When their teacher is suddenly struck with a case of salmonella, a class of Danish sixth-graders find themselves with a substitute teacher: Miss Ulla Harms, sent by the Education Ministry to evaluate the class’s fitness for a state-sponsored trip to Paris. But Ulla’s teaching methods are, to say the least, unorthodox, including constant verbal abuse (and other more…unusual techniques). Starting with the troubled Carl, the students soon come to the conclusion that Ulla is an alien monster. Could this be true? And if so, what does Ulla want with her students and Carl’s widower father?
OMG the monsters are coming, the kids all know but the grown-ups will never believe them!!! is a common trope of horror. Hell, even body-snatching alien teachers have been done before. So how do the Danes do?
You can tell from the first scene that The Substitute isn’t going to take things quite-so-seriously, as a narrator sardonically informs the audience that of all the species of the universe, only Earthlings possess the ability to empathize and love. (Or at least, it sounded sardonic to me. One of my problems with Danish is that 75% of the spoken language sounds like Crow T. Robot being sarcastic.) The film has more than its fair share of eccentric characters, witty dialogue and running jokes. (“His wife came down with salmonella. I didn’t even know he was married!”) There’s also an obsession with chickens that seems a bit unusual considering the film’s urban or suburban (I couldn’t really tell) setting.
Certainly Paprika Steen seems to see Ulla as more of a comical figure than a serious one, an approach she undertakes with gusto, making her an engaging and memorable antagonist. She dominates the movie, although she’s surrounded by reasonably strong performances (particularly Ulrich Thomsen as Carl’s sad-sack scientist/philosopher father Jesper); even the students deliver work that’s a notch or two above what I’ve come to expect from actors of that age.
But while The Substitute is a movie you can definitely laugh at, it’s not quite one you can believe in, even by the standards of a movie about an evil, shape-shifting alien with a plan to abduct an entire class full of Danish twelve-year-olds. It’s a good thing that so many of the crucial scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, because if they weren’t, they’d ring distinctly false. And sometimes the humor doesn’t even save them–the scene where the parents herd their children onto the bus for Paris, turning deaf ears to a unanimous series of protests (“This will be the last time you ever see your son again!” the token nerd ominously warns) is particularly painful.
The filmmakers’ approach to broad humor also mars some plot and character elements as well. I said earlier that Ulla was an engaging villain, but she’s probably too much so; often I found myself rooting for her in scenes where she berates the students (particularly in one scene where she uses mind-control mojo to make a kid describe her as a “cool hamster” instead of as a “cruel monster”), and it doesn’t help that the kids themselves don’t get much in the way of development. Her supernatural powers are too broadly defined (over the course of the movie, we see her create limited-use duplicates of people, turn people into dolls, and turn back time) more dictated by the needs of plot development as opposed to actual world-building. And yet…as powerful as she is, she never quite feels like a genuine threat; Steen is too much of an over-the-top bully to seem truly dangerous. And the climax is a prime example of “the Joss Whedon Effect”: considering how powerful she’s set up to be, the conflict is resolved far too easily.
It’s a horror movie that sets itself up to be more funny than scary, and even when it tries to scare it doesn’t put much oomph into it. (The R rating is entirely on the basis of swearing–take that out, and it’s barely a PG-13. In its native country, it’s certified as appropriate for viewers aged 11 and up. Which tells you a lot about the MPAA.) But when it’s funny, it’s really funny–enough so to make it worth a watch in spite of the problems.
My rating: 6 of 10.
Denmark; in Danish, with English subtitles. 93 minutes. Directed by Ole Bornedal. Starring Paprika Steen, Ulrich Thomsen, Jonas Wandschneider, Nikolaj Falkenberg-Klok, Emma Juel Justesen.