Thursday, January 28, 2016

Chucky's Poor Relation: William Brent Bell’s The Boy

Lauren Cohan in The Boy, directed by William Brent Bell. (Photo: David Bukach/STX)

There was once a really great restaurant review of Guy Fieri’s Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar by Pete Wells for the New York Times that was composed entirely of questions: Had Guy ever actually eaten at his own restaurant? Was he too struck by “how very far from awesome” the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? The spirit of that review of confusion, astonishment is very close to how I feel about William Brent Bell’s horror film, The Boy, which hit theatres last week. In the interest of sparing Wells the flattery of imitation, I’ll do my best to articulate some thoughts on a movie that inherently resists thinking.

The premise of Bell’s (The Devil Inside, Stay Alive, Wer) newest pile of horror garbage is laid out pretty succinctly in the trailer but, on the off chance that you watch more reputable TV channels than I do, here goes. American Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) flees to England in the wake of a bad breakup to nanny for a suspiciously older English couple (Diana Hardcastle and Jim Norton) at their dark and oppressive country mansion. The Heelshires are taking a long overdue vacation and they need someone to look after their little gentleman, Brahms, during their absence of “a few months.” Lo and behold, Greta realizes upon arrival that Brahms is, in fact, a dapper porcelain doll in a tiny three-piece suit. The Heelshires have apparently been treating him like a real boy ever since their actual eight-year-old son died in a mysterious fire fifteen years ago. While most normal people would bail REAL HARD at that moment, the dreamy grocery delivery man Malcolm (Rupert Evans) and Greta’s need for “me time” trump common sense and our hero decides to take advantage of these clearly unwell people, opting to hang out at their house while collecting a substantial paycheque.

Before departing, the Heelshires leave Greta a list of rules for taking care of their darling little beanbag. In addition to the childcare staples like “don’t forget to feed him,” their list instructs her not to have any visitors, not to take Brahms off of the property and, most unsettlingly, “don’t cover his face.” Obviously, Greta drapes a towel over Brahms at her first opportunity and curls up with a good book and a bottle of wine, disregarding the list entirely for a while until things, predictably, start to get weird. Suddenly she’s hearing strange sounds in the house, her clothes start disappearing, and, most terrifying of all, at one point Brahms appears to somehow make her a sandwich and deliver it to her door. Reading between the slices of her impossible PB&J, Greta turns over a new leaf and becomes the best nanny any inanimate object could ask for. She reads him poetry, she peels his fruit, and she dresses him in a cute little raincoat whenever they go outside to empty the creepy and unnecessary rat traps. All is well until her murky past catches up with her in the form of her douchebag ex-boyfriend, James (James Russell) who arrives unannounced to take her home. Brahms doesn’t like this. And while I won’t tell you how it all plays out, let’s just say I would advise against angering Brahms.

Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, and "Brahms" in The Boy. (Photo: David Bukach/STX)

I need to interject here and express my disdain for the film’s catalyst, James, and the eye-roll-worthy cliché of using the abusive loser boyfriend as a plot device. I’m sick of it. James, like most of his ilk, is not only reprehensible but also transparent, demanding that Greta come home with him and give him another chance despite her obvious aversion to the idea. She has nothing nice to say about him and, from what we see in the film, there probably isn’t anything nice to say about him. It’s this dynamic that particularly irks me. Abusive relationships happen in real life and I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s often challenging for victims of domestic abuse to break free. What I resent is that making a cut and dry villain out of the abusive ex-boyfriend does a disservice to Greta and countless others who have ever been in Greta’s position. James is horrible; it took two minutes of screen time before I was rooting for him to be killed off and Greta appears to feel the same way. Where is the conflict? Where is the dilemma? I can believe in ghosts, axe murderers, people in the walls, reincarnation, and demons just fine when it comes to horror movies but I draw the line at believing anyone, especially independent Greta, would ever love a person as unrelentingly shitty as James. He serves a necessary purpose in the story and is an adequate foil for Evans’s charming doormat Malcolm, but his turn on the screen is unpleasant. Beyond being dubious in terms of storytelling and realism, the whole introduction of James to the plot is totally predictable and, unfortunately, that makes it boring.

That brings me to the other, bigger problem with The Boy: its pacing. I’m not sure what exactly I expected in terms of how thrilling a film could be when the antagonist is made of porcelain, but, nonetheless, large chunks of the movie are pretty slow. While we’re with Greta and share in her incredulousness at the beginning as Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire walk her through the motions of getting Brahms out of bed and dressing him for his undoubtedly action-packed day, the affinity we feel toward Greta dwindles in the middle. As it turns out, it’s hard to relate to someone who’s bullied into behaving irrationally by a ghost sandwich. Furthermore, as Greta adheres to Brahms’s rules, nothing bad happens (it’s almost as if she’s jumped out of one abusive relationship and into another was this deliberate?) and when nothing bad happens in a horror film, that film is no longer scary. All in all, The Boy does a good job of being creepy, peculiar, and strangely intriguing, but moments of actual horror are few and far between.

While the film’s ending might be one of its few genuinely frightening moments, it does a ham-fisted job of tying up loose plot threads. Certainly it answers some questions, but when you really stop and think about the story, a lot seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor. What The Boy achieves feels more or less like a kind of horror movie trail mix: it includes a little bit of everything, but it’s not enough for a complete meal.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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