“Can’t wait until we’re older. We can leave this place…”
…One of the greatest tragedies in life are children that are forced to grow up too soon. Childhood is precious. A time before worry and understanding of the constant threats around us, where kids just get to be kids. The Djinn filmmakers David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s new film, The Boy Behind the Door, is an unflinching entry in the “Coming of Age” genre that strangles the life out of innocence.
The Boy Behind the Door follows best friends Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), a pair of young boys with dreams of a better life in somewhere like California. Those dreams are quickly crushed though when the boys are kidnapped and brought to a house in the middle of nowhere. After Bobby manages to escape, he decides to rescue Kevin, ill-prepared for the night of horror that awaits them.
We first meet Bobby and Kevin living their best life. Under the sun. Picking dandelions. Playing baseball. The two share a deep bond, perhaps one that goes deeper than even they know. They talk about leaving their country town, and assure each other that they are “friends till the end”, and not in a Child’s Play sort of way. Both Chavis and Dewey carry an aura of innocence, with soft features and a vulnerability that only exemplify that. We’re immediately pulled into their friendship, one that feels authentic and truly loving, and so even knowing it’s coming, it’s a bit of shock when all of that is suddenly shattered by their kidnappers.
The filmmakers and cinematographer Julian Estrada brilliantly juxtapose the boy’s innocent reality with the new nightmare they have found themselves in by taking the audience from a sunny world that feels warm and inviting to a bleak, cold house shrouded in darkness. The house itself is a character, a symbol of the crushing darkness of the soul that comes with growing up. Night or day, the kidnappers keep all of the lights off. Floorboards creak. Doors groan. And Estrada uses forced perspective techniques that make the house seem larger and more imposing than it is, hallways seeming to stretch on forever.
I won’t go as far as to say that The Boy Behind the Door does anything vastly different with your average kidnapping story, but it stands out and looms over similar tales with an effectively spooky atmosphere that has it feeling so unlike other entries in the genre.
The Boy Behind the Door is a simple story that oozes an abundance of style. Charbonier and Powell breathe a sense of gothic horror into the setting, with this old farmhouse made to appear more haunted house than a welcoming southern home. Aside from aging sounds in the house that make it feel alive, the filmmakers add another layer to the atmosphere by creatively using sounds from whatever old spooky movie is playing on TV to give the house a more supernatural vibe as Bobby creeps and crawls his way towards Kevin.
Like their previous effort, The Djinn (another excellent film), Charbonier and Powell pull no punches with The Boy Behind the Door. This isn’t “light” gateway horror. Once Bobby manages to free himself from the trunk just a few minutes in, The Boy Behind the Door is off like a nightmare freight train, screeching with suspense. This film drags the audience to the edge of their seats, with Bobby again and again coming within inches of being caught by his captors. I won’t say how, but the filmmakers assure us early on that this is a deadly game of cat and mouse, and Bobby and Kevin are in very real danger. Between gruesome moments such as a peeled off nail and well-crafted gore, The Boy Behind the Door puts these kids—and the audience—through the ringer, and makes sure the viewer feels every bit of their pain and torment.
The Boy Behind the Door grabs you by the neck with a vice-like grip and refuses to let go. From the time Bobby escapes to the thrilling conclusion, this film is an intense thriller full of surprises that subvert expectations, complete with a few homages to The Shining that succeed at matching that film’s intensity. The filmmaker’s do an excellent job of creating an air of mystery around the kidnappers, refusing to show us their faces for as long as possible, while offering little detail as to who they are and what they want outside of a few insidious suggestions that will surely have you shuddering in your seat. Terror is heavy in the air with The Boy Behind the Door, enriched with a pins and needles score from Anton Sanko that pierces the skin and lets the chills seep in.
This is a grim coming of age tale that itself does not quite feel like a Stephen King story, but is clearly inspired by the master of horror. Incredibly dark, both figuratively and literally, The Boy Behind the Door carries with it elements of some of King’s best work, from Stand by Me to IT, with a childish warmth at the heart of the film that glows bright. For all of the terror which the kids endure, for all of the coldness of the house they’re trapped in and the killers hunting them, the bonds of friendship and loyalty burn brighter than anything else. The Boy Behind the Door is frightening, but it’s also beautiful, presenting a positive relationship between two boys that’s free of judgement and insults, and which is important for young men to see more of in film.
Despite a third act that fails to hit a few key notes and your typical frustrating decisions from the lead child characters, The Boy Behind the Door is a riveting cat and mouse thriller coupled with devastating coming of age themes that reminds us to let kids be kids while they can, because no one should have to grow up too soon.
This is a film you’ll want to be friends till the end with.
The Boy Behind the Door comes to Shudder on July 29th.
By Matt Konopka