Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: William Brent Bell
Writer: Stacey Menear
Producer: Jim Wedaa, Roy Lee, Matt Berenson, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard S. Wright
Stars: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson, James Russell
A nanny takes a strange job caring for an elderly couple’s doll, which they insist be treated like a living child.
A well-paying nanny job at an isolated English manor seems an ideal way for American Greta Evans to distance herself from an abusive ex-boyfriend. The sight unseen gig is off to a promising start when Greta’s first encounter is a romantic one with local grocery deliveryman Malcolm. Then Greta meets her elderly employers Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire, and quickly discovers this off the grid assignment is also off the wall.
The Heelshires are going away on holiday, and they’ve tasked Greta to care for Brahms. Brahms is no ordinary eight-year-old boy. He isn’t a boy at all. Brahms is a doll, yet the Heelshires are deadly serious that Greta follow a very specific set of instructions when caring for the ceramic child.
The stately stone structure the Heelshires call home is creepy and creaking enough for anyone forced to stay there alone. With Brahms’ blank-faced stare as her only companion, Greta now suspects something additionally sinister or supernatural behind every inexplicable echo or frightful footstep. As odd activity escalates from troubling to terrifying, Greta wonders if perhaps the Heelshires hadn’t lost their minds at all. Maybe she is losing hers. But if there is indeed more to Brahms than meets the eye, Greta had better start playing by the rules.
Considering the concept at face value, it’s difficult not to snicker at the sight of a nanny, and everyone else, treating an inanimate object like a living, breathing, human child. “The Boy” knows it has a hump to hurdle for audiences accustomed to “Child’s Play” and “Puppet Master” madness. The movie makes that long jump leap by extinguishing silliness straight away through sincerity in its acting, rightfully refusing to look back, at least until the climax.
Any “killer doll” premise can topple into bozo B-movie territory at a feather’s touch. But these actors excel at such straight-faced sobriety for a scary movie that an audience can be instantly onboard a suspension of disbelief train to wherever the cast wishes to ride.
Aiding in no small part is an exceptional design for the doll. There is a fine line in finding a look that can pass for both plausible toy and possibly haunted. Brahms manages to be subtly unsettling no matter how he is framed, rarely feeling like his disturbing aura is deliberately devised.
“The Boy” is more appropriately described as a psychological thriller, haunted house chiller, or alone in the dark mystery. The deceit in the babysitting setup and the nanny in an old English mansion bring to mind probable influences such as “House of the Devil” and “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death.” In fact, director William Brent Bell and writer Stacey Menear pull liberally from a wide assortment of horror movie moods. However, they cherry pick the best, utilizing every available shade of atmospheric ambiance to stuff their setting with suspicion-laced shadows and slow-smoldering dread.
It is a sleepy crawl for the impatient, though settle into the scenery and “The Boy” rewards with impressive execution, even when it is being rote. An overreliance on tropes earns a partial pass because the scope of a single person internalizing “what’s going on?” wonderment inherently isn’t the sprightliest springboard for visual excitement. Bell thus employs a style of scares that would make Val Lewton blush. Quiet setups involve tiptoeing by candlelight or cutaways to mounted animal heads and ominous toy clowns. Charged moments then come cheaply, such as a suddenly grasping hand and more than one instance of abruptly waking from a nightmare.
“The Boy” maintains consistent intrigue through mood for a solid majority of its runtime. Then comes a single moment certain to separate opinions as swiftly as Gordian unties a knot.
“The Boy” has a twist to its plot more likely to disappoint than it is to delight. The problem isn’t that the twist is unsatisfying, even though it is. At issue is that in making its revelation, the movie takes an engaging gothic ghost story that had been running at full speed and suddenly derails it into a stereotypical slasher, complete with a key moment cribbed directly from “Friday the 13th Part 2” (review here).
“The Boy” has a pond of possibilities teeming with red herrings to explain the truth behind the doll. Yet it reels in a barely edible hagfish leaving such a bad taste that a thumb of recommendation is impeded from turning all the way up.
When the curtain first pulls back, there is some initial assurance that goodwill stockpiled in the preceding 75-ish minutes is enough to get over the letdown. Some may even sigh “thank goodness” when the creeps go from cerebral to visceral. But as the climax continues doubling down on its nosedive in tone, moving to the other cheek becomes a turn too far.
“The Boy” nevertheless emerges as a marked improvement over William Brent Bell’s previous genre films. Though like “The Devil Inside” (review here), the director again demonstrates difficulty with sticking the landing. Still, the talent here turns in top work, from Lauren Cohan and Rupert Evans as believable leads to Bear McCreary’s music. McCreary in particular shows nice range with a fitting lullaby leitmotif and appropriately cinematic score, distinctly different from his TV work on “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Walking Dead.”
Graded on these efforts and the movie’s first four-fifths alone, “The Boy” ranks high for mainstream horror appeal. But having to choke down that ending…
Review Score: 65