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“THE BOY” (2016; Movie Review)

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Say this for director William Brent Bell: At least he tries something different each time. Following the video-game-come-to-life opus STAY ALIVE, the found-footage/possession mashup THE DEVIL INSIDE and the werewolfilm WER, he now aims for old-dark-house chills with THE BOY.

Said manor is located in the wilds of England (albeit filmed in Canada), where Greta, played by THE WALKING DEAD’s Lauren Cohan, arrives to take a nanny job and escape a troublesome home situation. Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) give her a tour of the place, which is a little creepy, but not nearly as much so as the revelation that the “child” she’ll be taking care of is a life-sized doll. “Brahms” is fussed over by the Heelshires, especially his “mother,” as if he’s alive, and Greta is left with a list of instructions that must be followed regarding his care and attention.

This is a promising jumping-off point for a modern Gothic, and Bell and cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who shot both TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACREs, get good mileage out of the settings (soundstages and a couple of real houses combined into one seamlessly atmospheric whole). Cohan is a naturally sympathetic presence, even as Greta disregards the rules because after all, Brahms isn’t really alive and no one’s going to notice, right? The Heelshires have left for an extended vacation, and the only other person who comes by is Malcolm (Rupert Evans from HELLBOY), the grocery delivery man who is quickly inspired to ask Greta out for a night on the nearby town.

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He also shares with her some of Brahms’ backstory, which is unsurprisingly tragic and then scary the more it’s revealed. And as Greta spends more time in the place, she hears strange noises in the night and gets trapped up in the attic, and Brahms begins shifting position without any help. Could Brahms be alive, or is there some kind of ghost haunting the house as a whole? And then there’s the question of whether the abusive boyfriend we learn Greta has fled has also made the trip overseas to stir up more trouble.

Stacey Menear’s screenplay has the right ingredients to induce creeping dread, but also a few too many stock terror tropes; there are two it’s-only-a-dream fakeouts, a menacing silhouette in the dark that proves to be a benign object, etc. (At least there are no cats around for cheap startles, which is kind of surprising considering the area’s repeatedly addressed rodent problem.) Brahms himself, created by makeup FX veteran Todd Masters, has the right placidly eerie look, and there’s a bit of suspense in waiting for the moment when he’ll stop sitting around and jumping across rooms offscreen and get ambulatory.

THE BOY never pays off on that promise, though, or on other possibilities the scenario sets up. The more we learn about Greta’s past, the more the film seems to suggest Brahms could fulfill a similar function in her life to what it does for the Heelshires, yet this tantalizing thread isn’t fully followed up on. Instead, the turns of her developing “relationship” with the doll are rushed and don’t quite convince (no fault of Cohan, who plays as believably as possible off her porcelain co-star). And while her interactions with Malcolm are blessedly free of “You have to believe me!” histrionics, there’s not much spark to them either (no fault of the genially charming Evans).

Eventually, Malcolm gets around to an “I wanted to tell you before, but…” revelation that, for fans of a cult-classic TV fright flick and a more recent independent standout, will telegraph a major third-act revelation that jolts THE BOY out of darkly suggestive territory and into full-blown confrontational horror. Like everything that has come before, the ensuing action is reasonably well-staged, yet like its title character, it doesn’t come fully to life. In bringing it all to a conclusion, Bell thankfully avoids the kind of non-ending that got DEVIL INSIDE’s audiences notoriously upset, but it’s also unlikely to leave anyone expecting Brahms to join the pantheon with Chucky, TRILOGY OF TERROR’s Zuni fetish doll or even Fats from MAGIC.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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