"Most kids live in a fantasy...they morph reality to suit themselves, no matter how pathologically twisted their imaginations are."
If you haven't seen the 1998 Danish film The Celebration (Festen), shame on you. If you have, I don't need to convince you of Paprika Steen's greatness. Gifted with an achingly expressive face and a charismatic energy, she makes you feel her emotions. That skill comes in handy in The Substitute (Vikaren), where she's given a unique challenge--a role that's more performance than person. Lucky for us, she's up to the task--and is surrounded by an equally talented director and cast, making this one of the strongest titles in Lionsgate's "Ghost House Underground" set.
Directed by Ole Bornedal--the man who gave us both versions of Nightwatch (the 1994 Danish original and the 1997 remake with Ewan McGregor)--The Substitute is marketed as a new take on The Faculty. While it has a lot in common with that 1994 American spooker, I hesitate to force the comparison too much. While both films have a sci-fi base, this film becomes more of a fairy tale/fantasy (ala Tim Burton) and doesn't morph into pseudo-slasher territory like The Faculty (although the two films ironically share a composer: Marco Beltrami).
"Once upon a time, there was a blue planet by the name of Earth. On this planet, some six billion people lived together for better or worse, in war and in love. But there was also life on another planet. The creatures there were not as diverse, for they only knew war, not love. So mankind had something they really wanted...yet as with all good stories, a lot can go wrong..."
So begins this cosmic tale, which settles in a small Danish town where a sixth grade class is introduced to substitute teacher Ulla (Steen). She makes an instant impression on the boisterous kids--especially when she immediately exerts her authority. It's one of many hysterical sequences from Bornedal's mind (he co-wrote with Henrik Prip), and he isn't afraid to treat the children like adults. Neither is Ulla, who wastes no opportunity to insult their intelligence. She delivers a spirited smackdown, and you may hate yourself for laughing so hard (the rope climbing scene provides more jaw-dropping treatment by Ulla that will have you shouting "No she di-int!").
But Ulla just wants them all to do well: "Before we're through, I promise you will be the cleverest and most intelligent pupils in the entire universe," she advises. That way she can take them all on a field trip to Paris for a European Union project, a prospect that initially excites the class. But that feeling doesn't last long when the intelligent kids notice some odd behavior and do some research--and find no record of Ulla's existence. They also get spooked by a morphing photograph that may hold the answer to a greater plan.
We see most of the student perspective through Carl (Jonas Wandschneider), who's still distraught over the death of his mother. He lives with his inquisitive sister Sofie and his equally lonely father Jesper--played by Ulrich Thomsen, another talent who shined in The Celebration (he played lead character Christian, brother to Steen's Helene). "I'm such a cliché," Jesper bemoans at the dinner table. "What's a cliché?" asks Sofie. "A stressed-out single father who's completely useless."
Jesper is also an author specializing in social anthropology, and his latest book focuses on what makes mankind unique: its ability to love, show compassion and feel empathy. Maybe that's why Ulla shows so much interest in him and the kids. Oh...did I forget to mention that in the first scene, Ulla gets possessed by an alien from the loveless world the narrator references in the prologue? (Sorry...my bad!) The kids can't convince their parents that Ulla is a monster, so they're forced to do the detective work in a memorable battle of wills. Can they save themselves before the fateful field trip?
There's an adorably offbeat touch to this exaggerated story and its whimsical world (love the chickens!), given life by a witty script, beautiful visuals and playful performances. Everything here is top-notch: Steen dives into her character, and has a blast literally eating up the scenery (she's sexy, wicked and hysterical). I was even more amazed by the child actors, some of the best I've seen (Wandschneider handles some pretty hefty material with the skill of a seasoned pro).
Not only are they great individually, they have genuine chemistry together and click in frequent comedic exchanges (the "once upon a time..." joke from young Albert sets the Smart Alec tone perfectly). All of the youngsters show an understanding of timing and have an appreciation for the feelings behind the words. Each takes advantage of their limited screen time, using little touches to distinguish their characters. (Henrik Prip also has a great turn as "Psycho" Claus, the school psychologist.)
The cinematography by Dan Laustsen--combined with the production design of Marie í Dali--is gorgeous. Bornedal lets everything unfold on an intentionally dark canvas (it's almost a black-and-white movie), and the film provides so many set pieces and shots that demand your attention. It's a beauty to watch, the story and scenery a perfect blend of stark contrasts: ominous yet hilarious, sad yet hopeful, dark yet romantic. The few special effects here are on the cheaper side, but they fit perfectly with the film's comic book tone ("Sorry guys, that's all we could afford," notes the director of one effect during the audio commentary).
The film's success on the festival circuit caught the eye of North American executives, and a remake by Mandate Pictures is in the works. It will be nearly impossible for them to improve upon this outstanding effort, so do yourself a favor and check it out now. There's an energy and enthusiasm here that reminds you what it's like to be a kid, coupled with mature messages that make for an unforgettable experience--a common occurrence with all these amazing Danish filmmakers.
Don't go into The Substitute expecting a horror film: It's not serious scary, it's fun scary--a blend of adventure and fantasy, a dark comedy with innocent yet superlative suspense (I'm not sure how to explain the R rating). I was under its spell from the first frame, and enjoyed every second of its perfectly paced magic. It's got an emotional heart, and makes us feel the characters' fear, loneliness and hope. As your eyes soak in the film's stunning visuals, you'll root for these kids every step of the (way with a smile on your face!) in one of the year's most pleasant surprises.
Note: The Substitute is one of eight films--available individually and in a boxed set--being released October 14, 2008 on Lionsgate's new "Ghost House Underground" label. The other films on the label are Brotherhood of Blood, Dance of the Dead, Dark Floors, The Last House in the Woods, No Man's Land: The Rise of Reeker, Room 205 and Trackman.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is beautiful, befitting the film's tone and highlighting the stellar cinematography. It's a cold, sterile combination of muted colors, bathed in dark tones of grey, blue and green. The contrast makes for some very dark scenes that may be too black in some areas, but overall the visuals fit the comic book tone of the work.
The 5.1 track is strong, making some effective use of rear channels in some of the louder scenes. Please opt for the original Danish track and not the awful English dub. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
The only true extra is the audio commentary with director Ole Bornedal, who speaks in English--which means it's a little slower and more careful, with some patches of silence ("I hope you enjoy the following 95 minutes with me, and you bear with my bad English and with my weird comments to this sort of weird movie," he says at the beginning). But it's worth a listen, especially when Bornedal's dry humor creeps through (regarding an unflattering facial expression from actress Paprika Steen, he notes "This is actually how she looks when she gets annoyed").
He says that the film (what he calls a "family horror movie") isn't all fiction, recalling his days in school at a small Danish town: "When I went to school, all the teachers were aliens. Most of the teachers were really cruel; some of them beat the kids," he shares. "Even though this is what one would call a funny action sci-fi comedy of some sort, it still describes the reality of my childhood." He adds that "the difficulty about a movie like The Substitute is of course it's addressed to children, but I wanted it to be also a scary movie...it's a paradox in some way, how to find the balance between the thriller and exciting story for kids, but then again not make it too cruel."
Bornedal praises his cast--many of them prominent Danish stars he has worked with before--and talks about selecting the children. He describes Jonas Wandschneider (Carl) as "poetic, beautiful, clever", which I think is also the perfect description of the film ("I had that direct contact to his heart"). Sadly for us, Bornedal notes that the young star isn't sure if he will continue acting (let's hope he does...a true star in the making).
The director spends a lot of time talking about the importance of music in film, and his long working relationship with (and appreciation of) Marco Beltrami, one of the industry's heavyweights. He notes that both components provide an essential support system, with music adding poetry and character to the story. Bornedal also compliments director of photography Dan Laustsen, calling him one of the Top 10 DPs in the biz ("Silent Hill was not a great movie, but Silent Hill was a wonderful and beautiful movie to watch DP-wise").
As for his own style, Bornedal distances himself from the trend many of his peers have popularized: "I'm much more in favor of the classic film tradition like Francis Ford Coppola or David Lean or whoever, who works with the camera and the blocking and the actors and the light, and not the more post-modern...hand-held Dogme sort of style that tends, in the long run, to bore me a little."
"So this is the conclusion...I hope I didn't bore you too much. I'm pretty certain there will be no one left by now listening to me saying this, but if there should be one or two in the history to come that got so far in my director's comments on this movie, you are true heroes."
Also included are the film's DVD trailer, and trailers for other releases (including the other Ghost House titles).
Director Ole Bornedal calls young actor Jonas Wandschneider "poetic, beautiful and clever," three words that perfectly describe The Substitute. Equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and lighthearted thriller (don't expect intense horror), this Danish effort is invigorated with deliciously dark humor that's brought to life by an amazing cast. Add arresting cinematography and production design, and this is a true joy to experience. Cynical and cheerful at the same time, it's a movie with a message about isolation, loneliness and sorrow--and the battle to break free. Highly Recommended.