Brahms: The Boy II

I have to admit, I was looking forward to seeing Brahms: The Boy II from the moment I heard it was being released. I didn't expect it to be good, or for that matter, even worth watching. But I'd seen The Boy back in 2016, so I knew the original film did not need a sequel, did not deserve a sequel, and (given its conclusion) could barely even support a sequel. So I was really curious to see what kind of a train wreck they'd come up with.

And to tell the truth, for two-thirds of Brahms's running time, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't quite as big a disaster as I had expected it to be. The actors were good, the cinematography was capable, and the basic story was decent, even if the script itself left a lot to be desired.

And then, two-thirds of the way in... something happened.

If you've seen the original film (and the sequel assumes you have, because it reveals all the first movie's plot twists), you'll remember that its opening two-thirds also promised a completely different movie. In that film, a woman was hired to come to the enormous Heelshire mansion to care for a young boy... and the boy turned out to be a porcelain doll. This was no joke: the new nanny was expected to obey a strict set of rules as though the doll were a real child. When the "boy"'s parents left her alone to go on a vacation — an oddly permanent vacation, as it happens — the nanny began to ignore the rules. When she did so, strange things started to happen, and she began to suspect the doll was watching her, judging her, and stalking her by moving on its own. After such an undeniably creepy setup, The Boy suddenly changed direction. I don't want to spoil the ending of the original as much as Brahms does, but let's just say that it turns out somebody's nuts, and has been crazy for quite a while... and this leads to violence and tragedy. It's true, The Boy had closed with the usual horror-movie teaser shot, suggesting there could be a sequel; but this seemed pro forma, and not to be taken seriously. The story had revealed its one big secret, and after that there was nothing much more to say.

At first, Brahms: The Boy II doesn't seem to have much to do with the original movie. It opens by introducing us to a London family: husband Sean (Owain Yeoman) is spending more and more time away from home on business, while his American wife Liza (Katie Holmes) takes care of their young son Jude (Christopher Convery). Jude is of an age where he prefers monsters to teddy bears, and he's got a habit of sneaking up on his mother to scare her in creative ways. One night, though, Liza thinks she's putting up with one of Jude's practical jokes when she stumbles into a very real home invasion. Liza is seriously injured in the attack, and both she and Jude develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder afterwards. Liza becomes isolated and withdrawn, and subject to terrible nightmares; while Jude stops speaking entirely and communicates only through a notebook. Sean has problems of his own dealing with the fact he wasn't there to help his family during the robbery, and the fact that he can do next-to-nothing to help them afterwards just makes him feel more frustrated and inept.

Everybody's miserable. Since their home is now little more to them than the Scene of the Crime, Sean suggests they rent a home in the country for a few months, to recover in a new, peaceful, non-threatening environment. This would seem like a good idea... but unfortunately, the house they find turns out to be located on the grounds of the Heelshire Estate. The now-abandoned manor house is only a short walk away, through the woods. The manor is in the process of being converted into a condominium, but at the moment the construction crew is conveniently off-duty. During a walk through the woods, Liza and Sean are tempted to sneak into the manor house — not noticing in their excitement that Jude hasn't followed them. When they go to look for him, they find him cradling an object he's found buried in the woods nearby: a filthy porcelain doll.

The doll is is much better shape than we'd expect, from its condition at the end of The Boy. Whoever it was that buried the doll also took pains to bury its entire wardrobe, so after a little cleaning the family has a new houseguest, with all his luggage.

At first, the addition of the doll seems to be a positive thing: Jude opens up to his imaginary friend much more easily than to his parents or his therapist, and soon he begins to speak to the doll when he thinks he's not being observed. Through his notebook, he informs his parents that his new friend's name is Brahms. As is often the case with children's imaginary playmates, Brahms seems to have a personality all his own... but it isn't long before Liza starts wondering if Brahms hasn't brought a new set of problems with him. The doll isn't just bringing Jude out of his self-imposed silence: Jude is apparently also using him as a conduit to bring out his most deeply-repressed negative feelings. According to Jude, Brahms has a set of deeply-troubling "rules", and Jude insists the family obey them. For all his insistance on rules, Jude also starts to get into trouble — and then blames the trouble on the doll, as though the doll were acting on its own. And we all know dolls don't really act on their own — right? I mean, the previous movie told us they didn't.

There are some complications to the straightforward psychology Jude's therapist wants to bring to the situation. One is that others seem troubled by the doll as well — two individuals, in fact. One is the Heelshire groundskeeper, Joseph (Ralph Ineson) — whose existence The Boy never hinted at — who not only isn't surprised to see Jude's dug up an antique doll on the premises, but also seems a little nervous around it, especially when he finds out what Jude calls it. The other is Joseph's dog, who hates the doll on sight, and even takes to waiting just outside the property at night... growling.

The next complication: if the doll is making Jude a little crazy, he's not alone. Liza's nightmares haven't improved in her new location; if anything, they've got worse. They make her sleepwalk, and even more distressingly, they've left her unable at times to realize whether she's awake or still asleep. When she starts to starts to get disquieting hints that Brahms is moving aroubnd the house on his own... and when she starts finding evidence that either Jude or the doll working through Jude has thoughts of murdering her and Sean... we have to start wondering how much of this is in Liza's imagination, especially when some of this evidence disappears when Sean goes to look for it. Although it's true we are given a few glimpses of the doll moving when nobody's watching it, our memories of the first film keep us from accepting what we see at face value. We could even be witnessing a sort of folie à deux with both mother and son, where their repressed traumas feed on each other, and result in a new narrative about a killer doll.

The third, and most troubling complication: whoever is responsible for what appears to be the doll's personality — whether it's Jude, or Liza, or the doll itself, or anything and anyone else — that person is a psychopath.

For quite a while Brahms: The Boy II kept me interested enough to wonder what the eventual explanation for everything was going to be. I thought story did a pretty good job of showing how difficult it is for growing children to find their own spaces, and to establish their own identities. Sometimes even the most compassionate parents look at a wounded child as a problem to solve, rather than another human being who needs enough time and space to heal. So I could see how the combination of Jude's frustration over his being talked about and talked over, and his mother's difficulty dealing with his withdrawal, could lend some welcome ambiguity to what appears on its surface to be a simple ghost story.

But, like Liza, I got some disquieting hints that things weren't quite right under the surface. What disturbed me most wasn't, say, the addition of a new-"old" character like Joseph, whose presence in the original would've made a huge difference to the story. For me, the warning bells started to go off just about the time Jude announced that the doll's name was Brahms.

At that point, Liza is awakened in the early morning by somebody playing the piano, improvising on Brahms's famous "Lullaby" from his 5 Songs, Op. 49. She goes down to Jude's room, to see who's playing the piano so professionally. Well, it turns out to be Jude himself — and this is a problem.

It's not the fact we've had no suggestion so far that he plays the piano.

It's not the fact that the piano we hear doesn't sound like it's being played in that tiny bedroom.

It's not the fact that Christopher Convery's fingers on the keys don't match the notes we hear — that's always what happens with pianos in the movies.

No: the real problem is that Jude is not playing a piano at all. Jude is sitting at an electric organ, the meager three-octave range of which doesn't even have the notes he's supposed to be playing. This is just plain silly. If he was supposed to have been playing a flute, and you didn't actually have a flute, would you substitute a bagpipe just because it was available? And if you did, wouldn't you then make it sound like he was playing the bagpipe?

This is not a piano.

That's the point at which I started wondering: If they were going to make a mistake like this, in a movie whose title name-checks one of the greatest of classical composers, then what other corners are they willing to cut?

And then, two-thirds of the way in, I found out. Two-thirds of the way in... something happened.

What happened was this: the writers, having no idea which way they wanted to go with the story, took a midnight trip out to the dumpster in back of the Cliché Factory. There, they rifled through a pile of rain-sodden garbage, looking for scraps that even the worst movies of the Killer Doll subgenre had considered too awful to use. Not content with one or two, they'd brought back a whole armful of bad ideas in various states of incompleteness and disrepair, duct-taped them together, and... TA-DAA! They had an ending. It's not the ending the movie deserved, but it's an ending. Critics have pointed out that although the film is supposed to be set in England, the light sockets in the family's house all look North American. Now I know why: judging from the quality of the conclusion, Heelshire has magically transported itself to Amityville.

I don't want to go into too much detail, partly because I don't really want to spoil this atrocious series of cascading non-endings for the truly masochistic bad-movie fans out there, but mostly because it hurts my brain to even think about it. It not only ruins all the character development we're witnessed, it also manages to destroy any remaining respect we had for the original The Boy, which (astonishingly enough) was made by the same creative team. Let me just mention, as a for-instance, that the rushed, unsatisfying anti-climax to the movie depends on a certain household appliance in the Heelshire mansion. There is no reason for this particular appliance even to work in the abandoned, soon-to-be-reconstructed house, let alone be functioning at the time — except to serve its "unexpected" purpose near the end. But we're not supposed to think about that, just as we're not supposed to think about the way Jude gets the sound of a 9-foot Bösendorfer grand piano out of an electric organ. We're not even expected to notice it — because we're supposed to be too busy watching the Grand Finales of at least three other unrelated Killer Doll movies, as they stagger past us on the screen.

It's a shame, because just like the previous month's horror disaster, The Turning, this movie wastes a good opening and a dedicated cast. The result is even more frustrating than if the whole movie had been irredeemably bad from start to finish. The only good news here is that Brahms: The Boy II has very likely killed this would-be franchise. Though I wouldn't be all that surprised if they made yet another sequel, in which Brahms vied for supremacy against an evil teddy bear named Wagner.

Honestly? I blame Annabelle. The "real" Annabelle (I use the term loosely) was supposed to be a simple Raggedy Ann doll that got possessed by a demonic entity. But after that character's scene-stealing appearance in The Conjuring (2014) — where it was represented by a doll so terrifying that anybody running into it in real life would run screaming, demon or no — Annabelle launched its own movie sub-franchise. The popularity of the Annabelle movies then resulted in a world-wide deluge of Haunted Doll flicks, including the pathologically derivative Robert series (2015 - ???). The Boy was pointedly not a Haunted Doll movie, and that was its only real strength. But Brahms not only drags us back into Annabelle's circle of Hell, it drags its predecessor down with it. Somewhere out there, sealed in a glass case, sits a demon in a body made of cloth and cotton batting... and it is positively fuming, because in all its millennia of evil, it was never able to inflict as much suffering as its movie version has.

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