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holmes and n0t-son

Brahms: The Boy (15)

Director: William Brent Bell
Screenplay: Stacey Menear

Starring: Katie HolmesOwain YeomanChristopher Convery

Review: David Stephens

Spooky dolls and creepy kids go together like Tarantino and close-ups of female feet. So, here’s a somewhat unexpected sequel that tries to conjoin those two tropes. This is a *spoiler-free* review, and we won’t divulge the contents of the first film for those that haven’t seen it, but the okay-ish “The Boy” (2016) had an ending that suggested a follow-up wasn’t likely. This was mostly due to the nature of the revelations therein and the climax itself. But a healthy worldwide box office of $75m from a $10m budget made it so, and so plans were set in motion. (Genuine Fact: The popularity of a meme comparing Jared Kushner - senior advisor to his father-in-law Donald Trump - to the doll, also convinced the studio to greenlight it!) Perhaps the most interesting thing to note here is that Katie Holmes chose it as her first return-to-horror project after headlining Guillermo del Toro’s “Don’t be afraid of the Dark” in 2010. This sequel has been directed by William Brent Bell, who also made its predecessor with Lauren Cohan (who declined an invite to return as surviving character Greta Evans, apparently). The return of Porcelain Boy is now in UK and Stateside cinemas, and YGROY gets dolled up to take another look at this dead-eyed freakazoid…

Happy couple Liza (Holmes) and Sean (Owain Yeoman) live in a spiffy London apartment with their prank-loving son Jude (Christopher Convery). But after a violent incident occurs one night, their perfect lifestyle is turned upside down. Liza is left having nightmares and sleepwalking regularly, whereas Jude has been traumatised to the point that he’s become mute and communicates with an ever-present pen and writing pad. A therapist advises a change of scenery, so they travel to the grounds of Heelshire Manor (familiar from the first film) to stay in the guest cottage nearby. Whilst exploring the woods, Jude finds the semi-busted porcelain doll that he comes to name “Brahms”. Whilst initially being (understandably) creeped out by the realistic-looking doll, it seems to bring Jude out of his shell, so the adults put up with his presence. That is until Liza notices some strange things about Brahms and the dark influence he has on her son…

Oh dear. The thing about “Brahms” is that it tries to regain the ambiguity and supernatural teases that were rife from the first film, which kind of retcons things and takes away the best elements from that movie. It also lacks Cohan's spirited portrayal of a sceptic who came to believe that a boy’s ghost inhabited the doll, which was half the fun. And with a creepy doll story, you either go full-on Chucky (“Childs Play”) and have it running about, or just have it as an ominous presence on the verge of jolting into life (see all “Annabelle” movies). Knowing that the uncanny-valley doll is selling the scares, the film tries to have its cake and eat it. So, whilst it DOES come down on a definitive side by the end of the film, there’s a hell of a lot of dragging and teasing before it gets there. And by the time it reaches a conclusion, it barely feels it was worth the journey.

In the meantime, we have the PG-13 rated violence causing the film to initially feel like a “Lifetime” drama movie, rather than a scare-fest. The lack of swearing, bland characterisation, and lines like “Why won’t you talk about your feelings?” and “You won’t let me touch you anymore” makes you feel slightly sick at times. It does get a lot better when Brahms (literally) resurfaces and starts playing the brown-eyed blinking game with the characters again. This remains the best aspect of the narrative, with a fair amount of ambiguity playing into the plot again. Is the doll turning on the TV when Liza has her back turned? Is it Jude repeating the actions from the first film? Is Liza just mentally unhinged and imagining it all? Or is Sean “gaslighting” his unsuspecting wife? This makes for a few fun moments, such as the scene where Liza tries to “shock” Brahms into life, or the sequences where his head shifts position (or does it?). You just cannot get away from the fact that the doll is genuinely unnerving and creepy in those scenes. If you have an irrational fear of dolls (which has an unfortunate “phobia” name BTW), then this WILL freak you out at times. The moment when a character dons a porcelain facemask also has the same unsettlingly affect. It’s a shame that the final payoff just lacks the conviction to go dark or scary enough to bring it all together. In all honesty, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already seen the “terrifying parts”…

As far as the cast goes, Holmes doesn’t seem to have her heart in it and (with one exception) neither does anybody else, with the characters coming across as bland and underwritten. The always watchable Ralph Ineson (“The VVitch”) provides a neat cameo, but nobody else really stands out, with only Brahms himself coming across as menacing. There’s also some annoyingly bad exposition and plot development. You know the sort of thing; random strangers in hospitals dropping chunks of unwarranted information, “Family slaughtered in Death House” news headlines appearing during a Google search. The worst moment comes though when a character fails to spot a crucial handwritten clue because THEY ARE HOLDING A PIECE OF PAPER UPSIDE DOWN! Yes, really!! It’s just not good enough. It’s a real shame as well, because when the tone and sequences get it right, it feels like one of those chilly British horror films from the 60s and 70s, that focused on characters being paranoid and terrorized by an unseen presence in the country (“Fear in the Night”, “Fright”, etc.) But that only happens briefly, before we’re back to teasing did-he-move dummy shots again. Given the mythology broadened here, there may be a decent horror to be made about Brahms, something along the lines of “Annabelle: Creation” perhaps? But this is nowhere near as accomplished as that film, and we’re not eager to give it another chance in all honesty. When does that Chucky TV series start on Syfy?

Yet another disappointing PG-13 studio horror and another sequel that isn’t really needed. The narrative tries to emulate the ambiguity of the first film but drags its feet and heads towards a dreary denouement that lacks guts. Yes, it is genuinely creepy in parts, but those moments are wasted overall in a narrative that lacks any conviction or invention. Brahms… & missed!
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