“The Substitute” (2015): Fear Grips Females at a British School in Multilayered Thriller Short

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Schools around the world are already tough enough places to teach at and attend, but imagine a British private school where classroom doors are locked from the outside during lesson time, girls are treated as nameless second-class citizens who endure abuse and live in fear, and boys are encouraged to run roughshod over females. That is only some of what is in store in the award-winning short chiller The Substitute.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer stars as Miss Byrd, a recently graduated young teacher who is seeking her first job. As she enters a schoolyard for an interview that she arranged herself, she doesn’t see that behind her, a group of boys commit an act of violence on a girl. The school’s headmaster (David Bamber) hires her despite her inexperience and because the school seeks “a certain type” for their positions and he believes that she fits that bill.

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The headmaster (David Bamber) gives Miss Byrd (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) a tour of the unusual school where she will teach in The Substitute.

As Miss Byrd teaches her first class, she soon notices that something is amiss with the girl students. The boys dominate the class while the girls remain silent and sullen, even frightened. The problems – along with the tension and mysteries of the film – only escalate from there. Miss Byrd tries to maintain order and a sense of authority over the class but the boys’ challenges to her, a red light and buzzer that frighten the girls even more, and a mysterious door cause her to go from puzzled to frustrated to frightened – and beyond.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer wrote the suspenseful screenplay in addition to starring. She and director/editor Nathan Hughes-Berry, her collaborator at Booruffle Films (http://www.booruffle.com/the-substitute/4584295746),  have crafted an enigmatic thriller that reveals more and more myseries as its story unfolds. The duo tells their alarming tale using the traditional, time-tested method of leaving some things to the imagination, and their approach is most effective here. A sense of apprehension runs tautly throughout, with Hughes-Berry framing the proceedings in stark classrooms, down long corridors that seem to hide menace behind their walls, and with frequent close-ups of the characters’ faces, with cinematographer Charlie Goodger capturing the events admirably. Alex Harwood’s score is used sparingly but to great effect.

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Seven (Haruka Abe) is one of the frightened girl students who remain in near-silent fear both in and out of the classroom.

Madeline Sims-Fewer is marvelous as a young woman faced with sinister occurrences and a difficult choice to make. Ben Kerfoot is solid as Patrick, the ringleader of the boys. Kerfoot embodies this character with a sense of peril bubbling beneath the surface but an outwardly soft-spoken matter-of-factness. Haruke Abe as Seven, one of the terrified girls, gives a notable turn, as well, along with Anna Hogarth as Five, another frightened classmate. David Bamber is terrific as the headmaster and his interview scene with Sims-Fewer warrants repeated viewings for several reasons.

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Miss Byrd (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) and student Patrick (Ben Kerfoot) spar in a power struggle.

The Substitute works as a riveting horror thriller that disturbs as its puzzles unfold, and it also offers sharp insight on modern sexual politics. Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Nathan Hughes-Berry are a talented team and this disquieting short film holds many rewards for viewers.

The Substitute: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry’s formative years were spent watching classic monster movies (starting with "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Godzilla Vs. the Thing") and TV series (starting with "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits"), Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features" and Roy Shires’ Big Time Wrestling (two northern California legends); reading Silver Age and Bronze Age Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Marvel, and DC comics; and writing mimeographed newsletters about the original "Planet of the Apes" film and TV series. More recently, he has written for "Filmfax" magazine, is the foreign correspondent reporter for the "Horror News Radio" podcast, and is a regular contributing writer to "Phantom of the Movies’s VideoScope" magazine, occasionally proudly co-writing articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.