Confusion is baked right into the title. Four years after “The Boy” scared up a few bucks at the box office, director William Brent Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear return with a new vision of what fresh terrors said boy (he’s a doll, okay, why did no one just call this movie “The Doll” and be done with it?) will enact on yet another unsuspecting family. Why “Brahms”? That’s the doll’s name, or the boy’s name (there’s also a boy in the first film, kind of), which might remind moviegoers of the nutso line-blurring in “The Boy.” However, “Brahms” also indicates what Bell and Menear really hope to accomplish: a full retcon of the original that does away with a dizzying amount of given information in service to a cheap sequel and the possibility of continuing a franchise for a film that never expected have one.
There wasn’t much original in Bell and Menear’s first crack at the creepy-doll horror genre, but “The Boy” had a sense of humor and a grasp on its wackily warped mythology that earned a few real chills and a couple of genuine laughs. None of that for “Brahms: The Boy II”; instead, it tucks into trauma, and the divide is so sharp that savvy audiences might wonder if some penny-pinching executive took a wholly unrelated spec script and tried to make it conform to Brahms’ icky contortions.
If only the film itself was that twisted! “Brahms: The Boy II” opens with some promise as a horrifying home invasion damages both Liza (Katie Holmes) and her cute kid Jude (Christopher Convery), setting up solid character work and a sense of unease that goes beyond the dull moments of “look, here is a creepy doll” that sledgehammers the rest of the film. Liza is a refreshingly pragmatic and strong leading lady, the kind of horror character who fights back (and means it) and is smart enough to to say, “Look, that is a creepy doll” (and definitely mean that, too).
Jude has a lot going on, from the “selective mutism” that he slips into after the attack to an eventual semi-possession by Brahms that might lead another young performer into more broad territory (hell, give Convery an award for how many times he has to carry Brahms around, lightly telegraphing his growing horror with every slump of his shoulders). The family unit is completed with Owain Yeoman as husband and father Sean (apparently last to the personality buffet, he’s easily overshadowed by co-stars both human and porcelain). Intent on reclaiming some semblance of normalcy after their trauma, the trio decamp for a country house (it’s on the same grounds as the same mansion in which “The Boy” played out, but so charming that Liza and Sean don’t Google its screwed-up history before moving on in). Here’s hoping that the fresh air and sprawling nature will reset them all.
Then Jude finds Brahms. The doll is an undoubtedly creepy vessel, but there’s also something inherently funny about his pale visage, and for every shot of him that chills, others stir up titters. Even his first appearance is darkly hilarious, his little pale hand sticking out of the ground like a teensy corpse begging for help. That Jude, a kid in an admittedly weird place in his life, would spark to the obviously deeply haunted toy, isn’t much of a hard sell, and Menear’s script works overtime to ensure Liza and Sean feel as if they need to go along with their tiny new houseguest. Jude starts talking again, but only to the doll, and that’s enough of a positive change to push his parents to accept Brahms as some kind of inanimate therapist.
Then things get weird, and the family begins to corrode at even faster clip. Liza’s mental and emotional state makes for a smart counterpoint to the whims of the bonkers doll, but Bell and Menear approach it from an awkward vantage: We know Brahms brings evil with him, and so while we might have some doubts around Liza’s perspective (a series of shoddy nightmare sequences remind us of her apparent unreliability as a narrator), we’re never not on her side. That’s sort of how sequels work, with built-in knowledge that can be expanded upon, not condensed and confused. However, that’s not how “Brahms: The Boy II”works, preferring to weave Liza and Jude’s trials (which are good enough for their own original movie) inside a mythology that gets messier by the minute.
There aren’t that many minutes to mess up, but the film manages to make it feel much longer. At just 86 minutes, “Brahms: The Boy II” should fly by, but the film lurches forward with its momentum punctuated by bad jump scares and odd flashback sequences. It all leads up to an assortment of exposition-heavy scenes that clarify nothing: Yes, you might remember that the first film was really about a creepy man (a former boy) who used a very creepy doll to, well, basically be creepy, but what if it was really the doll pulling all the strings? Fans of the first film won’t get it, newbies won’t understand it, and no one will be surprised when it all adds up to an ending that dares wink at the possibility of yet another film. Maybe that one will be built as well as the indestructible doll that haunts this incoherent franchise.
“Brahms: The Boy II” is now in theaters.