“The Boy” (2016): Two Thirds Splendid, One Third Blunder

This review may contain spoilers.

The Boy is a damn fine horror film, a contradiction to the January release date curse…until…well, until it isn’t. The latest film from director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, Wer) suffers from over-thinking its own twist ending. Or perhaps, it “underthunk” it. Ugh. It goes to great lengths to establish its cast and the conceit that its lead must care for a life-sized doll that may be haunted and it manages to succeed in a convincing and invested fashion. It draws its audience in to believing the doll is alive in some fashion as well only to fall prey to a 180 twist that circumvents the wonderful and intriguing possibilities for a contrived and rote ending. Again, ugh. The disappointment is crushing. It has everything within its grasp to be brilliant, to become a terrific, worthy horror film. The direction is solid with atmospheric tone and cinematography. Lauren Cohen quickly proves she has what it takes to carry a film. The doll is creepy and mysterious. The location is incredible and visually captivating. The mystery of the doll in intriguing. Then..then…the screenplay looses confidence in its own premise with a horrid bait and switch. One last time, ugh.


The story for The Boy follows an American named Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan – The Walking Dead) to England where she interviews for a job as a nanny for an 8 year old boy. She is surprised to find the boy is actually a life sized doll representing Brahms, the long-dead child of Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton & Diana Hardcastle). Awarding her the position, the Heelshires leave her with instructions on keeping up with Brahms’ needs. At first she dismisses the whole notion of looking after a doll but soon begins to doubt the idea that Brahms is just a doll. Soon she believes the doll to be inhabited by a spirit locked away in the house. She struggles to convince the only outside contact she has in the remote mansion, the delivery “man” Malcolm (Rupert Evans), of her suspicions. Together they begin to unravel the mysteries of…The Boy.


A favorite cast member of AMC’s The Walking Dead, Lauren Cohen steps into the lead role with The Boy. She makes a strong impression as Greta Evans giving the character an authenticity with her reactions as she encounters oddity after oddity with her new job of being the nanny to Brahms. Much like the film itself, she is reserved in her portrayal of the character’s curiosity, disbelief, desperation and fear. She carries this film when the only other character for long stretches is that of the life-sized porcelain doll. Rubert Evans brings a natural chemistry to the table as his character flirts with Greta, he is charming and awkward, an easy hero to root for later in the film. Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle are extraordinary as the Heelshires, balancing the false normalcy of their exterior lives with the questionable, demented notions of their secret life, raising their dead son in the form of a doll. Norton has a particularly heartfelt scene with Cohen as he attempts to explain the strange position Greta has found herself embroiled, especially as he describes how “it gradually happened, all at once.” In the end, the film depends on Lauren Cohen to keep it all together, and, to that, she does a marvelous job even as the film fails her.


Director William Brent Bell is most often remembered for The Devil Inside, another previous January horror release. That film is the one that left its audience miffed and angry with its sudden conclusion, directing the audience to go to a website to get “the rest of the story.” Ugh. With The Boy, he proves that he does indeed have an eye for horror and a talent for pacing and restraint. This is evident early on in the film as Greta explores the house waiting on the Heelshires to return. He establishes a tone, the character and the location with gentle, gliding shots of the hallways and stairways as Greta creeps though the house. He also manages to make the most out of the doll, which often is just sitting there very, very still, making it seem ominous and quietly threatening. His pacing in the first two thirds of the film is marvelously restrained and calculated. Combined with the luscious cinematography from Daniel Pearl, Bell brings the house, the doll and the story to life, weaving in the mystery and wonderful possibility of supernatural undertones. There is a great horror film in this guy.


But, damn that twist. Just, damn. Here’s the thing, The Boy manages to accomplish a great achievement by convincing the audience of the supernatural – the often allusive suspension of disbelief. It smartly does so by having Greta convince the on-screen skeptic, Malcolm, of the possibility that there is a presence in the house, a ghost, a spirit, living in the hallways or, perhaps, in the doll itself. No surprise here, really, this is the premise of the marketing and the story itself. But, they do it, they have the audience in the palm of their hands. Anything at this point is plausible. Except, perhaps, the one ending they decide to go with. This decision, the path Bell and writer Stacey Menear choose hits the big screen like a huge truck slamming on its breaks. It squeals and pivots from side to side. It burns the rubber on the pavement, catching everyone’s attention certainly. But in the end, it just sits there, stalled and out of gas. Bah. It is quite frustrating, less because it degenerates to a boring example of bland horror but because it wastes such grand potential for something quite extraordinary.


The Boy is two-thirds a great horror film, far better than typical January offerings. But it is also a horrible one-third of a fright flick, screwing up its ending so horrendously it is difficult to remember all the great things that happen in the previous acts. Regardless of the lasting impression of the story, the film’s lead, Lauren Cohen, proves herself a delightful leading lady. She is captivating on the big screen even more so than she is on the popular genre TV show, The Walking Dead. She captures the audience’s attention drawing in their full investment in her character and her plight. Director William Brent Bell proves he has the chops for horror especially in the first two acts as he slowly, carefully builds the atmosphere and tension of the film’s premise. His camera work is fluid and focused. The effects for the doll itself make for one creepy critter, it’s eyes are warped coming across as if they are staring right out of the screen into your soul. The smooth features of the dolls porcelain exterior fall away to something devious and coarse hiding inside. And, then that damn third act comes along and ruins the whole thing. Ugh.

The Boy 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Doc Rotten
Editor-In-Chief / Founder / Podcast Producer at Horror News Radio
Doc Rotten is the founder of Gruesome Magazine. He is also a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and the podcast host & producer for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast and Hannibal Fan Podcast. He is also co-host of the Dracula podcast on TV TALK and is a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior.

Doc a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist. Still a huge fan of horror films from the 70s, Doc continues consuming horror films to this day for the site, for the podcasts and for the fun of it all.