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Ulla Harms Does Not Exist

October 25th, 2010 · 2 Comments

As days get shorter, nights get longer and All Hallow’s Eve beckons, I can say that I won’t be wandering the streets dressed as Chewbacca begging for candy. What I can’t say is whether or not at my age, horror movies still have any surprises left in them. In the search for originality, it’d be a good idea to start anywhere but Hollywood. For the month of October, I take a trip around the globe to see what’s scaring some of my favorite countries these days.

The Substitute (2007)
Directed by Ole Bornedal
Written by Ole Bornedal & Henrik Prip
Produced by Michael Obel
93 minutes

It doesn’t quite hold up under a complete engine diagnostic, but as far as a movie that takes you on a spin around the block, The Substitute is a blast. Filmmaker Ole Borendal shot to international acclaim with his 1994 Danish language thriller Nightwatch, sank to anonymity with a poorly received U.S. remake in 1997 and returned home. One of his ideas was a science fiction comedy geared for kids that would be produced in Denmark. Borendal passed his outline for The Substitute to actor/playwright Henrik Prip, an old friend. Revising Prip’s draft, Borendal took the property to producer Michael Obel, whose Copenhagen based Thura Films had collaborated with Borendal on three prior films. Financed for roughly €3.2 million, the genre bender became a hit in Denmark. Sam Raimi and his Ghost House Pictures are in the process of developing a U.S. remake.

The Substitute could be summed up as Fright Night meets The Simpsons if you wanted to stop at two genre related movies or TV shows riffed on for the film’s mad dash to the finish line. When Borendal slows down to let us savor the intelligence and wit of his schoolroom scenes, his movie soars. The half dozen or so 6th graders in the cast come off like real kids occupying a real classroom, while Paprika Steen is beautifully cast as their nemesis in a role the Danish actress/director devours like candy. The wildly divergent elements — sci-fi, comedy, horror, coming-of-age, melodrama — suggest that appealing to every moviegoer was more of a concern than coherence; the musical cues by composer Marco Beltrami are like Coca Cola shot through a crazy straw. Stylishly shot on a low budget, The Substitute somehow makes those kinks work in its favor.

On a distant planet whose inhabitants know only war, a probe is dispatched to Earth to gather an understanding of love. A silver ball crashes into a chicken farm on the outskirts of Copenhagen and after a luminescent firefly immobilizes the farmer, the critter takes over the body of his snoozing wife. In the city, 12-year-old Carl Osböll (Jonas Wandschneider) copes with the loss of a mother killed in a traffic accident by holding one-sided conversations with her in heaven. Carl’s widowed father Jesper (Ulrich Thomsen) is a sociologist whose latest book deals with the quality that makes human beings unique in the universe: love. At school, Carl receives a new classmate named Rikke (Emma Juel Justesen), who moves in next door with a single mother (Sonja Richter) whom Jesper realizes is a cop only after he disparages the police force.

Alerted by their principal that their teacher has salmonella poisoning, a substitute arrives to a strange chorus of every student’s cell phone ringing at once. Giving the name Ulla Harms (Paprika Steen), Class 6B’s new teacher exhibits whip-like callousness, a mind as vast as a computer and the uncanny ability to read the minds of her pupils. When news of her behavior gets out, concerned parents flock to the school. Their fears are allayed by the appearance of the Education Minister, who vouches for Miss Harms and allows her to win over the adults. Having observed the substitute conjure the government official from a silver ball in her bag, Carl steals several slides from Miss Harms, one of which is a photo that over time is populated by more of Carl’s classmates, all staring up at the sky. Rallying his fellow students, Carl sets out to discover Miss Harm’s plan and stop her.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 452 users: 46% for The Substitute

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Aliens · Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Femme fatale · Mother/son relationship

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tommy Salami // Oct 25, 2010 at 8:34 am

    I’d never heard of this one, but now it’s in my queue. Sounds right up my alley!

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Tommy: Whether the appeal here is Danish film or blonde aliens, I’m looking forward to the Pluck You Too! report on The Substitute. Thanks for commenting!

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