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Film review: The Boy ***

By Preston Wilder

A girl, a spooky house, a doll: IT’S ALIVE!!! Actually, that’s what you don’t know – and what I’m not allowed to divulge – though in fact every creepy-doll movie should be titled ‘It’s Alive!!!’. That’s the only real question, and what keeps us watching. Did that doll just move? Did it blink? If the camera keeps staring at it, will it suddenly twitch and freak us all out? It’s a doll, of course. It can’t be alive. But what if it is?

Dolls have always been reliably frightening – the classics being probably the ventriloquist’s dummy in Dead of Night (1945) and the evil thing that jigs into frame in Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) – and creepy dolls, or more accurately possessed dolls, are back in fashion after the surprise success of Annabelle. Hence The Boy, a low-budget psychological horror that’s actually much better than Annabelle, adding to the mix a spooky mansion in rural England and a smidgen of Rosemary’s Baby – the disturbing notion that a woman’s maternal instincts may end up making her complicit in demonic conspiracy.

Greta (Lauren Cohan) is a young American hired as a nanny by an elderly couple to look after ‘Brahms’, their little boy – but Brahms, it turns out, is a doll, a life-sized doll with a shiny translucent complexion and unnervingly human eyes. The real Brahms died in a fire 20 years ago, and the doll is a kind of consolation for ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ – though of course this can never be admitted. The doll is ‘real’ and must be treated like a real boy, dressed and read-to and kissed goodnight. I know how this looks to an outsider, Daddy tells Greta – but “our son is here. He’s very much with us”. If you say so, old English weirdo.

Greta is a bit taken aback, but she doesn’t really mind; the money’s good and besides she needs to lay low for a while, being on the run from a violent boyfriend. She’s even more taken aback when the parents leave a couple of days later, going on holiday and abandoning Brahms in her care, but she takes it well enough. After all, Brahms is only a doll (it’s not like IT’S ALIVE!!!, right?). Greta settles in, makes herself a peanut-butter sandwich and doesn’t even bother to glance at the list of “rules” on how to care for the little fellow. Yes – but why did Mummy whisper “I’m so sorry…” in her ear as she and Daddy were filing out? And why do her clothes keep disappearing? And why are there rat-traps in the garden, and why are the windows sealed shut? And why is Brahms suddenly here when she’s sure she left him over there? A doll can’t move around by itself – can it?

I should probably say no more – though in fact what I’ve described is only the first act of the movie. The script, by a promising first-timer called Stacey Menear, has an old-fashioned three-act structure, plays surprisingly fair – almost everything we learn turns out to be relevant – and also gets resolved in an old-fashioned way, the way supernatural dramas used to be resolved 30 years ago (OK, I really shouldn’t say any more). The old-house setting may recall The Woman in Black, but unlike that film – which spent 90 minutes trying to make Daniel Radcliffe (and the audience) jump as often as possible – The Boy is a slow-burner with only a couple of jolts, banking mainly on the strangeness of the concept and the lingering inappropriateness of a child-sized mannequin being treated like a child.

In the end, a doll is like a dark room. It’s scary when a horror-movie hero walks into a dark room, because there’s nothing there: the darkness conceals everything. If nothing is visible, everything is imaginable – just like a doll offers nothing, a painted and lacquered face that could hide boundless evil or nothing at all; it’s the uncertainty that’s terrifying. In her nightmares, Greta sees Brahms coming alive. His china head swivels by itself, the eyes seem possessed with human feelings. “If there’s a spirit in this house, give me a sign!” she cries out desperately – but all she can see is a doll staring blankly, reflecting her own feelings back at her, the painted face giving nothing away. IT’S ALIVE!!! Or is it?

 

DIRECTED BY William Brent Bell

STARRING Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell

US 2015                   97 mins

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