“We’re running a dead motel, son. These rooms just don’t know yet.”
I first heard of the 2015 horror The Boy when James included it in his top films of the year list on the first episode of our podcast. I, of course, had a hard time differentiating between the film & the recent evil doll horror flick The Boy. 2016’s The Boy & 2015’s The Boy couldn’t be more dissimilar in their approaches to horror cinema. Although I enjoyed them both both a great deal, it’s remarkable that they even share the same medium, let alone the same title & genre. As much as I was amused by the trashy goofiness of the more recent The Boy, it’s a shame that it ended up being a higher-profile release, since the confusion between the titles is sure to do the artsier film a great disservice.
An arthouse slowburner about a murderous child, The Boy sits firmly in a category of films I like to call Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Have Kids, which includes titles like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. More specifically, though, The Boy is a firm warning against raising a child in isolation & limited means . . . unless you’re looking to birth a serial killer. Living alone with an emotionally absent, spiritually broken father (played by character actor David Morse) in a remote, vacant motel in the desert, a young child (who could easily pass for a forgotten Culkin brother) is left to fend for himself in terms of entertainment & socialization. His best friend, sadly enough, seems to be a yellow bucket. His favorite activities include stealing “weird adult stuff” (tattered issues of Playboy, old Polariod cameras, etc.) from the motel’s infrequent guests & trapping small animals/vermin for pocket change that his father pays him from the motel’s desolate till. His playground is a nearby junkyard & drainage pipe. His days are mostly empty. It’s only natural, then, that his animal-trapping graduates to human prey, beginning with snaring a suspiciously guarded drifter (Rainn Wilson) so he’ll have someone, anyone to interact with. The pile of victims & monstrosity of his intent only escalates from there.
Much like the empty, existential trudge of life at its desolate motel setting, The Boy brings its pace down to a slow crawl for most of its runtime. Most of the film plays like a lowkey indie drama that turns the idea of morbid fascination into a mood-defining aesthetic. It isn’t until the last half hour so that the film becomes recognizable as an 80s slasher version of Norman Bates: The Early Years. It takes a significant effort to get to the film’s horror genre payoffs, but allowing the film to lull you into a creepily hypnotic state makes that last minute tonal shift all the more satisfying. If you’re looking for a generic, straightforward horror picture, you’re likely to get more out of the evil doll The Boy from 2016. Last year’s The Boy is a lot more akin to a gloomy mood piece, one that culls its terror from such unlikely sources as road kill, deer antlers, and a towheaded child with no friends & a yellow bucket. It’s a much more challenging film, for sure, but the payoff is all the more satisfying because of it.