Evil doll stories are a mainstay in horror. From the iconic "Living Doll" episode of Twilight Zone to the never-ending Child's Play series, stories featuring puppets, toys, and decorative dolls that come to life for nefarious means have terrified audiences for decades. There are layers to the horror that are just taken for granted at this point--corruption of the innocent, uncanny valley, fear of immaturity defined by imagination, betrayal of everyday objects--that can still create wonderful scares when embraced and explored.
The Boy is not a great film. The narrative is needlessly complex and the dialogue leans too heavily on literal exposition. Yet, as an exploration of the evil doll trope, it succeeds on so many levels.
The plot is familiar horror territory. An American woman takes a job at a remote mansion in England as a nanny. She is tasked with the care of an unusual ward and quickly learns that not sticking to the carefully planned routine is detrimental to her own well being. The difference is the child is a porcelain doll that a pair of grieving parents have raised as their own since their son's death over 20 years before.
Writer Stacy Menear and director William Brent Bell present a greatest hits compilation of evil doll films in The Boy. Brahms is that perfect glass-eyed doll meant for display, not play, that establishes a level of fragility right at the start. Something so precious and vulnerable couldn't actually pose a threat, let alone move on its own or cause trouble. Yet the pale boy-sized doll with black hair and a dark suit is an unnerving figure. He is the most precious possession in a home filled with loving tributes to his deceased predecessor, an eight-year-old boy described as "odd." The doll is a constant reminder of death and mourning.
When the scares do start, they're perfectly subtle. The nanny throws a blanket over the doll; the blanket is on the floor when she checks on him later. The doll, left alone during a storm, is seen crying from one eye; there's actually a leak in the ceiling producing the tears. There is a series of subtle shifts in posture, placement, and physical condition that could either be a sign of a vengeful living doll or gravity and coincidence.
The only person to see the evidence at first is the nanny. This, again, is a perfect embodiment of the evil doll genre. The audience is meant to fear the doll, but the only evidence we have of the doll being a fearful thing is an unreliable narrator. Their interactions with the doll are dismissed as the result of an overactive imagination or a sign of jealousy toward something else.
The Boy adds an interesting wrinkle to this dynamic that plays on motherhood and regret. Brahms' mother is the one who insists on a nanny and truly believes the doll is alive. The father acknowledges straight away that he's not sure how they wound up living with a porcelain doll as their son, but asks the nanny for sympathy and understanding for the sake of his wife. Once the nanny agrees to care for Brahms as if he were her own, the strange stuff starts. Whether it's a promise she's being held to by a paranormal entity or an amalgamation of her own regrets regarding love, family, and motherhood is left undecided. It's just a lovely little wrinkle on the evil doll genre I haven't seen quite that way before.
The greatest sequence in the entirety of The Boy plays off of that mainstay element of an evil doll capable of more speech than should be possible. Talking Tina and Chucky started to go off script with their main victims. Ventriloquist dummies tend to gain the ability not just to speak to their partners, but to threaten them and convince them to murder (Fats in Magic, two separate episodes of The Twilight Zone). Brahms finally reveals his intentions in a sequence starting with a phone call and ending with the delivery of a sandwich on a serving tray. It's the perfect encapsulation of everything that works in the evil doll genre.
Unfortunately, the rest of the plot just doesn't keep up. There's a level of absurdity to the evil doll genre that allows you to get away with a lot of nonsense. We know Talking Tina can't really push someone down a staircase. Chucky should be physically incapable of walking with his un-articulated frame, let alone wielding a butcher knife. Fats can't physically move his jaw, let alone his body, unless his ventriloquist is operating him. Yet all these evil dolls and more become so terrifying because they defy all logic and prey on the "what ifs" that we're meant to abandon in childhood.
Our toys aren't real, but we befriend them, talk to them, care for them, and probably blame them for mischief we caused on our own when we're young. This make sense in childhood because we can imagine it to be true. We grow out of these beliefs as we learn more about how the world works and acknowledge than an imaginary friend is just that--imaginary.
The Boy establishes the case for the evil doll story to play out in the usual fashion. Maybe Brahms really is alive or possessed. Maybe the nanny really is imagining everything. Maybe someone else is pulling the strings and we find out in a shocking setpiece at the end.
The grand reveal of The Boy happens way too early in the film to maintain that suspension of disbelief. It also stacks on way too many twists, reveals, and revelations to maintain any sense of real terror or interest. By the time the film ends, it's riffed on everything from the Bronte Sisters to Basket Case, Fatal Attraction to Les Diaboliques, and it's just exhausting. Any of these reveals done well and justified by the heavy exposition in the first act could make for an effective horror film; all of them done to varying degrees of success (or, to be blunt, failure) is just too much to be supported by the evil doll genre.
The Boy is currently streaming on Netflix.
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