A Real Boy: "The Boy" too tepid to give even Chucky the willies

The Boy (2016)
97 min., rated PG-13.

There is a pantheon of “creepy doll” entries in the horror subgenre, but “The Boy” isn’t good enough to join the ranks. For what it’s worth, it might even make one reassess how fairly effective “Dead Silence” and “Annabelle” actually were. No relation to the 2015 indie of the same name, the film is a decent “Baby's First Horror Movie” but it’s a tepid PG-13 exercise in rudimentary scare tactics that will only startle those who aren’t acclimated to how a horror movie works by now. Director William Brent Bell, responsible for horror schlock like 2012’s “The Devil Inside” and 2006’s “Stay Alive,” and first-time screenwriter Stacey Menear have a creepy hook, but up until a bonkers 11th-hour plot twist, the film is plenty dim and so very dull, jumpy dream sequences and smart-as-a-peach character decisions becoming its fallbacks.

Leaving behind an unhealthy romantic life in Montana, Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) takes a temporary nannying position at a stately manor in rural England. Her employers, the Heelshires (acting veterans Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), are older but have a son named Brahms, who looks like Mad Magazine cover boy Alfred E. Neuman in a family painting. The situation is quite unique: Brahms is really a boy-sized doll to whom Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire dote as if he actually had a pulse. According to charming grocery deliveryman Malcolm (Rupert Evans) who pays a visit to the Heelshire household once a week, Brahms died in a fire two decades ago on his 8th birthday and the doll has been the Heelshires’ way of coping ever since. When the parents must be off on holiday, they give Greta a set of rules that she must abide by for Brahms each day (i.e. read to him, let him listen to his music, kiss him goodnight, etc.). Is Brahms an up-to-no-good doll or is something stranger afoot?

If anything, “The Boy” is a comparatively watchable improvement over the rest of director William Brent Bell’s unimpressive horror-centric filmography. The setup is more old-fashioned and unhurriedly paced. The $10-million production is slick—maybe too slick to capitalize on some gothic atmosphere—and cost-effective, being set in one location. Director Bell does get mileage out of the “is-the-doll-alive-or-not?” suspense before it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special. The most danger Greta gets into before the climactic chase is having articles of clothing stolen and then getting locked in the attic while wearing only a wet towel (she could have caught her death). Lauren Cohan (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) has an identifiable presence and does all she can in carrying a feature film while acting with a doll most of the time. Beginning as one movie and ending as something else, “The Boy” toys with expectations a little, but it’s too little, too late. The big revelation is unpredictable, but upon later and closer inspection, it only causes frustration since the “hows” and “whys” don’t exactly check out. Logic was apparently never a priority, nor were genuine scares. Not to mention, “The Boy” is about as original as its title, so at least it’s consistent.