Brahms isn’t going anywhere. Not the composer Johannes Brahms—though he isn’t going anywhere either—but the reedy porcelain doll in the horror film The Boy, a marginally animate object built around an inanimate one. The challenge for director William Brent Bell (auteur of the execrable The Devil Inside) and his screenwriter, Stacey Menear, was to create a palpable sense of menace around the glass-eyed little monster, even though he only seems to move when no one is watching. Their basic solution isn’t a bad one, which is to model The Boy after classic British ghost stories like The Innocents or The Haunting, and allow the atmosphere around a creepy countryside manor to suggest a threat that isn’t naturally apparent. With enough supernatural business happening around Brahms, the doll doesn’t have to say or do anything to project the eternal evil of an aristocratic brat.
But The Boy isn’t in the hands of horror maestros who can make something out of nothing. It’s neither a throwback to old-school ghost stories nor a no-holds-barred act of bloody perversion, but something altogether squishier: a wan PG-13 programmer that doesn’t have the discipline to let ambience carry the day or the conviction to follow through on a psychosexual relationship between Brahms and his hand-picked American nanny. Instead it turns to such reliably bloodless PG-13 shocks as a character suddenly popping up to say “hello” or the tension of staring into a fogged-up mirror after a shower. And whatever context is needed to make Brahms scary is accomplished through backstory rather than spine-tingling effects.
The set-up to The Boy sounds more like comedy than horror. The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Cohan stars as Greta, an American who flies all the way across the pond to take a job as a nanny for an 8-year-old boy. Imagine the record-scratch in her head when Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), the stuffy Brits who own the Gothic estate, introduce her placid young charge. After recovering from the shock and seeing these weirdos off on their vacation, Greta does what any sensible person would do: She ignores the typewritten list of instructions for the care and maintenance of Brahms, pours wine into a bottomless goblet, and enjoys the peaceful refuge she’d hoped to find. That her only visitor, a local deliveryman named Malcom (Rupert Evans), happens to be a charming, flirtatious, like-aged chap is a nice little bonus.
It isn’t long before strange things start to happen. Greta hears noises in the walls, starts having bad dreams (cue more fake-out shocks), and could swear that Brahms has been moving around while she’s not looking. As she becomes more convinced that Brahms is real, Greta abides by the list of guidelines (never leave him alone, save his food, read and play music for him, kiss him goodnight, etc.), hoping to keep the little Mogwai from turning into a Gremlin. But that doesn’t prove easy as disturbing revelations about the boy’s death 20 years earlier dovetail with some unsettled business from Greta’s recent past.
Menear’s script parcels out information about Brahms and Greta stingily, one breadcrumb at a time, in an effort to make the doll seem more frightening and the nanny seem more vulnerable. There’s a stretch of The Boy when Bell and Menear tiptoe toward the cult oddity the film might have been, as Greta and the doll carry out their daily routine and the audience is left to ponder the disturbing Oedipal implications of their relationship. Voyeuristic shots of Greta undressing are mingled with shots of her handling Brahms like an attentive mother, and given the news that the boy “chose” her over a slew of other applicants, it stands to reason that he expects comprehensive care.
But The Boy isn’t that type of horror movie. And it isn’t a retro haunted house movie like The House of the Devil, either. It’s a safe, generic, milquetoast thriller designed to freak a few bucks out of undiscriminating teenagers, with a built-in option to freak a few more on some future January weekend when nothing good is opening. With a little more courage and a lot more craft, Brahms could have been the next Chucky or Annabelle. Instead the little creep is as harmless as a rag doll.