The ‘twenty years’ ago backstory of this modest little horror programmer is established by a date on a gravestone as taking place in 1991 … but the toys in the playroom of the British old dark country house seem more appropriate for 1951 and, despite the mandatory mention of the lack of phone signal and WiFi in the sticks, the whole thing has the feel of the sort of supernaturally-tinged lady-in-peril thrillers Brian Clemens wrote by the yard for the British TV series Thriller in the early 1970s. Witness: the tiny cast, the lower-case American star on hiatus from a TV show, the sense of monied and privileged decay, the evocative clutter of the sets, the charming/threatening supporting players, plenty of moments where the heroine is worried that someone or something is about to attack her and a climax which involves a chase through secret passages.
American Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan, from The Walking Dead) – whose character name evokes Maggie Evans from Dark Shadows – takes a nanny job with the Heelshire family in deepest England (played by a castle in Canada). The elderly couple (Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle) introduce her to their precious son Brahms – a porcelain-headed doll which. Malcolm (Rupert Evans), a surprisingly posh grocery delivery man, explains that the real Brahms died in a fire many years ago, and the Heelshires have been ritually caring for the substitute ever since. When the Heelshires, who are ominously fearful, go away on holiday, they leave Greta a typewritten list of rules for the care of Brahms, which range from ‘never cover his face’ through ‘no guests’ to ‘goodnight kiss’. The doll is imbued with life in a few dream jump scares and subtler creepiness, like a leaky ceiling which drips tear-like rain on its cheek. Then, when Greta isn’t looking, things start being moved. She makes a date with Malcolm, but unseen hands steal her nice dress and trick her into being locked in the attic for the night … only to make her a sandwich the next day. On the run from an abusive ex-boyfriend who doesn’t understand the concept of a restraining order, the nervous woman begins to follow the rules and the presence becomes more benign.
Given the set-up, there are only a limited number of explanations – ghost of the little boy, living doll, psycho hider in the house, it’s-all-a-conspiracy-to-drive-her-mad, vengeful ghost of a little girl the not-so-angelic Brahms is suspected of bludgeoning before his own mysterious death in a fire, she’s-doing-it-all-herself-in-another-personality. The second act takes a few left turns as Greta manages to convince Malcolm that there’s a ghost – and even looks to the spirit to protect her when her evil ex (Ben Robson) turns up with her air ticket home. Screenwriter Stacey Menear deploys the cliché stuff with confidence and Cohan – who carries the film on her own, with only the help of the shiny-faced creepy doll – is at least credibly harried and fragile without being foolish.
Director William Brent Bell has quietly been building up a varied horror filmography (Stay Awake, The Devil Inside, Wer) with a specialism in going over old gothic ground. Here, he gets good work from Daniel Pearl, cinematographer on both versions of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and composer Bear McCreary, who naturally mixes a little Brahms into the minatory music. In the midlist fright arena, Bell is a little more interesting than most – and The Boy plays better than Annabelle, The Forest, Ouija or any number of by-the-numbers exercises. What it lacks is the extra bite of Estranged and Awaiting, which use similar British countryside settings but have a more acute sense of place, class and cruelty.