Horror/Thriller, 97 Minutes, 2016
There’s a certain comfort to a classically staged horror story. An immense, ancient mansion in the English countryside, miles from the nearest aid. Is the daunting, wrought-iron fence keeping people out, or keeping… something, in? What’s hiding in the overgrown hedges, twisting corridors and shadowed corners?
For the scenario to work you need to add three main ingredients. Firstly, you need a dark history that casts a shadow into the present. Here, an elderly couple who lost their young son, Brahms, decades ago and dote upon a china doll as if it were alive. They’ve been struggling to find a nanny acceptable to him so they can leave on holiday.
This brings us to the second ingredient: the innocent stranger thrust into the situation. Greta (Lauren Cohan [IMDB]), is an American running from an unhealthy relationship. She’s been accepted sight-unseen by the desperate couple and arrives understanding only that they have a “lively, intelligent 8 year-old” to care for.
Finally we need a way for our innocent to learn all of the sordid history. While this could be done with an old journal or local gossip using, oh say, a charming grocery delivery man (Rupert Evans [IMDB]) also gives us a love interest. Malcolm remembers the real Brahms; how odd he was, how his only playmate was found dead in the woods and how he died in a mysterious fire shortly after.
The small cast and simple premise allows the movie to get to the meat of things quickly: weird things happening to Greta. She begins, as we all might, by ignoring the doll and the rules. As odd noises and missing trifles escalate to bizarre occurrences and veiled threats, she slowly comes to consider the possibility that Brahms may be more than he seems.
Cohan is intensely likable and a sincerely sympathetic protagonist. Her reactions are understandable and, with few exceptions, reasonable given her experiences. The movie warmly embraces many traditional horror clichés, but plays with others enough to feel fresh. The setting is well leveraged and the story is smartly kept neatly streamlined.
The story ends with a – *sigh* – twist. It effectively and dramatically changes the tone; turning the climax into an adrenaline-fueled rush. While it serves well enough to raise the stakes, it sadly makes extraordinarily little sense when considered as part of the larger story. This will affect your enjoyment of the film exactly as much as you allow it to.
The movie is well-directed and acted and should easily please fans of classic horror. The ending is intellectually flawed, but works well cinematically at least. Importantly, Cohan quickly and effortlessly wins the audience, earning forgiveness for the later sins. Overall, it’s a fun ride if you don’t think about it too hard.