Warning: allusions to the plot twist in The Boy are included below!
There are a lot of punching bag directors in horror, and while some are justified (Ulli Lommel, Charles Band, etc), others deserve more credit for at least trying to elevate familiar genre concepts, even if the films aren't exactly masterpieces. One such filmmaker is William Brent Bell, who can't catch a break with the average horror fan - his first film was Stay Alive, he followed it up with The Devil Inside, and now he's back with The Boy, which opened in 5th place and has a 29% Rotten Tomatoes score (which is actually a huge improvement over the single digit ratings for his other two). Since he's not using video games or any other existing properties he doesn't get namechecked as often as Uwe Boll, but the movies themselves, in particular the first two, inspire the same sort of foaming rage that you see if you mention House of the Dead or Bloodrayne. However, I don't think this is deserved - I honestly don't think he's made a truly bad film yet, and is a victim of the terrible "thumbs up or thumbs down" system the Internet has adapted, particularly for horror movies. His movies aren't perfect, therefore they are garbage, right? Wrong.
Let's start with Devil Inside since that's the one that draws the most ire (and with a $53m box office take, has probably been seen by the most people). As one of the few films to earn an F Cinemascore, it's obviously not just any "bad horror movie", though of the lot it's also got one of the lowest critical ratings - only 2002's Darkness, which probably IS the worst movie to get that (somewhat honorable!) F, ranks lower. The others include minor gems like William Friedkin's Bug and Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, plus diverse fare like Solaris and Killing Them Softly, both great movies. I wouldn't put Devil Inside on that level, but it's interesting that many of the F films have red flag endings (like Silent House, which had a wacky twist* and got an F for its trouble), and as time goes by, that's pretty much all anyone seems to remember about Bell's 2012 found footage exorcism tale.
If you never saw it, or forgot how it ended, let me explain - at the end of the movie, the cameraman gets possessed and seemingly killed in a car crash, and it cuts to black. Then a text card appears saying something like "For more information, go to www.therossifiles.com" (Rossi was the surname of the film's heroine), which was just an attempt at a Blair Witch-style mythology that existed outside of the movie. Unfortunately, mass audiences forgot that every single goddamn found footage movie in history (including Blair Witch Project) ends abruptly, and took this to mean that they had to go to a website to see the rest of it. No. There IS no more footage, because the cameraman died, and the filmmakers (or the producers) made an ill-advised decision to promote their website at the end of their film instead of at the top, or (like Blair) ignore it entirely in their piece and just use it as a promotional tool building up to its release. URL aside, the ending is no different than Paranormal Activity's ("Micah's body was discovered by the police on October 11, 2006. Katie's whereabouts remain unknown."), but few had a problem with that.
As a result, most forgot that until that point the movie was pretty good. Nothing spectacular, but it was a January horror movie - expectations should not have been high. Here, though, I should admit that I am softer on exorcism movies than most due to seeing The Exorcist a lot later in life than most horror fans - I was 19 when I finally got around to it, whereas most saw it at a far younger age, some as early as nine or ten. When you see a movie that good at such an impressionable stage in life, it makes sense that all of the others seem like such crushing disappointments, because they're not up to Exorcist's high standards (none of them are; this isn't up for debate). Since I had seen a few of them before I knew who Father Karras was, I was able to recognize Friedkin's film as the classic that it is - but without losing my ability to enjoy the "lesser" fare I had already gotten accustomed to. It's all about how you're calibrated, which is why I'm actually glad I was late to the party with Exorcist - I can have more fun with the sub-genre as a result.
I should also note the fact that The Devil Inside came out just a few weeks before the five year anniversary of Horror Movie A Day. At that point I saw nearly 1800 horror movies in a row, and if you think this harmless found footage movie about the Vatican was the lowest of the low, I am eternally jealous of your naivety. Hell, it wasn't even the worst found footage OR religious horror movie I saw that week, as Amityville Haunting and 11/11/11 (the Asylum's, not Darren Bousman's), respectively, took those dishonors. I ultimately saw a half dozen or so found footage movies dealing with possession and/or exorcisms, and I assure you, this is probably the second best one after Last Exorcism. I enjoyed the look inside the Vatican's "exorcist school", and unlike most found footage movies, the primary characters all had clear goals - it wasn't like someone making a documentary and his friends tagging along for no discernible reason. There was also an interesting idea that the church's rigorous investigations that are conducted before deciding to attempt an exorcism aren't so that they don't waste their time on such a difficult process when the person is just crazy (or faking), but that they know their interference could bring worse things out. Again, it's not a classic film, but with this many interesting ideas (and a fairly decent use of the POV aspect - particularly the car crash climax, ironically enough) I don't think it deserves its status as a go-to movie to namecheck when talking about awful horror movies, the way music critics use Nickelback as a shorthand for terrible rock music.
Then again, I had been down that road before with Bell. I missed Stay Alive in theaters, because I didn't feel the need to see a PG-13 horror movie about a killer video game in my pre-HMAD "youth" (plus, like a good horror fan, I saw Slither that weekend instead), but when HMAD came around (and I became smitten with Sophia Bush thanks to The Hitcher remake), I made his 2006 teen slasher one of the site's earliest entries. And even though I was pretty harsh on everything back then, I had to admit that the movie wasn't all that bad, taking an extremely silly concept and making it pretty engaging and nowhere near as bad as I had been told. My expectations were at rock bottom - besides what I heard from the few pals who DID go see it, I had seen plenty of video game-based horror movies (not Boll type stuff, I mean movies about people playing video games - Brainscan, Gamebox 1.0, Arcade, etc), and they're all terrible. It's just not a concept that lends itself to a good movie, period (not just horror - remember the Spy Kids entry?), and as someone who actually plays games I am always appalled by how fake the games they make for these things are. The controls, the layout, the design... none of it ever resembles a game in any way shape or form, which is a giant hurdle for such fare.
The game in Stay Alive (titled "Stay Alive"), on the other hand, almost looks like something that you could have actually played (and probably should have been a promotional gimmick). In the clips we see, it's a sort of first person Resident Evil/Silent Hill kind of game, albeit one you can co-op play with friends - and so for the first time ever in one of these kind of movies, I could watch and understand how the game worked. The way it falls into the hands of its protagonists is a little hokey, sure, but at least its central concept doesn't ring totally false like just about every one of its game-movie peers (the fact that it wasn't virtual reality probably helped - the graphics are era-appropriate, meaning it looks like a launch 360 title at best). They also reference real games like Unreal Tournament and Fatal Frame (the latter an obvious influence), plus throw in the Konami Code (up, up, down, down...) for good measure. It gives the movie a less generic feeling than many of its brethren, lending it some authenticity that makes the narrative easier to buy - if every other game they mention was a made up one, Stay Alive (the game) wouldn't stick out in any meaningful way. These guys, just like us, play Silent Hill and the like, so when this falls in their lap, we understand why they are so intrigued, because the difference from what they've been playing is made perfectly clear while still being grounded in, if not real world logic, stronger than average horror movie logic.
It's also got some novel touches for a slasher movie. When a character dies around the halfway point (the first of the main group that we've grown to (hopefully) like), Bell offers something I don't think I've ever seen in one of these things - the full aftermath of his death. Via time-lapse camera, we see his friends gather around, try to revive him, cry, comfort one another, wander around, etc. Then (still in time-lapse) the cops arrive, lay down evidence markers, question the kids briefly, the whole nine yards. Normally in these things, someone is offed and the others barely notice (usually because they're trying to avoid joining them, to be fair), so it's nice to see this extended sequence (which could have easily been cut), showing how a slasher movie death has some effect on the others beyond "We have to stick together or we'll be next!" type thinking (the closest other example that comes to mind is Scream 2, when Sidney says she'll have to call Randy's mother). Also, even though it's a supernatural entity killing everyone, the kids don't jump to that conclusion - when the cops question their curious involvement with several deaths, they believe some hacker has gotten into the game, seeing how they die, and is reenacting it in real life. Again, it offers a bit of minor realism, much needed in a movie about a killer video game.
On that note, it deserves a chunk of its praise for having the rare CGI villain in a horror movie that's justified! Sometimes the real world and game world blend, so you see the actor next to a cartoon, same as any number of horror movies from the past twenty years but one of the very few where using a physical creation wouldn't look right. But the blood is mostly real, and while we're on the subject it should be noted that this is also one of the rare "unrated cut!" horror movies that's not bullshit - the theatrical cut was the result of trimming the movie from an R to a PG-13, ultimately losing fifteen minutes worth of material. Not only did this rob the movie of some pretty good kills, but a few plot points as well, rendering the movie incoherent in spots (characters suddenly possessing information that we never saw them acquire, for example). The theatrical cut even removed the scene where the heroes confront the game's creator, which I can't understand the logic behind no matter how hard I try. As nearly all of the film's bad word of mouth stemmed from the theatrical version, I think it's a shame that the superior longer cut probably never got a chance at revaluation due to the abundance of falsely advertised UNRATED CUTS! that merely added some bloodless character scene that was cut for a reason.
Luckily, The Boy's PG-13 rating seems intended from the start. The movie has a very low body count (actually a very low population, period - including a cab driver and a voice on the phone there are only eight people in the movie) and I don't know why anyone would be dropping F-bombs or shooting heroin, so any longer cut, I assume, wouldn't be of interest to those looking for harder fare. But if the DVD/Blu does offer some sort of longer cut, I'd be leery of it - the movie is perfectly good as is, and if anything some tightening could have helped, as it does get a bit slow in spots. However, the payoff is worth it, and while I won't come right out and say what it is, I'll allude to it enough that you might/probably will be able to figure it out, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to risk spoiling this solid movie for yourself.
Bell's movies so far belong in different genres, but one thing they all have in common is that he likes to combine familiar tropes in a way that you don't see too often, like how Stay Alive combined Final Destination-y type killing with a "let's read old books/investigate dusty locations and solve an old mystery" supernatural fare. For 75 minutes, The Boy seems to be a classic "is she crazy or is that crazy thing really happening" scenario, revolving around the possibility that a doll named Brahms is actually alive, only for Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear to offer a 3rd option. I won't say exactly what it was, but it does allow them to seemingly pay homage to Friday the 13th Part 2 in a manner you might not expect, with heroine Lauren Cohan in the Amy Steel (as Betsy Palmer) role. I've sung my praises of F13 Part 2 here before, so you know how much I enjoy this particular entry - seeing an out of nowhere tribute to it in a non-slasher movie was very delightful. For a filmmaker whose last movie was all but completely undone by its last 30 seconds, he's on the other side here - people may get too bored by the first hour or so and give up on it before it gets really good.
Interestingly, the trailer for the film doesn't cheat at all. It shows a bit from a nightmare scene (as nearly every horror trailer does), but otherwise everything it shows you is presented in the movie in the same manner - nothing has its context changed with some clever editing. So people may feel ripped off that the doll never moves (it can't, because the movie is about whether or not it's "alive" and so if you see it move before the final reel, there's no mystery), but there's not a single shot in the trailer where it does, or where they even try to make you think it did. It's your own fault if you think the movie cheated you - it never promised anything but what the trailer shows, and I think horror fans should give the movie some respect for at least that much. Devil Inside's trailer focused on a couple elements that weren't really the main plot of the movie, which may have added to the outrage, so perhaps Bell learned his lesson (assuming he had any input on the marketing of either film at all).
Luckily, as mentioned, this one's not getting as ravaged as his others - compared to those, it's being downright showered with praise, what with more than one positive review for it on RT and some solid notices from the usual horror sites (the ones that are usually quick to pounce on anything rated PG-13, especially a January release). Its B- Cinemascore isn't anything to pin up on the wall, but it's certainly a much better grade than Bell's last movie got - and better than I expected, given the crowd I saw it with. The guy behind me was straight up MST3k-ing it, and the folks behind him were laughing at his nonsense (after the film, he and another guy expressed their disappointment with loud farting noises). The tiny budget means it will turn a minor profit, though it will likely be his lowest grossing film overall - a shame when it's easily his best, and I say that as someone - possibly the only one - who doesn't think he's made a bad one yet. If you've avoided them all because of the bad word of mouth, give one or all three of these movies a shot (preferably this newest one, before the twist is totally spoiled for you). Maybe you can join me in actually looking forward to his next movie instead of dreading it.
*It was a remake of a movie with the same twist, so this one always amused me. Do your research, folks!