SHOCK reviews William Brent Bell’s new psychodrama THE BOY.
Like the recently released date night horror film THE FOREST, THE BOY is a PG-13 picture aimed to target a wide audience. And like THE FOREST, THE BOY serves primarily as a showcase for a starlet from a cult TV show: GAME OF THRONES’ Natalie Dormer in the former, THE WALKING DEAD’s Lauren Cohan in the latter.
The comparisons don’t stop there.
Both films propel their narratives by taking an American twentysomething female and transporting her to a foreign land where she encounters life-threatening phenomena that is either supernatural or brought on by some sort of psychological trauma.
And Bear McCreary composed the score for both movies.
And each actress excels in both films as well, relishing the chance to defy their small-screen personas and take center stage.
But the big difference between THE FOREST and THE BOY is that THE FOREST isn’t all that memorable or effective, skimming over its atmosphere and the innate melancholy of its setting and going for jump scares and gimmicks. THE BOY, on the other hand, is a relatively fantastic little horror film, directed by THE DEVIL INSIDE helmer William Brent Bell with grace and restraint; a contemporary Gothic melodrama that slow-burns and builds tension and dread and has a deep streak of muted weirdness that seeps under your skin.
During the film’s beautifully designed and edited title sequence we are introduced to Greta (Cohan), a young woman who has arrived at an impossibly Gothic manor in the country (her aged limo driver leering at her cleavage in the rear-view mirror) where she has accepted a position as nanny to a young boy and caretaker of said home for two months while the parents/owners are abroad. First, she meets the flirty grocery delivery man (Rupert Evans, handsome but still “average guy” enough for us to identify with) who welcomes her to the home while dodging questions about the character of the little lad she’s meant to mind.
We soon discover why.
Despite the youth of their appearance in the family portrait hanging on the wall, the parents of the boy are in fact eldery and more than a bit off. When they introduce Greta to their “son” – whose name is Brahms – the girl is shaken to see that he’s not a boy at all, rather he’s a porcelain doll, white of face, black of hair and wide and blank of eye.
Mom and dad treat Brahms as if he is indeed real, which Greta plays along with, partially out of pity and partially out of genuine wonder at just how mad the entire scenario she’s just stepped into is. After reviewing the rules and duties surrounding Brahms’ care – including the unsavory job of emptying the rat traps around the home – the couple bid the girl farewell, departing for their unspecified journey, leaving Greta alone with Brahms.
And then, slowly, surely, the screws are turned.
It would have been very easy for Bell to have turned THE BOY into an orgy of cheap jump-scares and “killer doll” movie cliches, but he never does. Rather he sticks with his lead and follows her organically, observing her day to day life, building her relationship with her milk-delivering paramour while ladling on the horror with care.
Indeed so much of the film meanders that some audiences might grow impatient, but I soaked it all in. In fact the thing THE BOY most resembles – at least to these eyes and the brain they’re attached to – is a vintage Dan Curtis film (think BURNT OFFERINGS) or one of the many superlative contemporary Gothic 1970’s telefilms that Curtis either helmed himself or were inspired by his post-DARK SHADOWS small-screen success.
You know, quality pictures like HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN or BAD RONALD; movies that were character and atmosphere driven and took themselves seriously and locked their mysteries down tight in order to keep their audiences guessing.
What I liked the most about THE BOY is the darkness at its heart, one that doesn’t really sink in until after the film has ended and you’ve swirled it around in your senses a bit. It’s moot whether or not Brahams is indeed “haunted”; it doesn’t matter if it’s really “him” moving things around and skittering around the house at night, giggling. What THE BOY is really about is the horror of the family unit breakdown, about how extremity can cause people to not only lose their minds, but do so willingly, ignoring reality and allowing themselves to slip into insanity and then build upon it over the years until it breeds and breeds and eventually saturates and destroys everything.
Like rats left to live in the walls. Multiplying endlessly, devouring all.
A great performance by Cohan, solid directing, a great, minimalist McCreary score and acres of sheer, quietly unsettling, vaguely kinky strangeness make THE BOY one of the best contemporary wide release horror movies I’ve seen in years.