IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 97 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
American Greta escapes an abusive relationship by getting a temporary job as a nanny for the Heelshire family in the UK, but, to Greta’s surprise and amusement, the elderly couple’s “son” , Brahms, is a porcelain doll, treated like a living child by his “parents”. The real Brahms perished in a fire back in 1991, at the age of eight. Mrs. Heelshire, referring to the doll, states that Brahms has met “many nannies,” all of whom were “rejected.” Before the Heelshire’s leave on holiday, they give Greta a list of rules to follow, warning her that Brahms is not a normal child. But Gerta is a character in a horror movie, and chooses to ignore the rules, whereupon eerie things begin to happen….
One of the many things that I found unsatisfying about Annabelle is that a film featuring a creepy doll just didn’t unsettle me the way a film featuring a creepy doll should do, and usually does. I tend to find dolls distinctly uncomfortable to look at in real life, so much so that an old doll of my wife’s, against her protestations, eventually made its way into a cupboard where I couldn’t see it and can stay there forever as long as I care….thought I’d rather throw the horrid thing away to be honest. Now even the trailer for The Boy had an uneasy effect on me, so much so that there was no way the film wouldn’t work, at least partially, for me. In fact The Boy seems partly designed just for people like me to feel frightened, as it seems that almost a quarter of it consists of lingering shots of its doll, so much so that your mind may start to work overtime and cause to you to imagine that you see the mouth or the eyes slightly moving. This means that Yours Truly was on edge for much of the film’s duration, but it also means that if you don’t find dolls scary or have no interest in them, you may be pretty bored throughout some of it. I do think that it’s distinctly better than some of the mediocre horrors we’ve been having recently and, while it could perhaps have done with losing a few minutes, it’s quite a well crafted, if fairly straight forward – not to mention not really very original – piece that certainly keeps the viewer in suspense until a Big Twist comes along and really messes things up.
The main location works well because from the outside it genuinely looks like a fairy tale castle [which subsequently made me detect certain allusions to fairy tales later on in the film, though in truth they were probably only put in unconsciously if at all] while still looking as eerie as a house where frightening things can occur should look in terms of its interiors. There’s considerable of economy of writing in having the very first scene being of Greta arriving at the house, her shoes going missing, and going upstairs to investigate some noises, her background being revealed later on, though it’s typical of many horror films at the moment which seem to be in too much of a rush to get to the ‘good bits’, as if the audience will get bored. And why Greta would do this considering she’s just got there, and that the inside of the house isn’t exactly inviting, is anyone’s guess, though it does remind one yet again that at least half of all horror movies probably wouldn’t exist if people didn’t go off on their own when any sensible person probably wouldn’t. The first person she meets is Malcolm the grocery boy, and his rather irritating, almost Hugh Grant-style attempts to be awkwardly charming include him saying that he can tell people’s fortunes by their chewing gum….whereupon she, in what is easily the grossest moment in the film, spits out the gum she’s chewing so he can read it, and he susses out that she’s fleeing from something.
That something is of course her violent ex-boyfriend James, and you just know that he’s going to show up at some point during the film, even if it mainly centres around Brahms, the boy whom Greta is supposed to babysit….and who is a doll. Much of the first half of The Boy manages to combine odd laughs and slight creepiness in a manner many horrors seem to struggle to do these days. The way the Heelshire’s treat the doll who seems to be a replacement for the real son they lost many years before is unsettling, sweet and funny at the same time, though hopes that the film will become a genuinely interesting and offbeat black comedy are mainly dashed as it soon becomes your conventional modern chiller, though experienced genre director William Brent Bell [sometimes it seems that ex-HCF reviewer Matt Wavish and myself seem to be the only ones who actually liked The Devil Inside, but so be it] doesn’t feel the need to overdo the jump scares [which means that the ones that he does put in have a decent effect], stages and paces the lengthy scenes of suspense building well. Many of these are given a somewhat sexual feel as Greta is constantly in nightwear, or in the shower [how come, after 54 years, filmmakers still feel the need to try to frighten us with scenes in showers, and often succeed?], or in a towel, to the point where I wondered if Brahms, whose point of view we often seem to be adopting, actually fancied Greta and the film was going to go to some very dark places…. until I remembered that this was a ‘PG-13’ rated movie in the US.
In fact, the original script for this was for an ‘R’ rated movie, though it’s not clear at the time of writing whether they altered the script before shooting or actually shot footage which was later cut out. My guess is the former, because The Boy is quite a smooth movie in terms of filmmaking, not feeling like a film which has had bits cut out of it, but ends up becoming a mess in terms of its screenplay. Everything’s quite good for over an hour. Greta does what she shouldn’t do right away [I’m surprised that the list of Brahm’s rules didn’t include “don’t feed after midnight”], so things are slightly on edge almost immediately, and are reasonably well maintained for quite a while. Bell knows that what we can’t see tends to be scarier than what we can, so gives us some deliciously creepy moments where, for instance, we can see light and hear noises coming from the other side of a door, in moments that indicated to me that Bell was looking back to some of the true terrifying classics of this nature like The Innocents and The Haunting, and has learnt a bit from them. Around an hour in though, even I was wondering how much mileage The Boy was going to try and get from things like Brahms turning up in a different place from where he was a couple of shots before, and then….
The Big Twist comes along so that we can have a reasonably exciting but very conventional final act, but also so that, and I’m trying not to give too much away here, much of what has come before just makes no damn sense at all! There’s wrong-footing the audience, and then there’s cheating them and treating them like idiots who will just accept anything and forget what they’ve been seeing for the previous 70 or so minutes. Stacey Menear’s script, which ends up being something close to a shambles, also fails to provide quite a bit of information or detail which it seems like the film was building up to give us. Maybe this is where the ‘R’ rated material originally was, but whatever the reason, The Boy, much like 10 Cloverfield Lane though in not quite as jarring a fashion, ends up being extremely unsatisfying, which is a great shame considering it’s not bad at all for much of the time. Walking out of the cinema, I not only had in my mind how I thought it should have ended, a way which would have psychologically followed through on some of the elements in the screenplay which only end up being enticingly touched upon – such as grief and motherhood – but conjured up a couple of other endings which could have worked quite well too.
Lauren Cohan is a decent lead, though better in some scenes than others, while Bear McCreary, in the third horror film released this year that he’s scored, provides an often understated score. If you totally put aside any logic, The Boy is a fair amount of fun and parts of it are very well done, while I certainly had my ‘creepy doll’ fix. But it’s a film that may frustrate many, because it tends to hint at intriguing routes which it doesn’t properly go down. Its best moments are the sequences where Greta begins to learn about what’s happening and not only becomes more and more attached to the idea that the doll just might be alive, but seems to become more and more attached to the doll itself. We almost get a compelling, offbeat psychological drama about an emotionally damaged person forging a deep connection with an inanimate object. Instead we get a very conventional effort, but not one without its pleasures as long as you don’t expect too much. And you couldn’t pay me to open that cupboard in my house where that doll resides right now.