by
Daniel Jolley

16 April 2011

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