In defence of ‘The Boy’: A reflection on the strange

Flicking through the horror section on Netflix one evening I came across ‘The Boy’ and had immediate flashbacks to 2016 when I was sat in the cinema, squirming in my seat as the trailer for the film played. “You couldn’t pay me to watch that”, I said to whoever I had managed to drag to the cinema with me that day. Back in present day, however, and with my new-found love for the horror genre, I decided to give ‘The Boy’ a try, amused by my memory, and, as you may have guessed, I loved it. Whole-heartedly. Who would have thought that I would be so astounded by this odd little poorly-rated horror film that I’d defend it with passion? Certainly not 2016-me, that’s for sure.

Wanting to escape something, or someone, in her home town of Montana, Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) takes up the position of Nanny in the home of the Heelshires. As a setting for horror, it’s as classic as you might expect. (Why is it that everything sounds creepier in a British accent?) The manor house is imposing, its antiquated design leaves it cold and the place is just big enough to keep you, like Greta, hyper-vigilant with every squeaky floorboard and shadowy corridor. It feels like a place lost in time, an idea very much intended when Mrs Heelshire leads Greta in to meet “Daddy” and their surprisingly young son, Brahms. Of course, there is something a little more surprising than his apparent age and that is his unmoving face, his dead eyes, and his porcelain body. Brahms, the titular boy, isn’t a boy at all. He’s a doll. No explanation is given, only the rules that Greta must follow, and with that Mr and Mrs Heelshire leave with only a small word of warning for Greta:  “Be good to him and he will be good to you. Be bad to him and—”. Well, “and” you’ll find out what.

So far, so generic. Creepy dolls in equally creepy houses have been seen before in horror films such as Dead Silence (2007) and Annabelle (2014), but the execution of this in The Boy is fantastic. Dismissing Brahms as a fancy of two grieving parents, Greta spends her time reading and drinking wine instead of sticking to the rules laid down for her and yet the expected repercussions of this carefully take time to unfold. As a whole, the film runs at a very gradual pace, allowing for breathing room. There is more than enough time to explore the characters and the setting. More importantly, this leaves space for some gorgeous cinematography and work with the lighting department. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl manages to manipulate Brahms’ unchanging face using light to provide emotions to an inanimate object, the sheen of his skin seeming to ripple each time he is left alone or hears Greta flirting with the green-grocers’ delivery man, Malcom (Rupert Evans). Although it is still uncertain what exactly Brahms is, two things are for sure: he is alive and he isn’t happy.

Director William Brent Bell tonally strikes a balance between leaning into the pulpy and delving into the eeriness of the mundane; we all misplace items, everything from a pair of shoes to a pair of earring turn up in places you hadn’t expected, but here the film closes in on those moments. Narrowing down on Greta’s necklace as it slowly slips down the sink basin, pulled by an unseen hand, the lingering shots feel voyeuristic and down-right creepy. Bell confidently relies on atmosphere in place of jump scares or violence, which only heightens them when they finally make their appearances.

But where The Boy excels for me is in its story. Stacey Menear, writer of The Boy, stated that he wanted this film to “get strange” rather than violent or generic and I think the film expertly captures that. In particular, the progression of Greta’s character is fascinating; even moving forward to develop a modest, though not entirely nuanced, commentary on power dynamics through late revelations and twists. Some of which are more surprising than others. Unlike many horror films, you have to be a bit of an active watcher throughout this one. Many of the larger plot points are explained only through hints in quiet lines of dialogue. Only when these are pieced together do you get the overarching world the film takes place in, and even then there is room for debate. After the credits rolled I turned to my friend, asking what she thought, and resulted in a full-on discussion about all the possible readings you could take from the film.

Running underneath it all is Bear McCreary’s wonderfully chilling OST that asserts the measured macabre the film sets out to capture. (Just listen to The Boy Main Title for that classic spookiness!).  All in all, The Boy is a shamefully underrated horror film that goes far to prove that horror films can and should utilise atmosphere to scare, characters to disturb, and the weird to surprise.


by Alex Dewing

Alex is a Country Lass studying Comparative Literature at UCL. If not found at the cinema she’ll be binge-playing video games, listening to film scores, recording YouTube videos, or planning her next film project. As a serious nerd, she’s captivated by all things Sherlock, Marvel, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and is currently learning how to lightsaber. In Bruges, The Shape of Water, and Lost in Translation are some of her favourite films but will watch anything that’s put in front of her. Find her Tweeting and Letterboxd-ing at @alex_dewing

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