★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
When indie horror plays it safe.
2016 gave us two similar horror movies, The Boy and The Forest. Both movies featured modest budgets, emerging genre fan female leads, and similar desires to be gateway horror entries. Both films, in the end, also suffer being all a bit meh. The Forest has other extenuating issues so I will address those in a separate review. The Boy borrows a page from the Conjuring spinoff Annabelle in which the source of all the scares is a doll. Now, don’t get me wrong, dolls can be outright freaky, but I believe that they are best utilized as support scare elements, as was done in Poltergeist. And, don’t get me started on Chucky! I think Child’s play is emblematic of the downfall of horror in the nineties. If you want to see the best representation of deadly dolls, go watch the Twilight Zone Episode with Talky Tawnie, that one’s a hoot.
But… I digress. Back to the Boy! (yawn)
Walking Dead alum (and one of my personal favorite actresses) Lauren Cohan is Greta Evans, an American woman who has taken an offer to be the nanny for the Heelshires, a wealthy family in rural England. I found it odd that they made Cohan, a Brit, take on an American accent for the role, but since she’s had so much practice at it with her take as Maggie, it wasn’t apparent. Though, she did drop the southern twang for this film. When she arrives at the family estate, she finds out that the Boy, Brahms, is a doll. The elderly couple then gives Greta a series of strict instructions on how to care for their “boy”, as if it were alive. Don’t forget to read to Brahms. Have your meals with him. Tuck him in and kiss him goodnight. (Ew?) No boyfriend visitors. (Hmmm…) And don’t go into the attic! (Red flag!) The Heelshires then quickly scramble out for a long needed vacation at the coast. We’re sorry, we have to go, and good luck with our boy. Yep. Abandon ship!
What ensues is not entirely surprising. Greta, completely weirded out by the odd instructions is reluctant at first to play along, but eventually, subtle changes to the objects in the house (usually connected to the doll) and strange noises like a child crying and scrambling footsteps suggest that the doll is either possessed or haunted. Greta befriends the handsome handyman, Malcom, who helps the Heelshires, and he informs that Brahms reportedly died in a fire when he was eight, and many of the locals always found the kid to be a bit off. Following the house rules eventually gets things relatively calm around the house, but the presence of Malcom and the unwanted appearance of Greta’s Ex boyfriend, Cole throws the fragile detente that Greta and Brahms made off balance and the climax of the movie shifts gears from subtle ghost story to mad slasher in a fairly clunky transition.
This is not a production without merits. The acting is pretty good. Cohan is on point as Maggie… I mean Greta… throughout the film. The film looks good. The house is properly regal and haunting. The plot, however, took no chances. It’s not a very scary movie, and even the big plot switches were telegraphed. We’ve seen all the little spooks, and to be honest, we’re expecting them. And it commits the greatest sin that a horror movie can make. It is boring. STX is a fairly new production studio, backed by Chinese money, that is carving out a niche in Hollywood, that of the mid-budget ($20-$60 million) range and utilizing well-known stars so that they fall somewhere between the indie film circuit and the blockbusters. Horror movies, comedies, and some dramas, and staying out of the big-budget spectacle films. It’s not a bad idea for Oscar-bait films like All The Money in the World and The Edge of Seventeen, or for comedies like their hugely profitable Bad Moms. It also has proven really successful in R-rated horror. However, in their attempt to capture a larger audience, they decided to make The Boy into a PG-13 horror movie.
If you are going to make a PG-13 horror movie, and try to appeal to a broad audience there are a couple of routes you can take. R rated horror movies can get more scares, because they can push the audience to areas where they really aren’t comfortable. The R-rating allows for visceral violence and gore, real severe intense emotional content like the Conjuring or Rosemary’s Baby. I’m not saying that a horror movie has to be overtly violent, but trying to get scares in a PG-13 movie is just harder to do. Some PG-13 movies succeed, because they are inventive with their scares, and go for making it a fun experience, like Happy Death Day or Drag me to Hell. Other successful PG-13 movies still get the scares in by having a tour-de-force acting performance like James McAvoy in Split. I think I would have enjoyed the Boy more if it was a straight-up haunted doll movie, ala Annabelle, and really went for the weird rationale, maybe a demon possession, or magic, or a better tie-in with the elder Heelshires. The Boy plot made sense, but it all lacked real imagination, a bit color-by-numbers for my taste.
As if you hadn’t figured it out, The Boy is rated PG-13 and is available for rent on most streaming platforms, and is currently showing on Showtime.