Brahms, the murderous doll with the angelic porcelain face, is not yet a horror icon on par with Freddy, Jason, or even that indecorous Annabelle. But Brahms: The Boy II makes a half-valiant, half-misguided attempt to continue the legacy of The Boy, a minor hit from four years ago, which involves addressing (or, for much of the running time, dancing around) the original film’s pretty good plot twist. Can The Boy II really play the same trick on a new, unsuspecting family, and an established, deeply suspecting audience?
The follow-up from returning director William Brent Bell tries to work that question into the narrative tension. Brahms has a rattling beginning, where the idyllic London home life of Liza (Katie Holmes), Sean (Owain Yeoman), and their young son Jude (Christopher Convery) is shattered by a home invasion. Five months later, the trauma has rendered Jude mute and given Liza perpetual nightmares. Sean suggests an extended trip to a country house for that ever popular “fresh start” that has eluded horror-plagued families for generations. As it happens, there’s an empty guest house just through the woods beyond the mansion where Brahms used to live. (Any fans of The Boy who do not remember whether this guest house constitutes a retcon from the geography of the first film will not be alone.)
Jude finds himself beckoned to the shallow grave where Brahms was buried (along with his extensive, bespoke wardrobe), and once excavated, the two strike up a fast friendship. Liza, who cleans and dresses the doll with surprising tenderness, supports her son’s attachment at first, as does Sean. It strikes them as therapeutic, at least until Liza starts noticing the obligatory clues that something’s amiss: mutilated stuffed animals, disturbing drawings, growling dogs. Both parents are also unsettled by the presence of Joseph (Ralph Ineson), a groundskeeper who eyes the old doll warily, and seems perpetually on the cusp of telling the family to run far, far away from this cursed place.
None of the mounting dread is surprising, and only some of it is more effective than the average haunted-whatever picture. But Brahms himself remains an oddball delight: Nattily dressed and eerily placid, boasting what may or may not be impeccable penmanship, he’s such an incongruously fancy little bastard that he somehow upstages his human co-stars (though Ineson bites into his stock part with fine character-actor relish). His serene expression and shifting eyes keep The Boy II perched on the edge of camp, and that teetering sensation is the most fun thing about the movie. When Jude starts taking fashion tips from Brahms (the appearance of a matching suit jacket goes amusingly unexplained), it leads to a dinner table shot where a furrowed-brow, dressed-up Jude and his wanly inexpressive buddy look, together, like Ben Shapiro dining with Jared Kushner. In other words: creepy, but nontraditionally so.
Bell directs the action cleanly and efficiently; he’s come a ways since dicking around with the abrupt rip-off ending of The Devil Inside. Ultimately, though, the new movie is hamstrung by its desire to color within the spooky-doll lines for much of its running time, and the potential explanations for the haunted-house vibes inevitably start to resemble a multiple choice question with the best answer already crossed off by the first movie. Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear manage to concoct a finale barmy enough to compete with their original Boy, moving the story in a different direction. The Boy II ultimately could have gone weirder, further, and faster (even at a slim 86 minutes). Yet there’s still something oddly promising about an ongoing Brahms series. With a little more ingenuity and a few more left turns, this darling miniature jerk might yet compete with the big league slashers.