The modern Slasher is a problem. Those interested in making slasher films are often fans of slasher films, devotees of a niche (beyond staples like Halloween, Friday and Elm) subgenre looking to craft a film in the vein of, with more thought to homage than to besting or commenting on. Its why the modern slashers that transcend tend to be meta, deconstructive or comedic, rather than straight pastiche (though the terrific Cold Prey 1 and 2 certainly succeed at the latter). Thats not to mention, the majority of slashers arent exactly artful*. Thats also not to mention marketing, which tends to hoist earnest contemporary gos at the genre with the birth of a new icon tag. You cant tell us what well remember.
This isnt to say The Boy is wholly a slasher, but that aspect of it is bubbling, budding and growing throughout, always threatening to infringe on this bleak, masculine study of a child sociopath. In danger of simplifying (like I did with that first paragraph), its the successful, more thoughtful, less overt and on-the-nose attempt at what Rob Zombie tries to do in the first half of Halloween (2007). Here, with shades of Psycho in a dusty, all-but-failed motel, the eponymous 9 year-old Ted uses the 1989 Southwest as a testing ground for darker impulse. This is a sad vision of childhood and iconic American landscape, the first stunning shot of this cinematically rich (both historically and visually) regions beauty upended for the rest of the runtime.
The young Ted lives and exists largely alone. The motel is run by John (David Morse), a father destitute of the qualities to be one and still clearly reeling from the absence of Teds mother. So, Ted explores himself and the countryside alone, only returning when hes found roadkill, an activity that garners him a $.25 wage from the register. That register is growing empty, like the surrounding countryside, and director Craig Macneill often engulfs the child in meditative, chilling takes to highlight his negative space. Ted uses these quarters as a fund to hopefully escape the hotel and live with his mother, but as his savings rises, humanity dwindles, his increasing familiarity with dead things leads to orchestrating acts of roadkill when in a rage.
Smaller animals lead to larger ones. The rare family rolls through the motel and playtime with their young son grows dangerous. The anonymity of and connection to a tragic drifter, played by Rainn Wilson, courts his violent edge and fascination. Smartly and sharply, Macneill and writer Clay McLeod Chapman may use these characters as reminders of what Ted doesnt have (a fulfilling atmosphere, a matriarch, a present father), but not as reasons why. Ted exists in a storm of circumstance rather than cause-and-effect, and the frightening possibility hed be a developing murderer is very real, regardless.
Its the development thats less frightening. Jared Breeze essays Ted as both stoic and malevolently curious. His burgeoning nature is a sad, scary one and again, Macneill presents it as such, his long views refusing to look away from where Ted is headed. At a certain point however, this deliberate nature betrays the dread of what we know Ted is going to become, leaving the inevitability of the final act having to compensate for more than it should.
Thankfully, it does. With a needle drop, the symbols, the staples, of the slasher begin to emerge. A ruffled, hair teased prom party looms and when their arrival grows closer, the sounds of the 80s muscle in. Petulant, narcissistic high schoolers pull up and reinforce the films refusal to point blame. After all, these kids seem to have been afforded all the comforts of life. Would we rather Ted grows into one of these assholes instead?
Its not too revealing to write that the threat against a group of hard partying, shithead kids is real. This is where the focus on (too) mannered pace ends up with fiery, affecting and furious violence. Ted finally fully forms, adorning himself in just underwear and custom-fashioned pair of antlers; Macneills disinterest in making a traditional slasher, let alone an iconic one, ultimately ends up with one of the most memorable contemporary iterations. The image of this horned, malicious gawky boy now both haunts my thoughts and has me dreading a bunch of adult creepers rocking tighty whities next Halloween.
*Though that Bava drug hallucination in The House on Sorority Row totally is.