2016 | PG-13 | USA | William Brent Bell | 97 min
Summary: The Boy brilliantly weaves together two very different sub-genres to show how crucial loss and grief are to the horror tradition.
Directed by William Brent Bell (of The Devil Inside ) and written by Stacey Menear, The Boy follows Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan—known to most of us as Maggie from AMC’s The Walking Dead) as she travels to England from the US to take a nanny position at an isolated house in the country. She finds herself in a strange position, to say the least, when she is introduced to her new charge. Brahms is a doll. After his parents (the Heelshires) leave for their first “holiday” in years (which turns out to be not quite a holiday), Greta is left alone with Brahms—told she must adhere strictly to a list of rules. She must assist Brahms through a daily schedule of eating, school work, music, bedtime reading and kisses goodnight; she must never cover his face, never take him out of the house, and never leave him alone. Needless to say, as soon as the Heelshires leave, Greta chucks Brahms on a chair, throws a blanket over him, drinks a bottle of wine, reads a magazine, and falls asleep. Before long, she’s planning a date. After all, she’s not crazy and Brahms is only a doll . . . right?
The Boy continues a long tradition of supernatural horror rooted in such gothic novels as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). In all of these novels, a young woman (often a governess) arrives alone at an isolated country house and finds herself beset by strange occurrences, making her question her sanity. More recent films like The Woman in Black (2012) continue this sub-genre—although what is distinctive about The Boy is that it remembers its literary ancestors—more so than The Woman in Black (the film it most pointedly resembles, I think)—Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw in particular.
What’s really interesting about The Boy is that it’s not exactly, as you would expect, ghosts that trouble Greta. It really is the doll itself. I loved the way the camera dwelled so attentively on the face of the doll. Indeed, the camera—and thus the viewer—stares for so long, so often, at Brahms’s face that he does start to undergo an almost magical transformation. The camera starts to make him real, to conjure him to life. So when Greta herself starts to come to the same conclusion, we follow along with her. We don’t write her off as insane. I should add here that Cohan is great: the film calls for a range of emotion and she effectively conveys them all—beginning with her utterly believable reaction to seeing Brahms for the first time.
Animate dolls have a history in horror (Chucky and Annabelle come immediately to mind). In the early twentieth century, Freud described the uncanny effect of the animate doll, leaving the reader wondering, he wrote (quoting E. Jentsch), “whether a particular figure is a real person or an automaton.” Horror has long exploited the seemingly inanimate come to life, or the apparently living revealed to be dead.
That’s not exactly where Brahms’s power comes from, however. For me, Brahms is a powerful figure because the director, writer, and cinematographer use him to show how intense grief can get crystallized in an object and then give life to that object.
Repeatedly through the film, and not just with Brahms himself, the camera dwells on frozen objects—statues, photographs, paintings, headstones. It dwells on living faces too, freezing even them. The film, in short, creates a landscape of grief—one that reminded me of the classic scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) when Lila (Vera Miles) explores the Bates house. In The Boy, it’s not just the grief of the Heelshires that has petrified the world they live in: Greta, it turns out, has suffered loss too, which is precisely what draws her in, puts her in jeopardy of becoming frozen too.
Everything changes, though, about thirty minutes from the end of the film: The Boy abruptly shifts genres. I won’t say what the film becomes, at the risk of spoiling the famous “twist.” Some critics may not like the change in direction, but I thought it really worked. Indeed, the blending of horror genres, the move from haunted house to something quite different, was actually quite brilliant. I’m not sure I’ve seen these two sub-genres woven together quite so successfully (or even at all) before.
The shift in sub-genre works, moreover, because it’s not random or gratuitous. When the film changes direction, the undercurrent of grief and loss that has driven the first part of the film continues. In fact, The Boy effectively highlights the indwelling presence of loss and violent mourning in this other sub-genre too—in which it may not, perhaps, be quite so evident. The film makes crystal clear the role that grief plays in the horror genre—and for that alone it’s worth watching.