Monday, January 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Boy

Welcome to the January Film Dumping Ground! Yes, it's that magical time of year where the studios burn off all the celluloid dogs they didn't dare release during the all-important and lucrative summer and Xmas blockbusters seasons. Brace yourselves for an onslaught of watered-down PG-13 horror films, romcoms, dance-off movies and fart comedies. It's a wonderful time to be a film fan.

The Boy was written by Stacey Menear and directed by William Brent Bell.

This appears to be Menear's first screenplay. Bell previously directed Stay Alive and The Devil Inside.

Ah, another week, another PG-13 horror film starring a famous young British actress pretending to be an American.

The Boy is, as you might have guessed, yet another entry in the already crowded "evil doll" genre. You know the type— the main character owns a creepy doll that may or may not be possessed by an evil spirit. The Boy takes this premise and then trowels on bits and pieces from so many other films though that it's hard to keep track of all its influences. It also features a game-changing twist in the third act that you'll either love or hate.

Despite its unoriginality, it surprised me by being a bit better than it has any right to be. It didn't unfold quite the way I was expecting, which is always a plus in these days of remakes and rehashes.

This is actress Lauren Cohan's (of The Walking Dead fame) first starring role in a major film. She throws herself into the part, going above and beyond to sell the idea of an evil, haunted doll, but she might want to think about branching out into non-horror films sometime soon.

SPOILERS, INCLUDING A BIG TWIST IN THE THIRD ACT! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The Plot:
Greta Evans (played by Lauren Cohan), a young woman from Montana, travels to England and takes a job as a nanny for the wealthy Heelshire family. She arrives at their mansion, only to find the Heelshire's aren't at home. She's greeted by Malcolm, the local delivery boy, er, man. He flirts shamelessly with Greta, and warns her that the Heelshire's aren't a conventional family.

Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire return and meet Greta. They introduce her to their young son Brahms, who turns out to be a life-sized, realistic porcelain doll. Greta laughs, thinking it's a joke, but the Heelshires are deadly serious. They treat the doll as if it was their real flesh and blood son, talking to him, tucking him in at night and even scolding him when he "misbehaves." Cuckoo, cuckoo!

The Heelshires give Greta a detailed schedule for Brahms and insist she follow it to the letter— things like waking and dressing him in the morning, feeding him, and reading him poetry. They warn her never to vary from these rules, or Brahms will become... upset. She promises to follow the schedule, and Mrs. Heelshire tells Greta that Brahms has approved of her.

The Heelshires then leave for an extended vacation. Greta instantly does what any sane person would do, ditching the list and throwing a blanket over the creepy Brahms doll as she lives it up inside the mansion. Malcolm brings another delivery and she asks him what the hell's up with this family. He says the real Brahms died in a fire in 1991, at age eight. The grieving Heelshires couldn't handle the loss, and began treating the doll as their real son. After Malcolm leaves, Greta notices Brahms is no longer covered by the blanket. Unnerved by the creepy doll, she tosses it into a chair in its room.

Greta calls her sister in the States, who says her abusive ex-boyfriend Cole has been looking for her. Greta begins hearing strange noises and voices throughout the house. Her clothes go missing, and although she never sees it happen, Brahms appears to be moving on his own, disappearing and popping up in different rooms. She's even locked inside the attic overnight, presumably by Brahms.

The next day Brahms leaves a peanut butter & jelly sandwich outside her door as a peace offering. When she goes to his room, he's sitting on the edge of his bed, with a copy of the rules beside him. Believing the doll is inhabited by the spirit of the real Brahms, she begins caring for him and following his rules.

Meanwhile the Heelshires are staying at a seaside resort, and write a goodbye letter to their son (which says, "The girl is yours now"). They then fill their pockets with rocks and drown themselves in the ocean.

Malcolm visits Greta again, and is surprised to see she's also started treating Brahms like a real boy. When she tells him Brahms can move by himself, he worries that she's lost her mind. She proves she's not crazy by setting Brahms on the floor, drawing a chalk outline around him, and shutting the door. When she opens it again, Brahms is sitting on the bed. Malcolm is convinced, but also concerned. He tells Greta the story of the real Brahms. When he was eight he was friends with a neighbor girl.  After one of their playdates, the girl disappeared and was later found in a forest with her head crushed by a rock. Later that night there was a fire at the Heelshire's house, and Brahms was killed.

Greta then tells Malcolm why she came to England. She was in an abusive relationship with a man named Cole. When she found out she was pregnant, Cole beat her, causing her to have a miscarriage (nice guy!). Malcolm worries that Greta's using Brahms as a substitute for her lost child. He urges her to leave, but she says she can't abandon Brahms.

A few days later Greta hears someone playing pool in the billiard room. She asuumes it's Malcolm, but when she investigates, she sees it's Cole, who's tracked her to England. He demands she return to America with him. Just then Malcolm returns, and tells Cole he needs to leave. Cole snatches the Brahms doll away from Greta and shatters it on a table.

LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS FOR THE BIG TWIST!

Instantly the three hear sounds coming from within the walls of the mansion. Suddenly a mirror shatters, and the real, now adult Brahms comes crawling through. He's an imposing figure, who wears a porcelain mask just like the doll's, to hide his scarred face. He kills Cole and chases Greta and Malcolm, who flee into the walls of the house. Malcolm tells Greta to go on without him, and turns to confront Brahms. Greta escapes, but decides she can't leave without Malcolm and goes back for him.

She finds the real Brahms' secret, hidden room somewhere within the walls of the mansion. She sees his bed, which contains a dummy of her, wearing her own missing clothes (ew!). She realizes that Brahms didn't die in the fire after all, and has been living in the mansion all along, watching her and moving the doll when she wasn't looking. The Heelshires have been held hostage by their monstrous son all these years, and offered him Greta as a sacrifice so they could finally escape.

Brahms finds Greta and she uses his rules against him, ordering him to go to sleep. Amazingly he obeys, crawling into bed. He whimpers, asking her for a goodnight kiss. As she leans down to kiss him, she stabs him with a knife. Enraged, he backs her against the wall, choking her. She stabs him a second time and he collapses. Greta finds Malcolm and the two escape, leaving the mansion behind.

In the final scene, we see Brahms is still alive (of course) and is repairing the porcelain doll.

Thoughts:
• For some reason the producers couldn't settle on a title for this film. When it was first announced in 2014 it was called The Inhabitant. A few months later it was changed to In A Dark Place, before they finally settled on The Boy. Honestly I'm not crazy about any of those titles.

• Let's play Spot The Influences!

The "evil doll" concept is nothing new. We've seen it in the Chucky series, Dead Silence, Magic and most recently in 2014's Annabelle.

The idea of people secretly living inside the walls of a house has been done numerous times before as well, most famously in The People Under The Stairs and Bad Ronald. The Boy in particular echoes the ending of the 2014 New Zealand film Housebound.

The film is also very similar to 2009's The House Of The Devil, in which a couple pays a young girl to babysit an elderly woman in a creepy old mansion.

Lastly, Greta's abusive boyfriend who shows up demanding she return with him is a subplot lifted almost verbatim from 2015's Sinister 2.

• Lauren Cohen was born in the US but raised in the UK. So she has a British accent, but uses an American accent to play a woman from Montana in a film set in England. Got it.

• Speaking of accents, Ben Robson stars as Greta's asshole boyfriend Cole, who's presumably from Montana as she is. Robson was born in the UK, and has one of the worst American accents I've heard in a while. At times he sounded more Irish than American. He's like the anti-Dick Van Dyke!

• The movie very smartly never shows Brahms actually moving (except in one brief dream sequence), to keep us guessing as to whether he's really a possessed doll or if Greta's going nuts and imagining the whole thing. Kudos!

• Once the big twist is revealed, you realize the clues were right out in the open all along, spelled out in Brahms' rules.

Mrs. Heelshire tells Greta she has to speak clearly and in a loud voice when she reads stories to Brahms. That's so the real Brahms could hear her from his home inside the walls. Same deal with telling her to play his music loudly.

She also says to never throw away uneaten food, and to place it in a cooler in the kitchen so it won't attract vermin. This was so the real Brahms could sneak into the kitchen and eat the table scraps.

Mrs. Heelshire tells Greta, "If you love him (Brahms), he'll love you back." Creepy.

Mr. Heelshire takes Greta aside and tells her, "Whatever it might look like on the outside, our son is here. He is very much with us." Even creepier!

See? All right there, staring us in the face!

• The Brahms doll has a rigid, immobile china face, but in certain scenes I swear it seemed like it had a subtly different expression. I wonder if the producers deliberately made a few slightly different faces for the doll and swapped them out accordingly? Or maybe they had several prop dolls with inadvertently minute variances?

• I'm not a fan of jump scares in horror movies. They have no effect on me, and they're a cheap and obvious way to try and generate scares in movies that typically have none. The Boy features two jump scares, and both happen while Greta's dreaming.

• When Malcolm arrives at the mansion for their "not date," Greta's locked in the attic (presumably by Brahms). He knocks on the door a couple times, but when she doesn't answer he looks disappointed and drives off.

Why did he bother knocking? Every other time he comes to the house he just barges right on in. Why's he suddenly become so formal this particular time? Answer: Because if he walked on in like normal, he'd hear Greta in the attic and free her. Plot trickery!

• This film trots out the old "Knocked Unconscious For Hours" trope that you've seen in hundreds of movies and TV shows over the years. When Greta investigates noises in the attic, she trips and knocks herself out, not waking up the next morning. Nope!

A concussion is a serious thing. If you're out for less than thirty minutes, that's a mild concussion. You'll probably be woozy when you wake up, but most likely you'll be fine. If you're out for more than half an hour, that's a severe concussion, and you need to get to a hospital, stat. If you're out for six hours or more like Greta here, you're probably never going to wake up. And if by some miracle you do, you're going to need someone to feed and dress you the rest of your life.

• Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire kill themselves by filling their coat pockets with rocks and walking into the sea. Who the hell does that!!?? Surely there are quicker and less painful ways to off yourself. Was that supposed to be a romantic form of suicide?

• The whole abusive boyfriend subplot is completely superfluous and could have been dropped from the film without hurting the narrative one bit. Even worse, once Cole shows up you can see his fate coming down the street from a mile away. He might as well have been wearing a red shirt.

I guess they wedged him into the plot so Brahms could kill someone without losing one of the two leads.

• So lets's see if I've got Brahms story straight. He was the Heelshire's real son, but was, as his father put it, "odd." When he was eight, he killed his playmate in the woods by smashing her head in with a rock. Fearing the authorities would take him away, the Heelshires came up with a plan. They set their own house on fire and told everyone that Brahms was killed, while secretly hiding him inside the walls of their new home. They then began treating the porcelain doll as their son... why, exactly?

Was the doll like an avatar for the real Brahms? Did they talk to it so they didn't have to yell at the real Brahms inside the walls? Did they adopt the doll to throw off suspicion by making everyone think the trauma of losing a child had unhinged them? Did the doll preserve the memory of their idealized son?

I'm honestly not sure. Maybe all three at once, I suppose.

The Boy is by no means a great film, but it's better than I expected. It's not particularly scary, but it has an unsettling tone and features earnest performances by the two leads. It also features a twist that elevates it a bit above the usual PG-13 horror fare. I wouldn't rush out to the cineplex to see it, but it might be worth a look on home video. I give it a C+.

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