Children have always played an important part in horror films, acting as the central antagonist in many famous examples. In films like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Ring, this is done to subvert our expectations of how children should be depicted, challenging the traditional images of innocence and helplessness. In Dismissed, the antagonist is Lucas Ward (Dylan Sprouse), a seemingly normal teenage boy who hopes his good grades will allow him to attend an Ivy League college. By exploring the psychology of this character, the film creates a thoroughly modern type of villain – the product of a generation often criticised for its sense of entitlement and narcissism. Lucas is, essentially, a Millennial villain, reflective of the fears and anxieties attached to children in modern society. Though it starts to fall apart in the final act, Dismissed is an excellent example of how effective teen-aimed horror films can be, relying on character development and pacing, rather than excessive gore and violence.
David Butler (Kent Osborne) is dissatisfied with his job as a high school English teacher – not only because his students refuse to engage, but because a new baby at home leaves him feeling constantly exhausted. But when Lucas Ward is transferred to his class, Mr Butler can see immediately that he is nothing like his other students. His dissertation-length essays are neatly bound and presented; he speaks multiple languages; and it isn’t long before he looks to Mr Butler as a kind of role model. It soon becomes apparent, however, that there is more to Lucas than meets the eye, with flashes of rage disguised beneath his icy exterior. When he receives a B+ on an essay and is placed on the Second Seat in Chess Club, Lucas’ true nature is revealed, and he resolves to destroy Mr Butler’s life once and for all.
As Lucas, Dylan Sprouse is the star of the show, imbuing the character with a complexity rarely afforded to child antagonists. Although we learn that he possesses sociopathic tendencies, largely through his impaired empathy and remorse, Lucas is abnormally expressive, displaying a wide range of emotions – even though these are rarely genuine. When first introduced, Lucas appears to be charming and well-spoken, even arousing the audience’s sympathy when being ridiculed by his classmates. We see him becoming increasingly calculating a few scenes later, even turning violent when he feels threatened or doesn’t get his way. This results in him causing an explosion in the science lab, killing two people, and kidnapping another in order to get Mr Butler’s attention. The scene in which Lucas’ motives are uncovered – causing him to be expelled from the school – is a phenomenal piece of acting, showing how talented Sprouse is at expressing conflicting emotions.
But this is also where Dismissed starts to fall apart, as Mr Butler is the character that we’re clearly supposed to feel for. Kent Osbourne does an admirable job with a relatively one-dimensional character, but he isn’t nearly as magnetic as Sprouse, making it difficult to really sympathise with him. These problems might have been assuaged had the script focused more on Butler’s suspicions, exploring how these reflect his inability to engage his students, and why his colleagues are so reluctant to believe him. Similarly, if Lucas’ villainy was not revealed until later in the film, the audience might have a greater capacity to feel connected to Butler, as we would also begin questioning whether or not he is actually evil.
The third act of the film is where Dismissed really starts to degenerate though, and the final sequence seems rushed after a perfectly-paced beginning. After Lucas’ expulsion, the film tries to wrap things up too quickly, sacrificing some interesting character moments for the sake of a snappy ending. There are still some great scenes here, like Lucas calmly confronting Butler’s wife and child, or Lucas monologuing in Butler’s classroom, but the film misses the opportunity to conclude things in a more interesting, ambiguous way. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were made to care more for Mr Butler, but since Sprouse is the most talented actor here, we end up hoping that he might get away with it, or that the police might take his side over Butler’s. Of course, it’s understandable why a film aimed at teenagers should have a happy ending, but a final twist would have subverted expectations, making the overall film more memorable and less willing to adhere to narrative conventions.
But these are only minor problems. Dismissed is one of the best teen horror films of the last decade, boasting a fantastic central performance and some genuinely clever writing. The fact that the audience has a hard time feeling connected to Mr Butler means that the film lacks certain emotional cues, though this itself is rather interesting. Watching the film in this way, the audience aligns themselves with Lucas, becoming almost sociopathic in their lack of an emotional response – and really, what could be scarier than that?