Review: “The Boy (William Brent Bell, 2016)”


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by Matthew Balz

Horror movies have explored a multitude of ideas since their inception, but have also taken satisfaction recycling  past trends, gimmicks, and scenarios through innovative ways. At the risk of sacrificing a thorough story, William Brent Bell’s The Boy attempts to combine nostalgia for haunted-house film atmospheres with modern technique and storytelling.

The film wastes no time in dropping us into the English countryside where our main character Greta (Lauren Cohan) has taken up a nanny position in order to escape difficult aspects of her past. Her present predicament becomes just as difficult when she discovers her responsibility includes taking care of a life-like porcelain doll as if it were a living human being.

The most notable aspect of this film is the fact that the one location, a large house out in the secluded wilderness, is deprived of all modern technologies aside from a landline telephone. This factor creates the perfect conditions for our female lead to be terrorized by our horror elements, doing away with all those inconveniences like cell phone reception and Wifi internet access to which could help any tormented soul request police assistance or research instructions to deal with displeased living-dolls. This became the largest hurdle to overcome. As the film takes place in present day, it became hard to ignore that places like this—residencies with no technological access to the outside world—are becoming increasingly implausible. Instead of remedying this entire feat by building the story as a period piece before such modern conveniences were widespread, this film attempts to walk a fine line that includes both the worldwide-web generation and the classic haunted-house horror atmosphere, but to what benefit?

In a way, this psuedo-mansion–with its pristine faux stone exterior–can be a reflection of the film itself, constructed as a throwback to a more elegant existence, but clearly constructed with tools of a present-day foreman.

As effectively fluid as much of the dialogue can be, especially when sprinkling conversations with moody foreshadowing and potential red herrings, exposition is the elephant in the room. Placing a woman in a house all by herself invokes problems, such as establishing obligatory past events necessary to justify characters’ actions. Plot moves quickly, shamelessly, and so do the convictions that cause characters to believe or disbelieve impossible things (such as whether or not an inanimate object can steal a woman’s shoes).

Unfortunately, the main body of viewer’s fear here is allocated through jump-scares (and, luckily, I only counted two) instead of tone, which posed far more promise than actually executed. No horror film should exert itself to raise the level of a Fear-O-Meter, and so to shoehorn unnecessary scenes for the pure purpose of fright feels pointless and cheap, particularly when the style at practice favors ambient suspense over shallow jump scares.

Fortunately, this recent horror film continues the positive trend of veering away from complicated twist-laden stories, backstories, and ambitiously ludicrous explanations. Another advantage for this film is how it benefits from addressing numerous potential outcomes and keeping the audience guessing for the duration of the film. The ending is not delivered in a way that most viewers will predict, and as empty as an unforeseeable surprise ending can be, the conclusion here was at least believable and satisfyingly unsettling.

“The Boy” is ultimately competing in a genre where innovation tends to struggle, but manages to entertain and overlay a blanket of foreboding horror across the viewing experience with its simplicity. With any luck, it proves the horror genre in cinema is ready for a new revival, hopefully incorporating modern advancements and storytelling with ease and grace.