The lonely old country mansion with a sad history is the typical setting for a traditional horror story; strange then that writer/director William Brent Bell of The Devil Inside and Wer should opt for such a familiar setup for his latest film, though it is also the first time he has worked from someone else’s script, debut writer Stacey Menear.
The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Cohan is Greta Evans, who has fled Montana to escape an abusive relationship and taken work as a nanny for the eccentric Heelshire family, (Father Ted‘s Jim Norton and The Kennedy‘s Diana Hardcastle). With an elegant piano score by Battlestar Galactica‘s Bear McCreary as the car moves through country roads on its approach to the house, it a magnificent, towering Gothic mansion, the interior as exquisite as the exterior, panelled wood, staircases and portraits.
Inside she is greeted by “delivery boy” Malcolm (The Man in the High Castle‘s Rupert Evans), who makes her feel very welcome after first frightening her out of her skin. She knows enough to say it’s her first trip to the UK rather than England, but telling her that he can prognosticate, that his grandmother read tea leaves and his mother read palms, he is immediately marked as a quaint American perception of what it is to be British, not Menear’s only transatlantic misinterpretation.
Mr and Mrs Heelshire, however, are another matter: he the softer, she the sterner, they are complicit in their delusion regarding their young son, Brahms, introducing Greta to a porcelain doll and instructing her in all the duties she will be expected to perform as they leave him in their care while enjoying their long postponed holiday. There will be reading in a loud, clear voice, there will be music appreciation, piercing opera played loud, and he must never be left alone.
Malcolm knows how to act around the porcelain boy, but Greta is a survivor and catches on quickly, and he fills her in on the tragedy of the real Brahms who died twenty years before, a house fire on his eighth birthday, the doll a way for his grieving parents to cope, a symbol for what they have lost. But in the house alone with Brahms, Greta begins to feel there is a presence, as objects move, as the doll appears in places other than where she left it.
The Boy is as much a traditional haunted house film as anything, Greta wandering through the house at night by flickering candlelight as lightning flashes outside, the glittering eyes of the mounted heads of stuffed animals following her. Of course, stuck in the house with a creepy doll who she intellectually knows to be utterly inanimate, a modern woman with no superstitious bent, it does not even occur to Greta to follow the rules when unsupervised, initially treating it almost like a paid holiday albeit one in almost cloistered seclusion.
As the independent Greta and the flirtatious Malcolm, Cohan and Evans are the strength of the film; he’s as lonely as she is, and she’s out of town which makes her interesting, and Bell creates genuine atmosphere in the corridors and nooks and crannies of “this very love, very weird, large house.” Similarly, in their limited but crucial roles, Norton and Hardcastle bring great presence, but where the other characters are measured and believable, Greta’s ex-boyfriend Cole (Vikings‘ Ben Robson) is a shoehorned contrivance to push things forward.
While that is desperately needed, the film too slow in the first hour his arrival is a clumsy way to do it and The Boy is too rushed in the last thirty minutes, the film collapsing into nonsense and running around in the dark which undermines the atmosphere, and while Menear’s grasp of English idioms and banter is excellent his knowledge of architecture is imperfect, relying on a twist which The Pact did first and better and which simply doesn’t work in English country houses.