The “creepy doll” subgenre of horror has to be one of the most cost-effective, because it requires no acting or animation, just some moody lighting and music. The “Conjuring” prequel, “Annabelle,” showed how much mileage filmmakers can get out of a well-designed creepy-as-hell doll, but “The Boy” takes things a significant step further.
Befitting the genre, this film does feature lots of lingering shots of a 75-percent-lifesize doll of a boy who resides firmly in the uncanny valley. Music by Bear McCreary (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) and production design by horror veteran John Willett – who gives us a huge old house with plenty of nooks and crannies — enhance the mood. But “The Boy” serves up a lot of additional elements beyond what “Annabelle” offered.
This is basically a one-woman film, and Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) carries it. She plays Greta, an American who takes a nanny job in England partly for the great pay and partly to escape an abusive boyfriend, which we learn about from her calls home to her best friend. Greta’s a classic horror-movie damsel in some ways, but the backstory and Cohan’s innate likability put her a notch above.
Naturally, Greta resists the fact that she’s caring for a ceramic boy, Brahms. Indeed, she laughs out loud when Brahms’ “parents” (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) introduce him; Mrs. Heelshire is obviously under the impression that he’s real, whereas Mr. Heelshire might just be humoring her. As the action progresses, Greta sees some evidence Brahms might be real – or at least possessed by a ghost – and we’re right there with our heroine, watching closely to see if Brahms’ eyes move or if he shifts position in his chair.
Certainly, “The Boy” works on a traditional horror level. Jump scares? Check. Shower scene? Check. Creaky noises in a dark house? Check. A movement in the background as the girl looks in the mirror? Check.
Yet it’s clear this isn’t “Child’s Play” or even “Annabelle,” so even as we enjoy these horror tropes, questions run through our heads. Are Brahms’ parents just straightforward nutjobs who think a ceramic doll is their son? Or is the doll somehow real? Or is Greta herself the crazy one?
The script by newcomer Stacey Menear peppers in backstory elements, courtesy of the one human being Greta interacts with: Malcolm (Rupert Evans), who delivers groceries as per the Heelshires’ regular schedule. Perhaps there are clues to be found as he parcels out the family’s backstory. Considering how many possible solutions there are to this odd mystery, I found the final twist satisfying, and one that provides explanations for what has transpired.
“The Boy” shows that a movie can be engaging if minimalist elements are accompanied by a good lead performance and a clever script. Rather than cheap or silly, the end result is rather artistic and smart.