By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ** out of *****.
The fourth William Brent Bell (2012’s The Devil Inside, 2013’s Wer) directed horror effort, The Boy, is too reliant on the tried and true to be effective. It spends seventy-seven of its ninety-seven minutes trying to subtly build an ominous atmosphere. Yet, it only creates tedium. It also falls back on stock scares far too frequently. This is utilized with a particular affinity for dream sequences that have little baring on the actual narrative. These are languidly utilized to provide a quick startle amid the endless barrage of chitchat that takes up the bulk of the picture. This only heightens the sense of a potentially intriguing story bogged by Stacy Menear’s watered down, strictly functional screenplay. Menear has given us a piece of writing that is too safe, mirrored more after a stagy soap opera than a nail-biting scarefest, uneventful and molasses paced to be anything more than another mediocre genre offering. This is expressly dispiriting because the steady progression of events could’ve worked. Such could’ve occurred if the picture concerned itself less with melodramatic bits from our lead, Greta Evans (well played by Lauren Cohan of “The Walking Dead”), and her personal life. Additionally, it could’ve used its hour plus of dialogue to delve further into the strange, and gradually fascinating, mother/ child relationship (which provides several terrific bits) that forms between Evans and an ominous doll named Brahms.
To its credit, the isolated manor most of this account occurs is large, beautiful and offers a Gothic touch to it that is perfect for a labor such as this. Also, much in line with this old-fashioned characteristic is a bare minimum of gore and light use of special effects (credited to Paul Benjamin). Sadly, these go from solid to another lazy exhibition of computer generated imagery when the story finally shifts into gear in its rollickingly entertaining final twenty minutes. Its climax is also complete with a certainly intriguing twist. This is one which will leave patrons wishing, more than ever, that Menear’s script allowed us to learn more about the mysterious Brahms. Likewise, the cinematography by Daniel Pearl compliments the above attributes well. It adds to its timeless sensibility. Pearl does this by casting all we see in an appropriately ominous and bleak, but darkly beautiful, veneer. He has impeccably recreated the look of classic slow-burn supernatural thrillers; particularly those Hammer Films erected by the bundle in the 60’s and 70’s. Bear McCreary’s original music, James Steuart’s art direction and Brian Berdan’s sharp editing all further evoke this general impression.
The Boy chronicles Evans, an American Nanny, who is hired to watch after what she initially thinks will be a young lad. This is done as a service to the parents, known only as Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (brilliantly and sophisticatedly performed by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), so they can go on a long overdue holiday. Soon after her entrance at The Heelshire’s English manor she finds out that the parents’ so called ‘son’ is actually a life-sized, inanimate model of a child. He is, in a testament to one of the many captivating ways The Heelshire’s treat this large figurine as their own progeny, adorned in one of his many suits and a tie when Evans first sees him. When the duo, who are just as enigmatic and hair-raising as Brahms himself, go on vacation Evans blatantly ignores the daily schedule Mr. Heelshire demanded her to follow with Brahms. After The Heelshire’s real intentions are exposed, in a segment which is generally surprising and among the most successful flashes in this on-screen affair, she finds herself questioning her sanity. This transpires as she begins to believe, much like The Heelshires, that Brahms is alive.
What is most disheartening about this experience is that Brahms, who is phenomenal model of design, is just as fitting into the delightful mold of timeless terror compositions from the past. His general appearance is unnerving. He seems to slide all too well along the likes of Chucky from the Child’s Play features and the multitudes of his unearthly cinematic brethren. With a cold, pale, expression-less countenance, quietly calculating brown and green speckled eyes and a stare you can almost feel lurking beneath his immobile porcelain it is all too easy to find yourself seeing him coming to life when someone’s back is turned. Because of this we await such an instant through the various lulls before the surprisingly rousing finale. This anticipation becomes one of the few genuinely victorious tension building instants herein. This expectant sensation is also most palpable when Brahms is doing nothing more than sitting on a chair and blasting classical music or simply lying in his bed (as he does throughout most of the duration). These simple, blood chilling touches are far more accomplished than the endless others orchestrated herein where the fear factor appears constructed as if via exclamation points. For example, a wonderfully underplayed third act scene involving Brahms being outlined in chalk and watched for movement is genuinely potent. Yet, these instances are so rare they ultimately feel like an unfulfilled promise. This realization is almost unavoidable as the majority of the production becomes another assortment of long-exhausted haunted house/ killer on the loose clichés.
Moreover, it is the predictable, and unnecessary, subplot involving Evans fleeing her domineering ex-boyfriend, Cole (Ben Robson), a just as inconsequential relationship between grocery clerk Malcolm (a fair, generic portrayal by Rupert Evans), appearances by James (James Russell) and friend, Sandy (in an enactment by Stephanie Lemlin which is on par with Robson and Evans’ portrayals) that makes this such a pedestrian misfire. Cole, Malcom, James and Sandy seem to exist for no other reason than to pad the runtime. They appear included simply to give our protagonist someone to talk to and express her growing catalogue of uncertainties and concerns in a garden variety fashion indistinguishable from similar genre offerings. These characteristics only remind us how primarily plot-serving these characters are in retrospect. The suspense would’ve been much tighter, and the tale infinitely more intriguing, if it revolved solely around Evans, Brahms and their increasingly strange bond after The Heelshires depart.
But, more than anything it is the filmmakers’ penchant for cheaply executed jump scares which sinks the flick. It makes the endeavor all the more frustrating as we wonder why they couldn’t have went the route suggested by the aforementioned elements and built shocks organically. What is just as underwhelming is how it goes into Brahms’ backstory. This is done in an equally rote and conventional manner. Malcolm’s flat, gradual filling in of such details makes one think that Bell and Menear saw the backstory as more of a task than another chance to build curiosity.
This makes The Boy a desperate, often dull and forgettable trek. It is one that we have seen in various forms on uncountable instances beforehand. Bell wants to respect the traditions of both bygone and current attempts at producing trepidation. Yet, more than anything, it feels like more of the same. This results in a big-screen exertion which is more than suitably deemed as ‘serviceable’. It is more than content to give the audience almost exactly what Bell and his crew think they want to see. That is the most gaping problem here. There a few unexpected revelations sprinkled throughout and several well-done scenes. Still, it does little to conceal the fact that most of what we witness here is anything but ground-breaking. Fellow horror aficionados will be more than content to watch it once just to say they have seen it. All others may want to skip it completely.