Thanks to fumbled foreshadowing and a telegraphed twist, THE BOY wastes creepy premise
A REVIEW OF ‘THE BOY’ (2016) — by Eric Langberg
January is notoriously a barren wasteland of a month for horror films. Most theaters in the country are just now getting wide-releases of the previous year’s awards films, so studios dump their… shall we say, less prestigious films in January as a bit of counterprogramming. However, since Cloverfield opened on 01–18–08, January has occasionally provided films that are both box-office successes and critical surprises — for example, Chronicle (2012) and Mama (2013). (Sometimes, they’re just box-office successes without the critical approval — like The Devil Inside (2012), which ultimately made more than $100million despite a RottenTomatoes score of 6%.)
So, when I caught a promising trailer for the new horror film The Boy, out this weekend, I was intrigued. Could the film break the mold of January being a disappointing horror month — usually full of your Woman In Black 2s and your Devil’s Dues — and actually provide some great, chilly entertainment in the year’s chilliest month?
Turns out the answer is a resounding “Meh, not really.” Thanks to one of the most obvious examples of foreshadowing I’ve ever seen, The Boy prefers to telegraph its twist ending from the very beginning instead of spending time building suspense. It’s going to be tough to talk about this one without giving away the twist, so I’ll keep all that stuff for a spoiler space at the end and instead discuss what The Boy does right.
The Boy is about Greta, an American nanny (The Walking Dead’s Lauren Cohan) who’s been hired to care for a young boy out at a massive, remote British country manor. When she arrives for her first day on the job, she discovers that her charge is not a boy at all, but a creepy-looking porcelain doll named Brahms, doted on by two elderly “parents” who treat it like a living, breathing child. We learn that there really was a Brahms, but he died in a fire more than twenty years earlier; the parents have replaced him with a life-sized porcelain replica and have refused to acknowledge the passing of time. Soon, the parents are off on holiday, leaving Greta all alone in the gigantic house with Brahms. When she ignores a strict list of rules for how to care for the doll, strange events convince her that Brahms seems to have a mind of his own…
Lauren Cohan is a more-than-capable lead actress. I’ve liked her a lot in various TV roles over the years, from Supernatural to The Vampire Diaries and Chuck, so I was glad to see that she could carry a film herself. Greta strikes up a relationship with the charmingly British grocery delivery boy — er… man, he corrects himself — and Cohan has excellent chemistry with Rupert Evans, both actors turning in believable performances in a thoroughly unbelievable movie. Usually, shoehorned-in romances in horror movies make me groan, but I found myself rooting for the two of them. They’re cute together, and they look good while they’re making out. What more could you want from a horror movie couple?
The premise of the film is suitably creepy, too. Stately English manors are full of history, making them locations rife with opportunities for horror, as last year’s phenomenal Crimson Peak proved; The Boy, like that film, attempts wring scares from positioning its setting as a place marred by the psychological scars of past trauma. The Boy is rather less successful than Crimson Peak, of course, but… points for trying?
Part of that difference in success is in the production design. The mansion in Crimson Peak is an absolute marvel of set design; it’s gorgeously decaying, and it feels real, and lived in, and loved, and abandoned. The exterior shots of the house in The Boy, on the other hand, have the slightly-blurry sheen of a house designed in a computer. The smoke stains on the outside of the boy’s room, for example, don’t look real whatsoever, so it’s tough to feel the emotional impact the way you do while watching Crimson Peak’s eerily dripping walls.
Where The Boy does succeed is in the doll design. There have been a number of horror movies about evil dolls, from Child’s Play to Annabelle, and a lot of them err on the side of making their dolls too obviously creepy-looking. Annabelle was particularly bad at this; no one would ever actually give their child a doll that looks like that. The doll from the original urban legend was a Raggedy Ann, which makes the story scarier precisely because of how inoffensive the doll is.
But The Boy does doll design right. Instead of designing him as sinister and strange, Brahms is a pleasant-looking porcelain boy, exactly the kind of Victorian-era doll you can completely believe someone would buy for a child. And he’s all the weirder for it. During the many, many shots of the doll staring straight into the camera, you begin to imagine that you’re seeing his eye twitch, or that there’s some barely-perceptible change in the slant of his eyebrows, and you feel like he’s mad. As Greta grows to believe that the doll is alive, we too sense something strange lurking in the uncanny valley of the doll’s face. But of course, he doesn’t change. He’s made of porcelain, and that’s that.
The Boy isn’t awful. There are probably too many jump scares, and there’s a blatant sequel-grab at the end, but overall, it’s not bad. What it is… is predictable.
Spoiler Space. Don’t read below if you don’t want to know the “twist.”
Early in the film, within the first ten minutes, Brahms’ mother lays out a list of strict rules for Greta to follow while caring for the doll. Two of the rules involve daily activities that must be carried out to entertain the doll: Greta must read him poetry, and she must play him music… Most importantly, his mother notes, Greta must read very loudly, and play the music even louder, “so that Brahms is sure to hear.” She delivers this line while staring meaningfully at the wall.
Moments later, while explaining another rule, Brahm’s father cleans out a mousetrap and tells Greta, “We don’t want vermin getting in the walls; Brahms was never fond of animals.” He adds, “Whatever it might look like from the outside, our son is very much still with us.”
Sure enough, in the final act of the film, the doll is smashed to bits, and suddenly, the real-life Brahms — now a fully grown man wearing a porcelain mask — bursts through the wall and attacks. “He was living in the walls the entire time?!” Greta shrieks.
…Yes, yes he was. His parents pretty much told you outright.
I’ve seen a lot of people call this twist “out-of-nowhere” and say that it “makes no sense” and leaves “plot holes,” but really, having watched the entire movie knowing what was going on, it’s obvious at every turn that the explanation is not paranormal. When Greta determines that doll-Brahms moves when she’s not looking, the way she signals to him that it’s okay to act out is that she goes on the other side of the wall and knocks. Gee. When his parents talk to him to figure out if he likes Greta and wants to keep her on as nanny, they ask her to leave the room, and she hears footsteps once the door is closed. Hmmm. Whenever we get ominous shots of doll-Brahms lying in bed “listening” to conversations in the other room, there are conspicuous vents and intercom-speakers all over the house. I wonder…
The reveal and resulting action is admittedly decent. Man-Brahms’ porcelain mask is fantastically frightening; wisely, we never get a ~shocking mask-removal~ that reveals his presumably burn-scarred visage. It’s just that passive, emotionless, porcelain doll-face… except this time it’s on top of a muscular, powerful man-body. It’s a great contrast. He speaks in a high, reedy, childlike voice that adds to the effect, which is then made all the more frightening when he gets angry and drops down into a growling, masculine register to threaten her. Sure, the film devolves into a rote powerful-killer-chasing-frightened-woman-who-seems-to-only-know-how-to-run-upstairs-instead-of-out-the-front-door, but it’s a sufficiently tense and decently PG-13-violent execution of a familiar situation.
I just wish the film hadn’t been so obvious about what was going on. There are some interesting thematic things happening — when she thinks the doll is possessed by the spirit of a lonely young boy, Greta is actually touched instead of frightened, because she herself has lost a child. It’s almost a refreshing twist on haunted-doll movies. But it’s tough to be emotionally invested in that angle, knowing all the while that man-Brahms is lurking on the other side of the wall.
So, no, The Boy doesn’t break the mold for January horror being disappointing. There’s a better version of this movie that doesn’t telegraph the twist so blatantly, and one that actually explores the emotional implications of realizing you’ve been violated like this. This film was originally going to be produced as In A Dark Place, starring Jane Levy (Evil Dead), who I think is a phenomenal actress. Would that have been better? I don’t know. But The Boy is not the best version of this concept.
Maybe we’ll get a remake in ten years?