Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 14, 2020)
While not a dominant horror subgenre, the “creepy doll” conceit remains a durable trope. This domain gets a new subject via 2016’s The Boy.
When Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) goes through a bad breakup with her abusive boyfriend, she uses this event to enact a life change. The American flees to England and gets a job as a nanny.
Greta works for Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) to care for their son Brahms. The kicker? Brahms is actually a life-sized doll that the Heelshires treat as though he’s alive.
Despite the bizarre nature of this gig, Greta does as the Heelshires request. However, she eventually encounters a series of mysterious incidents that indicate something else may be at work.
Which will come as no surprise to anyone who watches the movie. Even if you go into Boy with no knowledge of the story, it would seem inevitable that something spooky would occur – otherwise you’re stuck with a movie about a young woman who plays with a doll.
Where Boy succeeds stems from its ability to keep the viewer guessing. Most tales like this telegraph their plot points far in advance and leave little to no room for audience interpretation.
In this case, Boy leaves us uncertain whether or not Greta imagines Brahms’ behaviors for a surprisingly long time. Normally we’d find early events that force us to accept they exist beyond the protagonist’s mind, but here we go an extended period with the realistic possibility that Greta suffers from delusions.
Eventually the movie does make it clear something else exists, and as I noted, the rational viewer expects this. While I guess it’s possible the film could’ve opted for the total psychodrama approach, Hollywood horror flicks don’t usually go that way, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone when the threat becomes more tangible.
Still, Boy keeps us guessing for a good period, and even when the reality of Brahms’ behavior becomes undeniable, it still manages a decent mix of curveballs. It walks a fine line and stays on the side of the relatively logical – well, relatively logical for a flick like this.
As our lead, Cohan helps. She never winks at the camera, and her ability to demonstrate belief in the oddness around her helps the viewer connect to the seemingly implausible story as well.
All of these factors make The Boy a pleasant surprise. I expected the usual ham-fisted horror nonsense, but I got a fairly well-crafted tale instead.