Toeing a fine line between cliché and innovation, director William Brent Bell’s newest horror movie, The Boy, gets audiences screaming as it spins the tale of a doll replacing the lost son, Brahms, of an elderly couple living in the English countryside. Starring Lauren Cohan of the Walking Dead, The Boy at first appears to perfectly fit the mold cast by its predecessors before delightfully shattering it in a series of plot twists that build until the closing credits.
Cohan holds her character well, maintaining her composure in high-stress scenes and seeming to lose her sanity “little by little, then all at once.” Faced with a living doll, her laughter hints at her mental breakdowns. And then, when her past inevitably catches up to her, she delivers a performance that manages to be both raw and unhinged. The dialogue she shares with co-star Rupert Evans (of The Canal) is natural, but Evans’s Malcolm, the character we rely upon to tell us the true history of Brahms, could have been stronger. The movie is littered with creepy one or two-liners, like the aforementioned “little by little, then all at once” used to describe the incorporation of the doll into its “parents’” lives and the beautifully delivered, “Be good to [Brahms] and he’ll be good to you. Be bad to him and — ” cue the suspenseful interjection that is a must for many horror films.
The storyline itself is relatively unimpressive. After the tragic and untimely death of their son Brahms, a British couple accepts his replacement, a porcelain doll, into their lives. The doll, despite its silence and lack of animation, comes with a long list of rules in order to retain its pacification. As Cohan’s Greta pulls up the winding and creepy driveway of the Victorian country home and enters their lives with a single “whoa,” one can predict the naiveté that leads to her own long list of inevitable mistakes.
What I’m trying to say is this: The Boy is a horror movie, and, like almost all horror movies, there are some scenes you have to take as given. Of course, there’s the shower scene that gets your heart racing as you wonder what monster is lurking behind the steamed glass. There’s no cell service, but through the ringing and ensuing crackly line of an old rotary phone you can almost make out the menacing, slow breaths of imminent death. Little kids’ voices sing their way into the plot, as do stuffed animals and creaky rocking chairs which, when paired with a slow piano tune, compose the opening sequence. Conveniently placed candles are, naturally, a handy source of illumination, and doorknobs turning on locked doors let you know for whom to root and for whom to not. In terms of setting, there’s a disappointingly high number of characteristics shared between The Boy and James Watkins’s 2012 film, The Woman in Black: both feature a creaky, old, British mansion that has a dark past with children.
Despite all its tucked away clichés, The Boy manages to retain something special that makes you scream rather than laugh. Bell creates something realistic out of the improbability that often comprises other doll-based horror films. Magnificently contrived twists and turns will leave you open-mouthed, and even the most predictable of surprises will get you, and the rest of the audience, screaming.
The Boy is the fourth of Bell’s growing list of horror movies, preceded by Stay Alive, The Devil Inside, and Wer — the most recent and least successful. Despite The Boy already surpassing its $10 million budget in box office earnings, it is dubious whether or not it will ever reach The Devil Inside’s popularity given its 19% Rotten Tomatoes rating and mixed reviews, which have the potential to hold it back.
Everything The Boy does differently, though, is reason enough to see it. It uses cliches to add horror to the plot, as annoying as their presence may be, and compensates for it with a turn of events that will leave you terrified and your head spinning.