What can you say about a January horror movie with a PG-13 rating? That it helps sell a few jumbo popcorns during Hollywood's dead season. That it gives the older kids something to do while Mom and Dad take the little ones shopping. That there's something almost sweet about its efforts to scare you with a half-hearted rendition of gothic beats that were old-school a century ago.
Expectations may be particularly low for The Boy. Director William Brent Bell's main claim to fame is directing another January horror movie, The Devil Inside, that owed its 2012 box-office triumph largely to lack of competition. As for this film's main selling point — well, let's just say that TV Tropes has a long, long entry for "Creepy Doll."
So it's a nice surprise to find The Boy intermittently entertaining. It's essentially an overgrown version of a cheap episode of a horror anthology show, featuring a small but able cast in a single location: a super-creepy mansion in the English countryside, natch. (The exteriors are actually Craigdarroch Castle in British Columbia.)
Lauren Cohan (Maggie on "The Walking Dead") plays Greta, an American who takes a nanny job at the manse because she's running from a dark past. Imagine her surprise when her employers, the elderly Heelshires (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), introduce her to their "son," Brahms — a life-size china doll. The nanny barely has time to squirm uncomfortably before the couple is off on vacay, leaving her with a long list of "rules" for Brahms' proper tending.
The Boy benefits from treating the Heelshires' bereavement and joint delusion — if it is one — with a modicum of realism and sensitivity, thereby anchoring the premise in actual parental nightmares. Still, we all know where this is going: Alone in that creepy house with the creepy doll, Greta will start seeing and hearing things. There will be mysterious crashes, displacements and jump scares, and she'll doubt her sanity even as she wonders if the inanimate "child" might have a spark of malevolent life, after all.
Bell shows no great talent for horror direction here; while he uses the space fairly well early on, the eventual action scenes are a muddle, as is the story's conclusion. Stacey Menear's screenplay has a few twists, none of them exactly unprecedented, but in this kind of movie, any attempt to keep us guessing is welcome.
Alone on screen for much of the run time, Cohan sells Greta's instability convincingly enough, though she's no Essie Davis (the actress who made The Babadook so harrowing). Rupert Evans brings a sheepish charm to the grocer who serves as her obligatory exposition giver and love interest.
The film's real star, though, is the doll, whose sadly contemplative mien seems gently to be reproving everyone around him for engaging in this frivolous endeavor. With his sketchy backstory and his ridiculously high-toned name (he loves music, his parents insist), Brahms makes the manic fixed grins of Annabelle and Chucky look positively gauche. He's prone to weeping (or is it just rain dribbling through the ancient roof?), as if mortified by the crudeness of a world not entirely devoted to satisfying his needs.
There's something absurd and borderline touching about the bond between Greta and this fussy almost-person, before the story's denouement comes along and undoes it. Brahms is unlikely to become a cultural icon like his aforementioned creepy doll brethren, but watching him is certainly more fun than standing in the checkout line at Old Navy. In January, that's saying something.