I’m fortunate in that there’s very little that scares me, but one thing I’ve never had time for are dolls and dummies – I’ve always found them unnecessarily creepy, and I think that they make prime horror material. When I saw the trailer for The Boy, then, I was almost convinced it was going to be terrifying (for me, at least) – after all, how could a living doll not be scary? Well, it finds a number of ways, as I will explain.
We follow a young American, Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan), who has come to a remote English village to work as a nanny. Upon meeting her employers, she learns that the child she must look after is in fact a life-sized porcelain doll that the couple treat as if it were a real boy, using it to cope with the death of their son twenty years prior. She takes the job, and is given a list of rules that she must follow to keep little Brahms happy. Suffice to say- she violates a number of them, and strange things soon start to happen. She enlists the help of charming grocery boy Malcolm (Rupert Evans) to help find out what is going on.
The Boy is an interesting film – it seems to leap around, not entirely sure what it wants to be. There are three distinct segments – Greta meeting the couple, Greta looking after Brahms, Greta dealing with the appearance of her abusive ex-boyfriend – and three distinct feelings to each. Throughout (or at least until the final act), it feels like an odd family drama, not unlike something you’d find on Lifetime. Were it not for the creepy-as-anything doll, this could quite easily be a drama film. What it never is, then, is massively scary.
Tension is built by lingering shots on Brahms, in which we wait for him to move and he doesn’t. We have all the typical haunted house clichés – the creaky footsteps that belong to nobody, the stairs leading up to the dark attic – but they never really elicit any degree of fright. There are also a requisite number of jump scares, one of which I found particularly effective, but waiting to jump and waiting to feel afraid are two different things entirely.
Another issue is that the movie does, at many points, align us with Brahms. As Greta grows to care for him, so does the viewer, and the maternal love that develops is quite affecting. We follow him via a number of POV shots, ostensibly to ramp up the fear factor, but I never felt that Brahms was a threat of any description, and thus these scenes were not frightening. Brahms is characterised as a mischievous child and that is all the viewer sees of him – it is hard to fashion a monster out of a little kid when the kid is not monstrous. (Also, if you’ve seen the trailer, don’t expect anything new in the way of frights.)
What does prove to be a point in its favour is, somewhat unusually for a horror film, its cast. Cohan and Evans are fully committed to their roles, and they give a lot more than the script asks of them – they are realised characters in a way that few horror characters are. Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle also give finely nuanced performances during their little screen time, nicely contrasting but sharing the same emotional core. Sadly, it takes a bit of a downturn when Greta’s ex shows up, a comic villain who has the effect of shattering the reality the film has built.
As is typical of horror, the ending has the potential to ruin it completely. There is a perhaps guessable, perhaps out-of-nowhere twist that shifts the story entirely – I, for one, disliked the abrupt change in tone and pace, but some viewers will love it. I think it depends completely on how invested the viewer is in the earlier parts of the film, and on the kind of expectations you have for the movie.
The Boy has a stumbling block to overcome – that its premise is completely daft – and never really does so. The whole film is tempered, then, by an overwhelming air of silliness – coupled with its indecision as to what film it wants to be, an overuse of dream scenes and jump scares to create any feeling of terror, and a very polarising third act, The Boy is sadly a bit on the lame side. That the horror fan will come away feeling disappointed is almost a dead-cert. It was a horror film with potential, and it has unfortunately failed to live up to it, trying to do too much and thus really failing to do anything well.