Friday, July 3, 2009
Ole Bornedal first came to my notice with his 1994 thriller, Nattevagten, which I heard good things about back then, and which he then remade three years later as the English-language Nightwatch, with Ewan McGregor, Josh Brolin, and Patricia Arquette.
Having missed the original, I made it a point to check out the redux, and found it to be an interesting, but flawed effort. It felt compromised, which happens quite often with English-language remakes, even if the original’s helmer is still in place.
After 1997, Bornedal fell off my radar, till he screeched quite forcibly back with 2007’s Vikaren (The Substitute). Following a bunch of students who suddenly discover their teacher is an alien, Vikaren sounded, at first blush, like Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty.
So here I was, with a film that not only brought my attention back to Bornedal, but also potentially felt like a vindication of the “my teacher is an evil alien” idea, which was largely squandered by The Faculty (a double disappointment, since it was a tantalizing team-up between Rodriguez and screenwriter Kevin Williamson).
Vikaren is perhaps most interesting in that Bornedal (with co-writer Henrik Prip, who also plays inept school psychologist Claus) chooses a tone which successfully mixes horror, black comedy, and bizarre humour, to produce an entertaining hybrid that’s miles better than The Faculty, and yes, is indeed a vindication of the “my teacher is an evil alien” idea.
Said evil alien is one Ulla Harms (Paprika Steen), who goes down as one of the most gonzo, politically incorrect, apparently hormonal substitute teachers in film history. A significant portion of the film’s humour stems from Steen’s performance, as she essays this inhuman entity who’s heretofore only known violence, but has arrived on Earth in order to learn about love.
But, being an evil alien, Ulla naturally just goes about things the wrong way, almost instantly alerting her students to her otherness, and ultimately uniting these misfits long enough to take her extraterrestrial a$ on.
Another refreshing tack Vikaren takes is to have a bunch of young kids (as opposed to horny teenagers) as our protagonists. Trapped in a world of mostly clueless and ineffectual adults, who never listen when he really needs them to, Carl (then-newcomer Jonas Wandschneider) not only has to deal with a recent family tragedy, but also bring his classmates—some of whom don’t particularly like the “weird” kid—together to stop the alien’s insidious plans.
And while the film buckles in certain portions of its tail end (sudden leaps in logic and editing; a missed opportunity to highlight the class as a cohesive, empathetic unit), it’s still very much a wild and welcome ride that’s not quite like anything out there that comes readily to mind.
It’s oddball, yes, but it isn’t really the horror-comedy of titles like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Christopher Smith’s Severance.
Actually, this feels closer to David Lynch territory. Sort of.
What must also not go unmentioned is the fact that, since the protagonists are essayed by child actors, the performances aren’t uniformly laudable.
There are some rough patches here, but nothing that can be considered a major stumbling block.
After all, Vikaren is all clearly in good fun.
Though I expected it to be more deadly serious than it turned out to be, Vikaren is nonetheless a title to be checked out.
At the very least, it’s loads better than The Faculty. (Yes, even without Famke.)
Parting shot: Almost as if to make The Faculty link even more overt, Vikaren also employs Faculty composer (and frequent Wes Craven collaborator) Marco Beltrami.
(Vikaren DVD cover art courtesy of wordpress.com; images and The Substitute DVD cover art courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)