The Boy (2016)     ★★½

Far superior to January’s other horror offering, The Forest, and director William Brent Bell’s own found footage disaster from a few years ago, The Devil Inside, The Boy is much more aware of its audience, capitalizing on recent trends of spooky dolls and creepy houses, as exemplified by the as yet unparalleled The Conjuring, and providing a self-acknowledged second rate bit of PG-13 nastiness that remains an entertaining diversion if not entirely successful motion picture.

The Boy stars Lauren Cohan, Maggie from the hit television show The Walking Dead, in a breakout big screen star turn similar to The Forest‘s Natalie Dormer, proving above all else that she at least has the better agent. Cohan stars as Greta, a nanny from the United States who takes a job sight-unseen babysitting a child in a gigantic English country house while his parents go on holiday. The child turns out to be a porcelain doll named Brahms, and his care is taken gravely serious by parents who can barely hide feelings of terror and desperation while instructing Greta on her daily duties, who of course does nothing she is asked until strange things begin happening in the house, and Brahms begins to appear in places and poses she never left him. Is Brahms really alive, or is there something else going on in the large empty house?

The Boy distinguishes itself from other horror films that feature heroines strolling down dark hallways at night by front-loading a series of obvious narrative questions, such as “is Brahms real?” and “what’s the deal with the parents?” that act as a unifying element throughout scenes where lesser horror films would just be killing time until the finale. True to form The Boy‘s second act drags, as the token inclusion of a grocery deliverer (Rupert Evans) gives the film an excuse for Greta to talk, and the arrival of an extremely cliché third character of course precipitates the concluding drama in a completely lazy and obligatory manner. Without these overarching questions The Boy would be unwatchable, though not to say their inclusion is enough to make everything good.

With all this pressure on the ending, whether director Bell delivers will be a matter of personal taste. Yes there is a twist, and no it’s not completely satisfying. But after the build-up there’s a deviousness to the third act that lingers long after the credits roll, as a better film with bigger possibilities plays in the mind, transcending the PG-13 limitations you paid to see. The Boy doesn’t cop-out per se, but its handling of the final revelation reeks of focus groups and potential franchise posturing, which ultimately renders the film an inert, one-step-above-DTV, exercise in market-tested horror. It’s better than non-stop CGI and jump scares we are otherwise accustomed, but probably would have fared much better as a short film or part of an anthology.

The Verdict: Pan