See more of the story

Creepy children are a mainstay of the horror genre. They have long proved capable of unnerving audiences with a combination of precocious dialogue and psychopathic behavior. The chilling horror film “The Prodigy” continues that tradition, with one intriguing complication: The young villain is a metaphor for parental failure.

When Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling and Peter Mooney) bring home their newborn, Miles, everything seems normal. As the years pass, Sarah realizes that Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) has extraordinary cognitive ability. By age 8, he’s enrolled in a school where he can receive special attention.

That doesn’t last long. In a burst of sudden violence, Miles grabs a monkey wrench and beats a classmate. Alarmed, Sarah takes him to a behavior specialist (Colm Feore), who suspects that another, more disturbed consciousness may inhabit Miles’s body alongside his own.

Trusting the audience’s intelligence, director Nicholas McCarthy and screenwriter Jeff Buhler waste no time with ambiguity over whether Miles is evil or simply misunderstood. The script is clean and economical, with an inexorable logic to each twist.

Horror fans will recognize Scott from the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.” In that 2017 film, the actor played an achingly sincere little boy whose body is later possessed by a demonic spirit. As Miles, he hits those same notes — with an added dose of dark comedy.

Scott’s ability to contort his face and alter his tone as he transitions between two modes makes his portrayal utterly convincing. It’s rare — and disconcerting — to hear a child actor using four-letter words, especially in the way that they are spoken here. McCarthy shrewdly taps into that unease, manipulating us into believing his young star.

The final stretch of “The Prodigy” involves Sarah’s desperate, and bizarre, plan to save her son. The film adds just enough plausibility that we can accept the strategy, which clearly makes sense to her. Several nightmare sequences fuel her desperation, including a flourish so strange and bluntly effective that audiences will remember it long after the film is over.

The Prodigy

★★★ out of 4 stars

Rating: R for violence, disturbing images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity.