Curbstomping Cinema: The Boy
Basic Summary: A struggling woman takes a job as a nanny, only to find that the child in her care is an oddly lifelike doll.
Directed By: William Brent Bell
Written By: Stacey Menear
Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans
For the unaware, The Boy follows Greta, a down-on-her-luck woman running from her past and short on the funding to get a fresh start. Upon taking a request for a nanny that promises to pay surprisingly well, Greta drives out to a secluded English country house and meets the Heelshire family —and their peculiar son, Brahms. Despite the Heelshires’ affectionate gestures toward him, Brahms is merely a life-sized porcelain doll, which Greta is insistently told to take care of according to a strict set of rules. Greta predictably ignores these orders and starts lounging around the estate, but as she soon finds out, Brahms has a bit of a temper when he isn’t treated right…
All right, I have to give immediate props to this movie. It’s a low-budget horror flick about an evil doll terrifying an attractive woman, directed by the guy who made the legendarily awful The Devil Inside, and released in Hollywood’s dump month: January. Yet in spite of all that, it isn’t absolute dumbshit. There are indeed a great many things to be enjoyed here. There are also a great many flaws, but hey. It’s something.
The story is surprisingly decent for a movie of this type. I went in expecting a paper-thin excuse for obvious paranormal BS, but there’s a moderately compelling mystery afoot regarding Brahms’s history, why the Heelshires treat him in such a strictly guided way, and how much everyone else knows about him. It’s far from any level of greatness and rife with predictable clichés, but it’s not exactly January horror material a la Texas Chainsaw 3D or The Woman In Black 2. Bell and Menear obviously put some level of effort into how it all plays out. Minus the inexplicable inclusion of TWO DREAM SEQUENCES (more on that in a bit), it’s even paced pretty well, which is a rarity even for decent horror films in this day and age.
That being said, much like last year’s festering rectal sore that was Sinister 2, they felt the inexplicable need to shove a “hiding from the abusive husband” subplot into the proceedings. If you’ve seen that movie and the ice pick you felt the instinctive urge to shove into your skull afterward didn’t completely wipe your memories of the plot, you’ll know what to expect. The two subplots play out beat-for-beat exactly the same way, right down to the purpose they ultimately serve in the climax. The only saving grace is that this sterling gentleman is slightly more realistic than the “Enough starring Yosemite Sam” cartoon asshole presented in Sinister 2.
But as for the ending and the events thereof… I’ll get to that. Oh, I will get to that. No actual spoilers, but there’s some shit that can’t go unaddressed.
What about the cast of characters who carry the story forward? Cohan’s Greta goes through some nice development (completely unrelated to her husband’s rampant dickery), but aside from that, the characters are generally flat. Neither she nor Evans’ charmingly awkward British love interest Malcolm have deep personalities or plentiful, unique traits. Luckily, the performances are enough to at least sell them as people, if not particularly exciting ones. Also helping is the script, which contains a lot of surprisingly wry, breezy wit and humorous exchanges that actually land for the most part.
Also impressive by virtue of lowered expectations is the cinematography. Much like the story, thought was visibly put into camera angles and other effects. Drawn-out shots, slow panning, and close-ups are favored over gritty, nigh-incomprehensible shaky cam. The shots from the doll’s perspective as it moves around are cliché Horror Movie 101 stocks that you’ve seen thousands of times before, but they’re not offensively frequent.
Of course, nobody is going to see The Boy for its story and characters. The horror aspects are what make or break it, and in that, we have ourselves a bag mixed to the point that all of the material has worn out and it can’t reliably hold things anymore.
On the one hand, there are moments of genuine spine-tingling suspense, as the film restrains itself enough to narrowly avoid the popular jump-scare-a-minute policy prevalent in modern horror. Shadows are played with, camera angles are exploited, and a lot of scenes build up to a horrible jump scare only to subvert it with something either mundane or much more effectively chilling. There is suspense to be found here.
On the other hand, when the movie does indulge itself with easy jumps, they’re ludicrous in both sheer loudness and execution. To get away with keeping Brahms an object of tension and suspense, the film utilizes tactics from fake-out “cat scares” to not one, but TWO DREAM SEQUENCES. Even if your film is the cream of the crop, even one dream sequence is barely advisable. If there had been a third, I would have walked right out of the theater and you would not be reading this. Helping even less is the fact that the majority of these scares were extensively shown in the trailer, diluting their already scant effectiveness. Not that that stopped everybody in my theater from screaming like fussy infants at the slightest scare chord, but I digress.
The main talking point for horror is, of course, Brahms the doll. By now, we’re no stranger to evil dolls in cinema, with the elephant abortion that was Annabelle being the most recent example on the big screen. Brahms isn’t a groundbreaking menace that redefines the evil doll subgenre, but like most other things in the film, he’s surprisingly effective for what he is. A balance is struck between vividly showing his antics (Child’s Play) and not showing a single second of shit (Annabelle), and his design would be creepy even if he were actively doing good and generous things. He works well as the centerpiece of the horror aspects.
You may notice that a few complaints aside, I’ve been mostly praising this movie, despite it being a low-budget January release about an evil fucking doll. Yes, there is a lot to like… but here we come to the rub.
There is a twist.
A good plot twist has two central qualifiers: it is surprising in the moment, and it fits together with the narrative upon reflection. The sudden turn presented to us as the story is reaching its head certainly meets the first bar; while I somewhat anticipated something close because my brain has been conditioned to take every odd line or event as foreshadowing, the actual reveal still threw me for a loop. The pivotal scene is well shot, with good use of slow motion and a hot dose of disturbing imagery to go along with it. For a minute or two, it’s very effective.
It’s at the second bar where the problem arises. Within the context of the film and what has been told and shown, nothing about the surprise makes a single lick of goddamned sense. There are a select few scenes that still work and people desperate enough to continue liking it will find a way to jump through the maze of mental hoops that makes the events line up sensibly, but it’s inexcusably poor. The film spends so long trying to mislead and stymie peoples’ attempts to predict the outcome that it shows some things that would be impossible even with Hollywood logic. Even a casual viewer should find themselves going, “Wait, how the… if that’s how that fits with that, then that… how did… where… when... why, why, WHY?!”
After we’re treated to the twist itself, the ending continues to plod along with trite, been-there-done-that action that was stale before I was born, and the final sequence follows predictable beats almost the point where I would suspect self-parody if it weren’t so clearly played in earnest. The resolution to the conflict shows a sign of being serviceable, but even then it just ruins itself the longer it goes on. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the story is setting up for sequels, because Hollywood will not let you make a horror film if all plot threads are closed. This sequel bait scene in particular is all kinds of bullshit, once again going against everything we’ve been told and making a whole lot of things effectively pointless. Look forward to The Boy II: Knock On Wood and The Boy III: Reckoning Revelations Rising Revengeance Origins In Space coming soon to a theater near you.
Overall, The Boy is a surprisingly solid horror flick that manages to fire on what cylinders it has up until the climax. If you can stomach a comparatively generic final act driven by one of the most flagrantly illogical plot twists since High Tension’s “the kooky lesbian was driving two trucks at once”, this is a pretty good choice for late-night popcorn shivering.
Rating: You Were Almost A Real Boy.
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