While it’s arguable that their performances are not quite Oscar-caliber, the lead players in “The Boy” nonetheless merit kudos of some sort simply for maintaining straight faces while muddling through the absurdities of this tepid horror opus. Despite the assiduous grinding of plot mechanics by William Brent Bell (“The Devil Inside”) and scripter Stacey Menear, the movie never fully distracts its audience from the inherent silliness of its premise — a young woman is hired by an elderly couple as a nanny for a life-sized doll — and, as a result, is more likely to elicit laughs and rude remarks rather than screams and rooting interest. Still, a respectable opening-weekend gross is possible, given the current lack of similar product in the megaplex marketplace.
Lauren Cohan of TV’s “The Walking Dead” stars as Greta, an American who opts to get far away from an abusive boyfriend by traveling all the way to a distant corner of the British countryside. She winds up at a Gothic manor home near an isolated village, to interview for what she thinks will be the job of caring for an 8-year-old boy.
The good news: She lands the gig. The bad news: Her aged employees, Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle), want her to watch over Brahms, a life-sized china doll they treat as their son. The worse news: The Heelshires quickly depart for an extended vacation, leaving Greta alone with Brahms in an old dark house where things go bump in the night, items inexplicably disappear and/or relocate, and sporadic dream-sequence fakeouts provide low-voltage shocks.
Rupert Evans — who, in more than a few shots here, looks as though he could pass for Brad Pitt’s younger brother — pops up occasionally as Malcom, a hunky deliveryman who divides his time between flirting with Greta and telling her about the “real” Brahms, an 8-year-old youngster who reportedly perished in a house fire 20 years earlier. (The still-grieving Heelshires, he adds, have treasured the doll as a stand-in for their lost little boy ever since.) But it’s not until Greta shares her suspicions that Brahms’ ghost may be haunting the house, and possessing the doll, that Malcom tells the rest of the story: Brahms wasn’t exactly a little angel when he was alive and kicking. And his spirit almost certainly isn’t blithe.
To give credit where it is due: Bell, with no small amount of help from lenser Daniel Pearl and production designer John Willett, generates some palpable suspense during atmospheric sequences in which Greta explores the nooks and crannies of Heelshire manor. And editor Brian Berdan deserves praise for seamlessly interlacing scenes actually shot in two different houses and various studio sets.
But there is just so much that can be done to counterbalance the laugh-out-loud daftness of scenes that call for Cohan run the gamut from cynical to fearful to maternal while acting opposite her china-doll co-star. (Not that it’s Cohan’s fault — she overplays from time to time, but gives the movie much more than it ever gives her.) And it doesn’t help much that a ridiculous third-act plot twist is capped off with an anticlimactic finale. Boy, talk about a surefire way of guaranteeing bad word of mouth.