To make a creepy living doll movie takes a lightness of touch. You have to employ atmosphere, pacing, good editing, a good script, plus a doll that you can believe that someone would actually own. The Boy has none of these things. It is a competently made movie operating on a silly premise that the filmmakers have the nerve to take seriously; and then it arrives at a third act so stupefying idiotic that you feel like throwing golf balls at the screen.
The Boy stars Lauren Cohen from “The Walking Dead” as Greta, a lonely American who has come across the pond to take a job as a nanny at an English manor that, we’re told, has been cut off from communications with the rest of civilization for many years. That leads to a reasonable question: how did the owners of this house in England put out an ad that reached a prospective applicant living in Montana? That’s probably the quaintest of logical questions floating around here.
Greta’s change in continents is part of an attempt to get out of an abusive relationship (ask me if the boyfriend comes around in the finale). Here she meets Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), a well-to-do elderly couple who want to hire her to take care of their son Brahms. Fine. Yet, the moment that she meets Brahms, I checked out of the movie. Brahms, you see, is a doll. He comes equipped with his own bedroom, toys, suits, cardigans and his own PJ’s. He is made to look like the Hillshire’s son who apparently died in a fire, his mother says, 20 years ago despite the fact that the death date on his headstone reads 1991. Either ma’s a little off on the math or this script has been sitting around for six years.
Anyway, Greta’s job is to do all the normal things that one might do for a child and apparently overlook the fact that he’s a lifeless porcelain doll. She must clothe him, feed him, play music for him, and tuck him in at night. I would love to see how Greta lists this on her resume. But, oh well, Greta takes the job, runs through the course of her duties and figures that, hey, she’s got bills to pay. For me, as a moviegoer, this is a leap I wasn’t willing to take particularly when Greta warms up to the doll and starts calling him “Brahmsy.”
The state of Mr. and Mrs. Hillshire’s grief over their son is sort of intriguing. I was interested in the melancholy that befalls a mother and a father who are so grief-stricken over the loss of their son that they have built an entire world around his effigy. But no, this movie isn’t interested in character studies. After the intros, Mom and Dad conveniently head out for a vacation/plot device leaving Greta home to take care of Brahms. Out of their line of sight, she doesn’t take the job as seriously, but then she begins to hear whispers, laughter, noises in the walls. Plus, Brahms appears to be moving around on his own. These events begin to work on Greta’s mental health until she comes around to accept what is happening. I couldn’t, and I was off-kilter with this movie for most of the running time.
Maybe, the movie would work if the doll were at all plausible. It’s a life-sized doll with a white porcelain face and deep-set eyes that stare off into space. It is suppose to look like the real Brahms but looks nothing like the one we see in the painting in the living room. The doll looks like the kind of thing you’d see in an antique store but not necessarily in someone’s possession. Plus, the editors don’t work with the doll to make it creepy. Subtly is the key here. We need to think something is happening when it doesn’t, and then assure us that most of the time we’re wrong. There also needs to be a deep psychology at work here. Alone in an enormous mansion, we need to feel Greta’s isolation and there is a great opportunity to play with our sense of perception like Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining.
But no, the filmmakers here don’t trust us as intelligent viewers. Instead we get isolated incidents and useless trickery that isn’t part of the story but seems manufactured to give the audience its money’s worth. We get jump scares, musical stings and at least three bogus dream sequences. When Brahms apparently makes Greta a PB&J and leaves it by her bedroom door, I was ready for the movie to be over.
The twist ending is just plain stupid and almost feels like it was put together by a different film crew for a different movie. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that whatever little bit of tension that director William Brent Bell earned in the first hour is completely defecated on in the last 20 minutes. Creepy living doll movies require a lightness of touch. They require filmmakers who know how to build tension and play with our senses. Good ones, like Magic and the original Poltergeist and even the Talky Tina episode of “The Twilight Zone” are perfect examples. The problem with The Boy is that by its end, it’s not a creepy doll movie, and in fact, never was from the beginning. So what is it?