Danish writer/director Ole Bornedal is the man behind one of my favorite still-undiscovered gems, 1997's Nightwatch (the one starring Ewan MacGregor, not to be confused with the also wonderful — but Russian — film, Night Watch, directed by Timur Bekmambatov).
I haven't seen any of Bornedal's other movies, until now. I've obviously been remiss, because Substitute is a keeper too. The 'evil E.T.' horror/comedy is rated R for language, but clearly it's aimed towards teens (think: Let The Right One In meets The Monster Squad, with a dash of Disturbing Behavior reverse-psychology).
While the Lionsgate Ghost House Underground DVD does suffer from somewhat poor dubbing and maybe a few things lost in translation, there is no substitute for excellent acting and sublime storytelling. The mesmerizing Paprika Steen plays Ulla Harms, a taunting teacher who takes over a classful of kids cracking wise — and learns them a few lessons in fear. You see, Ms. Harms is out to do just what her name says, even if her ostensive purpose for beaming down to earth is to find out about the human capacity for love.
As the opening credits play out and the alien lands on a Danish chicken farm, just think: sometimes, you've got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Ms. Harms also busts a few balls when she takes over at school, insults and ugly truths rolling off her tongue like slimy yolks.
At first, the sixth-graders are stunned to silence and frozen with inaction, but Carl (Jonas Wandschneider) knows something is wrong with the attractive blonde. As she by turns leers (at the kids) and lures (their parents), Ms. Harms tries to make herself a substitute for Carl's recently-deceased mum by seducing his lonely and kindly dad, Jesper (Ulrich Thomsen) and tempts everyone with Parisian promises (what student body doesn't want a field trip to the City of Lights? Unfortunately, it'll be more like lights out if Ms. Harms gets her wicked way!).
The cinematography is workmanlike, as is the music (which is by Marco Beltrami, who scored a somewhat similar story before: The Faculty). What really brings the grading curve up are the actors and the absurd yet grounded way in which they interpret this shocking "what if?" story.
As I mentioned, there is some clumsy dubbing and puzzling subtitling at times. Plus, the CGI is more Undead (2003) than Dawn of the Dead (2004), but all in all it's quick and painless. The power of the offbeat story, the bizarre, whimsical and scary comedic moments, and total outrageousness of Steen's commanding performance make Substitute well within the outer limits.
See it now, before it's remade (producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert have bought the rights, and plan to re-imagine it… here's hoping for something a little better than Boogeyman 1, 2, and yes… 3). Maybe, at least, Bornedal will direct the do-over — and join an ever-growing legion of filmmakers repeating themselves. He did it himself with Nightwatch (which was a Danish-language film released in '94), plus there's Michael Haneke who did Funny Games twice; George Sluizer who directed The Vanishing dos times; and the Pang Brothers who liked Bangkok Dangerous so much they timesed it by two.
= = =
Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson