Wednesday, 9 March 2016


In my recent feature on the Creepypasta story Candle Cove I discussed automatonophobia, the common fear of man-made objects created to closely resemble the human form. These can include mannequins, ventriloquist's dummies and scarecrows, but one of the most common forms of the condition is pediophobia, the fear of dolls.
Horror has been quick to recognise this fear and the creepy doll has become a staple of horror films and stories.
The latest of these, William Brent Bell's The Boy hits UK cinemas this weekend.
Is this a film you'll want to play with?
Or is it one ready to be forgotten at the bottom of the toy box?
Read on...

THE BOY (2016)

Dir: William Brent Bell
Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Stephanie Lemelin, Ben Robson

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

Greta (Cohan) is a young American nanny hired by a wealthy English couple to care for their son.
Upon arriving at the decidedly Gothic country house and its sprawling grounds, Greta is introduced to the pair who hired her — the elderly Mr and Mrs Heelshire. Mr Heelshire (Norton) seems weary while his wife (Hardcastle) is stern and imposing.
However, Greta is shocked when the pair take her to see their son Brahms — and she realises that she has been hired to care for a life-size doll.
It emerges that since the couple lost the real Brahms years ago, they have used the doll as a replacement to help them cope with their grief. Now they plan to go away on a holiday and they want to be sure that their beloved 'boy' is in safe hands.
After they set off Greta finds herself living a lonely existence in the house. Miles from the nearest small village, her only interactions come in chats with the charming friendly grocery delivery driver, Malcolm (Evans), and long-distance phonecalls to her friend Sandy (Lemelin) back in the States, calls that hint at a tragedy in Greta's past.
But is Greta as alone as she seems? Little events around the house suggest that she may not be the only resident — and how does Brahms seem to move around the home on his own?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): I like horror to be spooky, for the frights to come from unease and carefully cultivated atmosphere. That is something that The Boy manages admirably.
The dark and dusty mansion may have become something of a horror cliche but there is a reason why it continues to be used to this day — because it works!
The production design by John Willett is superb, the house is full of little antiquated trinkets and disconcertingly alert-seeming portraits glare down imperiously from the walls.
Of course, the most striking design triumph comes in Brahms himself. In the Candle Cove feature I discussed the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, in which when inanimate objects reach a certain level of realism there is an abrupt and steep drop in the comfort-level of the beholder. The team behind The Boy understand this and, instead of creating a cartoonishly scary doll a la Annabelle, they give us a decidedly understated design which is more the frightening for its realism. The only nod to an obviously unsettling appearance is the sharp contrast between the doll's deathly white porcelain 'skin' and its jet-black hair and attire.
Further adding to the spooky aesthetics is the work of cinematographer Daniel Pearl who gives the whole film a murky, washed out look, heightening the feeling of age and long-buried secrets. 
This atmosphere is ratcheted up by the awesomely chilling soundtrack by the very talented Bear McCreary. It's a somber and understated affair that gels perfectly with the shadowy look of the movie.
As well as the impressive visuals the film also boasts a strong cast. The Walking Dead's Cohan proves a capable leading lady and her ability to emote frailty with her big expressive eyes proves a valuable asset. She's a talented actress and acquits herself admirably.
Evans lends strong support (even if the character is a bit too stereotypically 'British') while the excellent Norton and Hardcastle more than deliver with their limited screentime.  
But let us make no bones about it, this is a film built on atmosphere, one which emulates horror classics of yesteryear.
The story, written by Stacey Menear, affords plenty of old-fashioned shocks, and fans of older gothic horror will certainly get a kick out of the big reveal in the final act.
What's more, the story gives director Bell plenty of opportunities to deliver more visceral jolts. There are some excellently worked jumps, while a couple of key moments deliver proper squirming discomfort. 
Bell is undoubtedly a talented director, ensuring that the film always looks and flows well, with some sterling production values. But more specifically, Bell is a superb horror story teller. He takes a handful of quite hackneyed genre tropes and mixes them together in such a way as to keep them frightening. Impressive work indeed.

THE BAD BITS (mild spoiler warning): I suppose the problem that most viewers will have with The Boy is its lack of originality. I think it's fair to say that the film doesn't exactly break new ground, but it tells a story that feels like a clear homage to Gothic horror, and what's more, it does it very well. 
That the big twist is somewhat predictable is another problem that stems from this, but luckily, unlike Goodnight Mommy, it doesn't overly telegraph this twist, nor does the whole film hinge on this reveal.
Now some of the more extreme horror fans may well complain about the comparative toothlessness of The Boy. It's a fair comment, this certainly isn't a sadistic splatterfest for the hardened gorehound. Instead it is essentially, a very atmospheric thriller with plenty of horror trappings. I don't think this is a bad thing — there's room for both types of flick on the DVD shelf here at The House.
Finally, while I praised the well-worked jumpscares, I did feel that Bell may have overdone it with 'BOO!-Not-really,-it's-just-a-dream'-cliche. It's ok to deliver an audience awakening jolt in this way once during a movie, any more is really pushing your luck.

THE VERDICT: The Boy is a fun little shocker with bags of atmosphere and some supremely spooky design work. Sure William Brent Bell's movie isn't the most original flick out there, and those craving a high bodycount would be better off looking elsewhere, but if you want spooky, this one's for you.

The Boy is released in UK cinemas this Friday, 11 March. For information, check out the film's official Facebook page here.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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