Written by: Stacey Menear
Directed by: William Brent Bell
Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, and James Russell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Every child needs to feel loved.
January releases generally don’t inspire much confidence, much less horror movies, which have long contributed to the stigma of the opening “dump month," where studios typically unload junk doomed to be buried and forgotten by the end of the year—if not the next month. We’re over a decade removed from the likes of Final Destination 2 opening the year, and, since then, it’s almost been a foregone conclusion that January horror movies will be bad. Terrible movies I can handle, of course, but the utter blandness of these efforts is less forgivable. Occasionally, something like the delirious Texas Chainsaw will slip through and be indelible in its awfulness, but, more often than not, we’re left with a bunch of films that are barely distinguishable from each other (I mean, can you even tell The Unborn and The Uninvited apart? Do you even remember The Forest?).
Arriving in this tradition is The Boy, a film whose generic title practically charts it for the January junk pile, its living doll/haunted house premise assembled out of the scraps of other, all too familiar films. To an extent, this familiarity is a bit deceptive—I’m not about to declare The Boy to be a nice surprise by any means, nor can I claim that it reaches the whackadoo heights of Texas Chainsaw; however, it at least has a faint burst of personality that keeps it from evaporating from your mind before you even leave the theater lobby.
Granted, this is not the highest of praise, but it’s almost miraculous that The Boy pulls a rabbit out of its hat considering its rote setup. Haunted by a past that has sent her fleeing her Montana home, Greta (Lauren Cohan) lands a gig babysitting for a wealthy couple in the English countryside. To her amazement—and perhaps too much to her amusement—the couple’s son, Brahms, is actually a porcelain doll. Mrs. Heelshire (Diana Hardcastle) is quick to admonish Greta and assure her that, yes, this is Brahms, and she is expected to treat him as if he were a real, flesh-and-blood boy. The Heelshires have even made up a list of daily tasks to be completed while they take off on a long-awaited vacation. Naturally, she’s skeptical and promptly dismisses them as the ravings of a grieving couple who actually lost their son 20 years earlier in a house fire. Unnaturally (but not les predictably), strange, mysterious events begin to convince her otherwise.
After the initial jolt surrounding Brahms (which is just off-kilter enough to be intriguing and thrives on the same uneasy energy as Pin), The Boy begins to plod through the motions. January horror veteran William Brent Bell assembles a perfectly adequate collection of moody establishing shots, half-lit interiors, and vaguely menacing ambiance. We watch Greta practically tip-toe around a cavernous house, where every noise is alarming and every crevice feels ominous. Of course, this doesn’t keep Greta from exploring the attic, nor does it prevent lengthy, cheap-out nightmare sequences. Eventually, actual stuff begins to happen, like Greta’s clothes disappearing while she’s in the shower and Brahms showing signs of life, much to the skepticism of Malcolm, the local grocery boy (Rupert Evans) Greta befriends.
For this stretch, The Boy mostly settles for blandness, a somewhat surprising sum totaled from some better-than-decent parts. A bright spot on The Walking Dead, Cohan has the opportunity to leave behind that operatically grim world only to…well, she’s basically only asked to brood here, too, much like she does on that show. At least she also carries over her plucky, resolute persona and provides a solid enough foundation. As she confides more of her tragic backstory in Malcom, her own sense of loss begins to meld with the melancholy air surrounding Brahms and this huge, unsettlingly empty house, a development that represents one of the few times The Boy looks like it might detour from a familiar path lined with stingers and jump scares.
Bell isn’t too invested in exploring it, though, and all but drowns out this human element in exactly those clichés and tropes. To be sure, he could do worse than lean on Daniel Pearl’s exquisite photography and Bear McCreary’s creepy score: from this standpoint, The Boy certainly looks and sounds the part of a fine horror film. However, it’s also a reminder that even such technical acumen can’t always provide a spark. Much like Brahms himself, The Boy is slick, spooky, but also sort of lifeless. Part of this falls at the feet of a sparse script that leaves little for anyone to work with: I am not exaggerating when I say the second act adds up to nearly nothing—it’s all dedicated to prolonging the mystery surrounding Brahms without anything of note actually happening. The lack of any sort of carnage results in a film whose bark is worse than its bite if only because it has no bite for much of the running time.
Surprisingly, the approach still almost works out when The Boy blindsides the audience with its eventual reveal. While even this is cribbed from better movies (so obviously so that even revealing their titles would spoil The Boy), it’s an appreciable last gasp that makes you wish Bell had been more committed to indulging in the lurid trashiness seen here. As it stands, it’s a ridiculous, out-of-left field solution to the living doll puzzle, so much so that I’m compelled to forgive it for how jarring it is. I can’t say I didn’t at least chuckle at the bizarre choice, which briefly transforms The Boy into another movie altogether before it abruptly ends. It’s the sort of audacity that you appreciate from an otherwise dull movie since it’s at least trying to pull itself up from the doldrums.
The Boy doesn’t quite escape the bog that is its second act; by the time it resorts to this reveal, it’s too little, too late. It does, however, leave enough of an impression to ensure that the film won’t be completely forgotten and discarded. In fact, the final act takes such a hard turn that you could almost imagine a different sequel, one that would be more of a straightforward slasher than a haunted house mystery. One almost wishes Bell had sensed that possibility with this film; by the time he does change course, there’s not really enough time to really follow through on it. Only here does he seem to realize that Brahms is the star, the latest in a long line of plastic nightmares that deserves better than the film afforded him.
Had The Boy been more worthy of him, Brahms may have been a new horror icon in the making; instead, he feels like a missed opportunity as the most memorable part of a mostly forgettable movie. Still, this amounts to something like a victory in the wasteland of January horror, a place where the goalposts are so shifted and the bar so lowered that damning with faint praise starts to sound like a ringing endorsement.
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