The Boy isn’t a terrible movie. It has its moments of tension and (intentional) comic relief, and lead actress Lauren Cohan, best known for her role as Maggie on The Walking Dead, brings a subtle-yet-palpable spark of insanity to an interesting turn her character takes midway through the second act. But these moments of inspiration, or craftsmanship, or whatever you want to call them, are ultimately seasoning sprinkled onto a mushy, microwaved platter of lukewarm horror clichés, a not entirely unexpected outcome from the director of 2013’s similarly derivative The Devil Inside.
Cohan stars as Greta, a young American woman with a troubled past who somehow finds her way to an English country estate (how she found the job remains unexplained; there is no internet or cell phone service at the estate, so Craigslist can be ruled out), where she has been hired to work as a nanny. When she arrives, she’s told that her charge is not actually a child, but a doll that looks like an 8-year-old boy, in a scene that recalls a similar revelation in Ti West’s 2009 movie The House Of The Devil. The doll, Brahms, has a strict daily routine and a list of rules that must be followed, including musical preferences, dietary requirements, and a kiss goodnight before bed.
Once the rules have been established, elderly Mr. (Jim Norton) and Mrs. Heelshire (Diana Hardcastle) go on vacation, leaving Greta alone in the house with the doll. Understandably dismissive of the entire “Brahms” concept, Greta immediately disregards the rules, and spends the next few days raiding the house’s wine cellar while the doll sits neglected in a corner. Soon enough, though, like a porcelain Gremlin in a little tie and sport coat, Brahms starts acting out. Initially terrified, Greta soon becomes oddly sympathetic to the little guy, especially after local resident Malcolm (Rupert Evans), one of the few people the Heelshires trust, fills her in on his tragic backstory.
From there, the story takes a couple of major turns, both so blatantly lifted from other horror films that to name their titles would give away the end of the movie. (Here are a few hints: One is a recent indie from New Zealand, and the other is an iconic slasher sequel.) The obviousness of both these references will seriously deflate the film for any even moderately seasoned horror enthusiast, as will its over-reliance on such hoary tropes as the mirror scare, the attic door that opens and closes on its own, and multiple dream-sequence fakeouts. Visually, The Boy also follows rather than leads, utilizing the orange and blue color scheme that’s been seen in several other recent films (See: Crimson Peak), as well as a setting seemingly purchased off the rack from the Spooky Old Manor House Outlet.
But, considering this is a PG-13 horror movie whose marketing campaign touted the presence of YouTube stars at preview screenings, seasoned horror fans aren’t exactly the target audience here. At least, maybe The Boy can lead some novices to better, more original horror movies.