JANUARY 22, 2016
If this was 2007, my review of The Boy would include another genre tagging and I'd be gushing about how it pays homage to ______, which I wouldn't have expected given that I had sat down for a creepy killer doll movie (yes, a doll, not a puppet - I just never bothered making two separate tags and I'm not gonna start now). But over the years I got more and more reserved when it came to spoilers, almost to the point of being one of those annoying spoilerphobes that yell at you on Twitter for saying something like "Kylo Ren is the bad guy in Star Wars". I will ALLUDE to the film's later reveals, but not say anything specific that might tip you off, though just to be safe I hope you just wait until you see the movie before reading. Unless you want to know if you SHOULD see it, and in that case - yes, you should.
"But isn't it from the director of The Devil Inside and Stay Alive," you may ask? Yes, and I didn't know that until I saw his name (William Brent Bell) in the credits. But I was a minor defender of those films (neither are great, but nowhere near as bad as their reputations), and this is much better at any rate. Of course, I'm a sucker for creepy doll movies, and since I was so disappointed by The Forest I was just happy to see a movie with less interest in jolting the audience every five minutes with a fake scare. Not that it lacks them - this IS a PG-13 January horror movie after all, so by law there must be at least two (2) nightmare scenes and every character must be introduced to the heroine (Lauren Cohan) by inadvertently scaring her, but Bell keeps them to an acceptable minimum. Plus, he kind of has no choice but to include some, because the nature of the film restricts him from using the doll much.
If you paid attention to the trailer, you'd notice that the doll never moves, and there's a good reason for that. This isn't Child's Play - the question of the movie is whether or not the doll IS alive as its "parents" think, and you take the journey with Cohan, meaning you find out the answer only when she does. The parents go on vacation early on, leaving her alone with Brahms (the doll's name, and also the name of their son, who died in a mysterious fire), and obviously if the thing got up and told her to make it breakfast (one of the tasks she is asked to perform, much to her confusion) on that first day, she'd hightail it out of there and there would be no movie. So she has to think they're crazy at first, and then as strange things start happening she (we) has (have) to wonder if maybe the parents aren't so crazy after all. Bell knows that if he shows the doll as much as blink, he is locked into that answer (otherwise he'd be cheating) and so you have to be patient - you know the truth when you need to, which is to say, the movie's 3rd act.
As you might expect from that description, this means that there isn't a lot of action in the movie, so some might even call it "boring". I'll admit, I think the pace could have been tightened here and there, but when you consider the bigger picture, it all fits. Cohan has to spend a reasonable amount of time assuming her employers are crazy - if she thinks Brahms is really alive after the first strange noise or "Didn't I leave him in the other room?" type moment, we lose sympathy for our heroine. Like any sane human, it takes her a while to start considering that maybe the doll is in fact alive, so Bell and writer Stacey Menear have to rely on the audience's intelligence (risky move nowadays) to accept that the movie isn't particularly exciting. They also run the risk of making her kind of unlikable in a way - if you believe that Brahms is alive and harmless, then you start thinking about how the poor little guy is sitting there with a blanket over his head for hours on end, and being ignored even longer. Eventually/obviously she does start suspecting that Brahms is alive, and then she has to convince the only other major character - Malcolm, the delivery man played by Rupert Evans from The Canal. This casting amused me, because in that movie he was the one trying to convince someone that he wasn't crazy when explaining something that sounded insane, so now he gets to be on the other side of the conversation. Charming actor, that guy - hope to see him in more hero roles soon.
But it's mostly Cohan's show - she's in every scene (except for one, I'll get to that in a bit) and carries the movie easily. Naturally, she has a tragic backstory, though it's not just some random shit - it actually informs her journey with Brahms. Turns out her abusive ex (the one she's running off to England to escape) hit her a bit too hard one night and caused her to miscarry, so when she learns the couple's own sad history, that they lost the real Brahms and have seemingly avoided dealing with it by treating a doll as if he was their still-living son, she starts sympathizing with their plight. It's rare that a modern horror movie going out on 2000+ screens can be considered a character piece, but that's exactly what The Boy is - it's about this woman coming to grips with the fact that she was denied a chance at motherhood. At a certain point, you should stop caring about whether or not Brahms is real and be more focused on whether or not she will be able to fully recover from her loss, making the horror element kind of a bonus in a strange way. It's not much longer after this reveal that the answers start coming, and so that's where I'll stop discussing the matter.
However I do have to go back to that one scene I mentioned. The entire movie is Cohan's POV, to the extent that even when she's talking to her friend (sister?) back home we don't cut away just to give the movie a change of scenery. Malcolm comes and goes with groceries but they never show him in town, loading his car up or anything - the furthest away from her that they get is when she's trapped in the attic and Malcolm is outside knocking on the door. So I'm baffled that Bell opted to not only break this rule to go hundreds of miles away to show something the parents are doing while on their holiday, but does so about 40 minutes before that information is necessary to us in any way. Not only does it cancel out the possibility that they never actually left and are the ones moving Brahms into different rooms or whatever, but it also severely lessens the impact for when Cohan discovers what they did (via a letter that they send), right near the end of the movie. It's obvious that the script went out of its way to make sure we were never ahead of Cohan's character at any point, so for the life of me I can't understand the thought process behind this glaring exception. I mean, sure, they could show the scene when she finds the letter, because at that point we know all the secrets, but why so long before?
The other complaint I have isn't about the movie, but about some people who are accusing it of ripping off ______. The title would give it away, I can only say it's a recent film, not from the US, that people (including me) really liked. Anyway, they're wrong - there's a similar plot element, yes, but in one that element describes the antagonist and in the other it concerns the hero, so those naysayers are already grasping at straws. Add that to the fact that this element has been used in dozens of movies and that ______ didn't come out in the US (save a few festival appearances) until this one was already in production and I'd say that it's likely just a coincidence, and if you watched the two of them back to back you'd see very different movies that happen to share a similar plot device in their 3rd act. That said, I am confident Menear was definitely paying tribute to the _______ title I mentioned in the first paragraph (a sequel, I'll hint at that much), but anyone who would knock the movie for that is a fool. If anything it's all the more reason to champion it.
(If you're reading this review before seeing the movie, I hope realizing all these things I'm talking about during your viewing doesn't get too distracting!)
Long story short, if you're patient and not the kind of person who gets unreasonably angry when their expectations are not met (i.e. the sort of person who still can't get past the lack of Michael Myers in Halloween III to realize it's an awesome movie), then you should really enjoy this one. My audience mostly turned on it (the guy behind me was basically MST3king it, but he seemed unbalanced so I just rolled my eyes instead of telling him to shut the fuck up) but others that I trust (and who were NOT defenders of Bell's earlier films) have also given it their blessing, and I think lots of folks will be pleasantly surprised if they give it a fair chance. And if not, well, you should at least admit it's better than The Forest (which, oddly enough, also has a Bear McCreary score and stars an actress best known for her role on a trendy cable show), as far as this month's horror options go.
What say you?
P.S. This week's Collins' Crypt piece at Birth.Movies.Death will have the spoiler since it'll be part of a longer article about Bell's output, if you absolutely must know what it is and inexplicably only want to hear it from me.