Paprika Steen, the Danish actress best known for her roles in Dogme films like “Festen,” “The Idiots” and “Mifune,” is to die for in Ole Bornedal’s horror-comedy “The Substitute.” Like, she eats someone whole. She plays the forbiddingly named Ulla Harms, a substitute teacher who takes over sixth grade class 6B and whose hair-raisingly cruel instruction technique is augmented by what seem to be the abilities to read minds, balance pencils on their sharpened tips and force people to say nice things about her. In short, Ulla is an alien, a fact 6B, led by moody protagonist Carl (Jonas Wandschneider), gets wise to early on but the verity of which they can’t convince their well-meaning, oblivious parents, even as it becomes clear she means to abduct the kids and abscond to her brutal home planet in order to use them as specimens in an attempt to understand the human capacities for empathy and love.
“The Substitute” is a family film, but one that’s Roald Dahl-dark. Ulla torments her tween charges by deriding their buckteeth and academic prowess, revealing their hidden crushes to the crowd and, in the case of Carl, mocking his sorrow of his recently dead mother. In one of the most wickedly funny scenes, their parents convinced video games have given their children wild delusions of imagination, the students are dragged, shrieking and swearing they’ll never be seen again, to a bus for a field trip and dropped off by waving moms and dads who sunnily ignore the tears of their terrified offspring. Steen strides through “The Substitute” heels, curled hair and fitted dresses like a Scandinavian take on a certain Van Helen video, but with a disturbing tendency to have all emotion drop off her face until she realizes someone’s watching. The face she turns to other adults is sweet, smiling and competent; the one she turns to the children might have tentacles protruding from it or be dripping with blood from the live chicken she just devoured The denouement’s disappointing, but it was bound to be, because Ulla had to get her comeuppance. I was still pulling for her — it seemed like she’d earned the win.
[Photo: “The Substitute,” Ghosthouse Underground, 2008]
+ “The Substitute” (Fantastic Fest)