If you distilled horror to its core idea, it would be the idea of fear. And while fear is a core concept of the genre, one could argue that even more than fear it is a genre about trauma. The best horror stories often come with traumatic pasts attached; whether it be the story told around the campfire of the boy who drowned in Crystal Lake or what horrible event casted a shadow over the haunted mansion. The Boy is intriguing in that it deals with the trauma of the past but positions itself as a story where the line between what is true and what is “pub talk” isn’t always clear.
Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) is an American running away from her own problems who ends up working as a nanny for Mr. (Jim Norton) and Mrs. Heelshire (Diana Hardcastle), a couple whose “child” is a doll they’ve named after their deceased son, Brahams. The couple leaves on holiday, insisting Greta stay with Brahms at all times, her only face-to-face contact with the outside world being the grocer Malcolm (Rupert Evans) who tries to fill her in on rumors surrounding Brahms’s life and death.
The core trauma of the story exposes the long strains of denial of grief in a couple who have become attached to an unsettling dark fantasy. Brahms the doll works fantastically as a object of abject horror because he physically is deadened: the eyes glossed over, the face porcelain, and the body motionless. But it also represents how Mrs. Heelshire stills views him: as this pristine good child: immaculately dressed, clean and spotless.
As an image, the symbol of horror works fantastically and makes it more than just a creepy doll story. It’s the idea attached, the concept and the story that unfolds behind the family and Brahms that makes it even more unsettling. But it’s also not a fright a minute story with lots of downtime and slowly building sequences throughout.
The film takes its time to push things forward, a good chunk of the film dedicated to Malcolm trying to coax Greta out of her shell. It’s fortunate that Lauren Cohan and Rupert Evans have decent chemistry together and that the dialogue avoids being too forceful or cheesy. The two leads come across as genuine people stuck in a strange horror story who generally behave as human beings instead of typical horror fodder.
As horror films go, this one was a delightful surprise. The conciete could have been silly or overwrought, the emotional beats could have been too melodramatic, and the film could have gone for a lot more cheap scares. Instead, it’s a film with a lot of restraint and a lot of setup for a solid payoff.
If anything bad must be said, it’s that The Boy is not the kind of horror film that will be talked about for years to come. It’s a testament to the strength of the genre’s best works that this film being consistently solid is not enough. Films like The Witch, It Follows, Under the Skin, The Neon Demon, 10 Cloverfield Lane and countless others from the past 5 years all stand as films executed with a cinematic flourish and excellence that is missing here. It’s a decent watch for any horror fan, but casual horror watchers have many better contemporary horror films to see before The Boy.
© James Blake Ewing 2018