The title of the new horror dud Brahms: The Boy II raises some questions the film can’t answer. It flouts all conventions of sequel-naming, appending serious-business Roman numerals to the title of its 2016 predecessor The Boy, while also tacking on the name of the franchise’s breakout villain for maximum brand recognition. Discounting the overreaching attempt to have it both ways — you either rebrand or you don’t! — why awkwardly stuff the Brahms before the semicolon? It’s on par with referring to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors as Freddy Krueger: A Nightmare on Elm Street III. Like a porcelain figurine turning its head and blinking, it simply doesn’t look right.
So it’s a grim sign that this clunky title turns out to be the most distinctive, memorable element of the film.
Viewers may expend more brain power than necessary on that title as they wait for the tedious, wholly unnecessary Brahms, Too! to end. Seemingly born from a mandate that all genre releases passing a certain box-office benchmark automatically receive the franchise treatment, this continuation extends a story that was already stretched a bit thin in The Boy.
Director William Brent Bell’s first swing at the material pulled a minor bait-and-switch by billing itself as an evil-toy picture, then revealing itself as a gaslight picture. A nanny was driven insane by Brahms, the creepy doll supposedly housing the soul of the prematurely deceased son of the English manor’s owners. But Bell took care to stage each fright in order to sustain the final revelation that the actual culprit was the real Brahms, alive and skittering around the walls. Though the film was no great shakes, that final segment introducing the bona fide Brahms had serious potential, in both the character’s lanky physicality and his eerie baby-mask.
Bell’s biggest gaffe with the sequel is abandoning everything he’d already built to needlessly rewrite the mythos. Brahm and Brahmer 2 sends an entire family to the same haunted house, and this time, the supernatural menace has a basis in the film’s reality. Brahms the man is nowhere to be seen, and Brahms the object can now move, cause havoc, and apparently possess the souls of the innocent. More frustrating than the hazy nature of the character’s abilities is Bell’s refusal to depict them in action. Watching a foot-tall plaything flip over a dinner table would be either hilarious or terrifying, and either direction would be an improvement over the flavorless slurry Bell is dishing up.
Echoing Midsommar, the film begins with a prologue of familial tragedy leaving a deep scar of trauma. A home invasion plays out while Dad (Owain Yeoman) is off working. Masked intruders brutalize Mom (Katie Holmes), while her son Jude (Christopher Convery) can do nothing but watch, leaving the kid with understandable psychological distress that he expresses as selective mutism. Stacey Menear’s script then delves into Pediatric Therapy 101, as Dr. Exposition (Anjali Jay) informs the unhappy couple that their son needs an external outlet of some sort to provide him with a safe conduit for emotional expression. He might as well be begging to get mentally subsumed by a demonic collectible.
Following the migration of so many doomed scary-movie families before them, they flee the toxic scramble of “the city” for the wholesome serenity of “the country,” both spaces defined as vaguely as possible. Their real-estate agent neglected to mention the events of Brahms 1: The Boy I in her sales pitch, however, and she leaves the spouses to fend for themselves as the resident specter seeps out of the doll and into their son. The metaphor — a once-cheery youngster is overtaken by malevolence, prone to sudden, inexplicable outbursts — is clear, though not particularly original. Here’s another instance in which keeping everything earthbound would’ve worked to the film’s advantage; instead of really reckoning with the inner workings of little Jude, the film can write his behavior off as magical jiggery-pokery with a simple fix.
Snatches of eccentricity sneak in to the midsection, a mass of flab even as it occupies a fraction of the film’s slim 86-minute total. Reliable character actor Ralph Ineson perks up his scenes as the obligatory spooky groundskeeper, the only performer aware of the minor-chord pipe-organ music implied in all their dialogue. Pound for pound, the setpieces don’t hit so hard, with the marked exception of one sequence involving a broken croquet stake, shot largely through an upstairs window overlooking the lawn. The distancing effect gives the impression of deliberate creative action that’s otherwise absent from Bell’s indifferently-shot games of gotcha. (Sticking a jump-scare dream sequence inside a jump-scare dream sequence should be punishable by a hefty fine.)
Bell has somehow made a career for himself out of upward failure. Stay Alive, Disney’s dismal attempt at breaking into the slasher market, drew toxic reviews and box-office receipts to match. His little-seen Wer got a Japanese release in 2013, before getting shuffled into the direct-to-video bin in the States. Despite another round of panning, The Devil Inside kept him employable by proving he could pull a massive payday out of a sleepy late-winter release date, hence The Boy and its unholy offspring.
He could probably continue to coast like this for the foreseeable future, churning out another broad horror concept every couple years, for release on an uncompetitive weekend. This past week brought the news that he’ll soon tackle a prequel to 2009’s Orphan, another opportunity for a lucrative phone-in. But at least the film’s working title is simply Esther, and not Esther: Orphan II.
Brahms: The Boy II is in theaters now.