The Boy arrives in the UK having had its UK bow in January, traditionally the great dumping ground of the strange and unusual, of misfires and things that can’t compete with other studio fare. It is into this wilderness that The Boy has been unceremoniously pitched. And really, it’s likely the only time of year a movie like this has a chance to thrive because the pressure’s off.
I’m not saying that The Boy is the shining example of a brave new voice in cinema; ultimately this is a film in which decisions were made that work against its success, but The Boy goes to bizarre places where few films choose to stray. Amid the cheap thrills there’s a sense of style and a wonky ideology in play that’s worthy of something – perhaps even your hard-earned cash.
The story, while by no means original, certainly sets the proper tone with efficiency: it’s a weird little thriller about a doll that might be ‘alive’. Yes, this is a movie that rides the precipice of ‘actually scary’ and ‘ridiculous’ without its seat-belt fastened securely. You have been warned.
The plot: Greta (Lauren Cohan) leaves her home in Wyoming and heads to New England to take up a nanny position for a strange older couple, the Heelshires. Played by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle with just the right amount of nuance, the Heelshires are positively rolling in cash, and would appear a few cards short of a full deck. They’ve hired Greta to tend to their son Brahms while they leave on vacation. What Greta hasn’t been told is that Brahms is a life-sized doll in the likeness of the Heelshires’ own dead son. Topping it off, Greta is given a list of typewritten instructions on how to care for the boy, which involves sitting down for meals with Brahms, and tucking him into bed with a goodnight kiss.
Needless to say, once the Heelshires are out of the picture, things take a turn for the weird pretty quickly. Is the doll talking to Greta? Can it move about the house independently? How or why does Greta get locked up in an attic? Soon, Greta begins to question whether or not Brahms’ spirit is trapped within the porcelain effigy, or if she’s just gone bonkers.
Mention the words ‘living doll’, and you unlock an entire horror subgenre: Chucky from Child’s Play, The Conjuring’s Annabelle, or that Zuni doll from Trilogy Of Terror. A living doll movie’s success partially hinges on the unnerving (or hilariously inept) qualities of the doll in question. Thankfully the filmmakers have gone to great lengths ensuring that Brahms remains eerily cinematic, even in stasis.
Because the story centres around a seemingly inert object, the movie uses jump scares to gain needed traction. There’s one early shock moment in a dream sequence that utilises CGI effects, causing us to wonder if similar scares will come into play later on. Intentional or not, this sets up some giddy, nervy expectations. We spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the doll in many long, lingering takes. We anticipate what Brahms might (or might not) do to Greta. Will it blink? Start talking? Jump off the bed? By downplaying what Brahms is capable of doing, there’s a surprising amount of tension generated, even if it’s largely of the funhouse variety.
Where the movie veers off the rails is with the plotting. The narrative does an about-face at a critical point. I’ve been thinking about this twist for some time now, probably too much for my own good, and I’m certainly not about to reveal it here. It’s not that I object to a story that changes gears or tones at a pivotal moment, but it doesn’t give the audience enough time to roll with its flow – and the sudden shift actually pulls us out of the story. I was laughing by the end of The Boy, not with the movie, but at it.
So, what to make of the resultant wreckage? The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan holds her own here, which is saying something given that she spends most of her time acting beside a puppet. In fact, all of the performances are believable (or at the very least, watchable), save for Graham’s ex-boyfriend who turns up at the convenience of the story. It’s also lensed with real creepy flair – cinematographer Daniel Pearl was responsible for Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and the 2003 remake) and here he turns Victoria, British Columbia’s Craigdarroch Castle into the stuff of nightmares.
Buried away in its 97 minutes is a hilariously weird little thriller that looks pretty slick, and gives us a great new ‘living doll’ to add to the pantheon. But the flaws outweigh the successes, and The Boy left me feeling frustrated with decisions that were made at some point in the creative process. Still, seen in the right frame of mind, there are giddy pleasures to be had with this kind of genre trash.
The Boy is in UK cinemas now.
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