Doll horror has been around for so long that it can be hard to make it seem fresh. Since dolls only require the slightest inflection to become terrifying, films about possessed or uncanny dolls run the risk of simply coasting on their premise without doing anything especially ingenious with it, which isn’t to say that those kinds of films aren’t enjoyable or scary but that there’s something particularly startling and suspenseful about a script that reinvents the formula as beautifully as The Doll. Set in a crumbling old mansion ensconced deep in the British countryside, it’s about a young American woman, Greta (Lauren Cohan) who turns up for the post of a nanny, only to discover that her ward is in fact a porcelain doll by the name of Brahms. With very little explanation aside from a series of rules that are designed to keep Brahms “happy,” his parents abruptly depart the house for an extended holiday, leaving Greta alone to look after the doll with only occasional visits from the local grocer Malcolm (Rupert Evans), and calls from her sister back in the United States, to break the monotony of her days.
While that might sound like a somewhat absurd premise, one of the delights of the film is the way in which it takes advantage of that absurdity to create a rich comic and satiric vein that runs throughout the entire narrative, but is especially prominent in the opening act, which often plays as a parody of Downton Abbey, along with the Julian Fellowes canon of self-styled aristocratic porn more generally. For, while Brahms’ parents demands might seem very strange, it’s simply presented as just one of the peculiar customs attendant upon the British country house, with Greta’s acceptance and even normalisation of her role gradually playing as an American coming to terms with the slightly icier and more restrained modes of etiquette prevailing across the Atlantic, in what often feels like a kooky comedy of manners as much as a horror film. At times, it almost plays like a lesson in how to raise a proper British gentlemen – treat him like a porcelain doll – just as Brahms quickly turns into a character in his own right, a weird descendent of Little Lord Fauntleroy who transforms Greta, in turn, into something of a pulpy, comic descendent of Agnes Grey, a governess whose pupil demands increasingly impossible things of her, as she finds herself more and more alienated by the vastness of the mansion and the inseparable gulf in class between her and her employers.
Of course, this is a horror film, and to some extent it proceeds predictably: a series of apparently random or coincidental occurrences gradually lead Greta to suspect that Brahms is, in fact, alive. These tend to be especially scary in that most of the film simply revolves around Greta, Brahms and the house – Malcolm only makes occasional appearances – which gives her increasing scrutiny of Brahms a particularly claustrophobic intensity, but also creates the sense that the house as a whole is starting to gradually come to life around her, not least because Brahms appears to operate by closing off familiar passages and opening up areas of which she wasn’t previously aware. In a particularly grating scene in which she is trapped in the attic on the eve of a date with Malcolm, screaming and gesticulating wildly as she watches him wait at the door and drive off again, it feels as if the film could easily subsist entirely on her attempts to escape the doll and the house, possibly delving into torture porn along the way. Indeed, it’s not hard to see in Brahms’ plight a common Gothic fixation on thwarted lineage and the decline of family genealogies, and for great swathes of the first half the house plays more or less as a tomb, especially once it is revealed that his parents have actually left to commit suicide and leave Greta as his permanent plaything. As the mansion begins to feel more and more like a form of live burial – it’s hardly ever light outside and less and less of the film takes place during the day – it’s hard not to feel that Greta is destined to spend the rest of the script isolated from the outside world, especially since the film so studiously avoids any contemporary communicative technologies.
What makes the film so unique, then, is that a momentary act of kindness – or what appears to be kindness – from Brahms has the effect of both cementing him as indubitably alive in Greta’s mind but also endearing her to him, as she starts to fully embrace her role as mother, governess and guardian. While this undoubtedly produces some comic moments, it also lends a new pathos to the film, since it’s about this time that we find out that she has fled to England in order to escape an abusive husband whose domestic violence was responsible, among other thing, for the death of her unborn child. As she and Brahms settle into a new domestic harmony, and become more comfortable communicating and communing with each other, his strictures also seem to provisionally relax, with the result that Malcolm comes back into the picture and almost plays the role of an ersatz father figure to Brahms himself, even if he is not quite as comfortable with the notion as Greta. Still, their entire relationship is inflected through Brahms – and even prompted by Brahms – in what often feels like a quite irreverent parody of aristocratic family life, with Brahms coming to symbolise what Greta and Malcolm can give each other even as Brahms himself increasingly rejects his appointed role as a mediator of their attraction, which is perhaps why he seems more and more queer as well, especially in the midst of his hysterical and histrionic efforts to prevent Greta giving herself to Malcolm sexually. At its most wry and irreverent, Brahms is almost the madwoman in the attic, gradually going insane as his makeshift parents set up one primal scene after another before his very eyes, a scenario that works quite eerily with the fragile impersonality of his face, which often seems like a repression of expression as much as a lack of expression.
While Bell certainly handles the absurdity of this part of the film, well the horror is even more impressive, thanks in large part to a driving paradox in the way Greta and Brahms operate and communicate. On the one hand, Greta quickly becomes comfortable with Brahms moving all over the house, let alone changing position when her back is turned, while Brahms himself becomes comfortable with demonstrating ever more elaborate and expansive gestures of agency, all of which are subsumed into the fluid, flowing point of view shots that stand in for his presence as he comes into his own. On the other hand, however, Brahms never allows Greta – or us – to actually see him moving. Although he is clearly capable of going downstairs and fixing Greta a peanut butter and jam sandwich – one of many comic concessions that she is, after all, American – there is never any clear sense of how he moves, or what he looks like moving, especially because he nearly always presents himself to Greta in a passive position (usually lying on a bed or sitting on a chair). Even as Brahms seems more and more benign, that gap between his agency and his movement creates a growing sense of unease, simultaneously imbuing him with a new sense of psychological depth and privacy but also making his motivations seem more inhuman and supernatural. Shortly before leaving, Brahms’ parents warn Greta of his “playfulness” and this refusal to be seen moving seems to cement that playfulness as his uncanniest characteristic, creating an uneasy, gathering suspicion that we are in the midst of a childhood game that has somehow gone wrong, or has been left to grow and evolve into something monstrous in the absence of adult supervision.
Although that all gives the film a new kind of conceptual horror, it would be nothing without the spectacle of Greta trying, time and again, to induce Brahms to move or make his agency known in her actual presence. Part of what makes doll horror so suspenseful is the way in which it gathers all its energy from the immobility of the doll, and here that immobility is taken further than in any film I have seen. From Dead of Night to The Twilight Zone to the Child’s Play franchise, a point always comes at which we witness the doll make its first uncanny movement, but because that movement occurs so early here and always take place offscreen, it allows that unbearable immobility to persist right until the final denoument. Precisely because we know how capable Brahms is of elaborate and extensive agency, his stasis always seems about to break into extravagant movement before our very eyes, and yet it never, ever does, resulting in one of the most suspenseful horror films in many years as Brahms is literally suspended on the very brink of entering the mise-en-scene, the moment just before movement, without ever quite committing to joining the world of the living. Responsible for increasingly baroque tracking-shots and yet somehow always the object and end-point of those tracking shots as well, he gathers the house around him into a single, musical space – his music regime is a big part of Greta’s instructions – that seems to always bear the traces of his passage in much the same way as the auditorium reverberates in the moments after an orchestra has played their last note and waits motionless for applause.
It’s no surprise, then, that as the disparity between Brahms’ agency offscreen and his stasis onscreen increases the house itself is condensed to its own various uncanny objects – a collection of stuffed animals, children’s toys and creepy portraits that all seem to beat witness to Brahms’ movements without every quite disclosing his secrets either. By the third act, it feels as if every single object in the house is both a vehicle for Brahms’ gaze and a reflection of his movements, paving the way for one of the most beautiful and elegant twists that I’ve seen in a horror film for some time. When Greta’s ex-husband shows up and promptly receives a series of warnings from Brahms, he just as promptly smashes the doll on the floor – an extraordinarily violent gesture that shocks you with just how much of a character Brahms has become, as well as inevitably recalling and replaying Greta’s miscarriage at the hands of his domestic violence. Having spent the entire film waiting for Brahms to make a move, there is exquisitely eerie and uncanny about seeing him handled like this, as he is robbed, permanently, of the ability to demonstrate his agency to us. As one of his eyes rolls across the carpet, he is once again abstracted into the uncanny gaze of the opening scenes, divested of any residual subjectivity and sentimentality and left to drift amorphously across the atmosphere of the house.
It is at this point that the film’s scariest scene occurs, as a series of noises within the walls – these have occurred throughout the story – constellate around the mirror, and what appears to be a life-sized doll breaks through and latches onto Greta’s ex-husband. Although this scene is shot in such a way as to confound the distinction between doll and human, it quickly becomes clear that this is in fact the “real” Brahms, who was supposed to have died in a house fire in the mid-1980s but has apparently been living within the interstitial spaces of the mansion in the meantime, kept hidden from the world by his parents at large who only communicated with him by way of the doll as a surrogate. Sometimes removing the supernatural element can decrease the horror of a supernatural film, but this is emphatically not one of those cases, as it quickly becomes clear that Brahms has been orchestrating the porcelain version of himself all along. To me, there was something unbearably terrifying about the thought of Brahms watching Greta through the walls as she tried, time and again, to bring the doll to life. Whenever we’re dealing with doll horror, part of the fear comes from the moment at which an inanimate object turns out to have been watching and scrutinising you, and the brilliance of The Boy lies in the way in which that scrutiny is displaced from the doll to the house itself. In effect, Greta has been trying to dodge and then appeal to the gaze of an object while herself being observed by a larger object, as the twist makes us realise that Brahms’ gaze and purview was both more diffuse and more targeted than we previously thought imaginable.
In some ways, then, it’s a bit anticlimactic to see the film turn into more of a slasher exercise, as the real Brahms chases Greta and Malcolm through the interstices of the house in a climactic sequence that often recalls John Carpenter’s The People Under The Stairs in the extravagance with which it balloons and expands the spaces between walls, rooms and ceilings without ever losing the sense of claustrophobia needed to make the slasher threat feel palpable either. At the same time, though, this action sequence is as efficient as the rest of the film and is almost over before it’s begun, with the result that the revelation of the real Brahms feels like the final note. In an era in which virtually every blockbuster contains at least one twist – it’s almost the standard mechanism for representing digital culture – there’s something supremely satisfying about the quieter and more contemplative twist on display here. Not only does it make everything feel scarier and more uncanny, but it makes the very act of reflecting back upon the film feel scary as well, just because of how it mimics Greta’s process of gradually and retrospectively revising her perception of Brahms, only to find that that revision was itself engineered by a version of Brahms she couldn’t possibly envisage.
It may be that quietness that explains why the film has received such mediocre reviews, since it’s the kind of quietness – a Val Lewton quietness – only really possible in films that are shot on a low budget. Yet while The Boy is clearly shot on a shoestring, it never draws attention to its limitations in the manner of digital or found footage horror, while its budgetary limitations ensure that its atmospheric excursions can never rise to the extravagant spectacle of, say, a film like Crimson Peak either, even if it often feels cut from the same cloth. At a time when big-budget and extreme low-budget horror dominates cinema and straight-to-video markets respectively, it’s a bit of an anomaly – a mid-budget horror film that often feels more like a television episode or a telemovie than a cinematic release. Like so many doll movies, it wouldn’t feel out of place in a franchise, serial or anthology of some sort, while its televisual overtones are also what turn it into such an astute parody of British costume drama – and the American fixation with British costume drama – that has become so prominent again on our small screens in recent years. And yet that inability to find a home is also part of its unhomeliness, since it’s been preceded by so little hype or acclaim that the premise feels as fresh as possible, making for one of the most rewarding – if most understated – horror experiences of 2016.