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2016's The Boy isn't a very good movie, but for a horror movie released in January during the 2010s, it's pretty darned good. For a January horror movie directed by William Brent Bell, who perpetrated 2012's inhumanly bad The Devil Inside, it's an I'll-be-god-damned miracle sent down from the Lord Christ on fucking high. More importantly, it made a pretty decent amount of money. So a sequel was a foregone conclusion, such as we got early in 2020 in the form of Brahms: The Boy II, which in retrospect looks like a harbinger of doom.

Brahms is no miracle; it is exactly the dreadful trudge through dodgy horror clichés that I assumed the first Boy would be, and in some respects was. But the clichés are being done much more poorly here. And on top of this, the film exists quite in defiance of The Boy: while, as I said, a sequel was pretty much going to happen, it's not because the film set itself up for one. Or, at least, it set itself up for a very different movie than itself, possibly a slasher movie, but definitely not a spooky old house movie about a haunted doll. Brahms, meanwhile, is a spooky old house movie about a haunted doll, and it exists pretty much in direct contradiction to the handful of glimmers of cleverness that The Boy was able to let flicker through its boggy mediocrity. Bell and Stacey Menear, the writer of the original film, have dealt with this idiotic transgression against their not-terrible original in the only way they could: by performing exactly the same roles on the sequel, and in the process revealing that whatever it was that made The Boy a bizarrely watchable example of January horror, it was not artistic conviction.

Brahms opens with a little prologue that actually sets up the story and character drama, rather than just cramming in a few arbitrary scares that have nothing to do with anything, which is the only subversion of formula it will ever get up to. Liza (Katie Holmes) and her son Jude (Christopher Convery) are at home alone one night, while husband/dad Sean (Owain Yeoman) is putting in the latest in a long chain of late nights at work. It's clear from their phone conversation that Liza is getting close to not putting up with this, and tonight will especially push her in that direction, because the house is broken into, and Liza and Jude are attacked by the burglars. Flash-forward several months, to find that she's dealing with vivid nightmares, while Jude has simply stopped talking altogether, communicating only by writing things down on a notepad, and the family has relocated to the very deep country in England to recuperate. Specifically, they've set up in the cozy guest cottage on the grounds of a rotting old mansion, the one where the events of The Boy took place, and some of those events are even honored.

One that isn't is the ultimate fate of the toddler-sized porcelain doll Brahms, last seen being glued back together by his insane, murderous namesake, who lived in the walls of the mansion. Apparently, at some point the human Brahms was apprehended by the police, and the doll was buried, and being buried was enough to repair the cracks in his porcelain skin perfectly; at any rate; Jude is drawn like a magnet to a patch of soft earth where the doll waits, pristine as the day it was made. Give or take the dirt. Jude cleans Brahms up, and starts taking him around everywhere; this is the first time since the attack that he's had a real interest in anything, so Liza and Sean are much more happy than concerned at how unmistakably weird this all is. Even when Jude starts acting like Brahms is talking to him, and giving him very particular instructions for how the household is to be run. This latter point is what starts to piss Liza off, who assumes this is just some very bizarre way of Jude channeling his rebellious energies; it is, of course, actually because Brahms is evil. Or, maybe, if we want to hold onto a tendril of hope, because human Brahms is still around, manipulating him, but that possibly starts to feel pretty remote pretty early.

Which is to say, the tiny spark of something vaguely clever about The Boy gets snuffed out thoroughly in Brahms: The Boy II (a title with an unnervingly terrible cadence, I think), replaced by the most shameful clichés about haunted dolls that keep apparently looking one way when they must be looking a different way, or are sitting one chair when you absolutely left them in another chair. It also has some more general horror clichés, the most well-done of which is the trick that grew extremely common in the 2010s, having a very obvious long tracking shot (of which there is a grand total of one in Brahms, so it sticks out all the more) that takes out of a given space for a moment, then takes us back to find - egads! - the grip team has fucked up all the props while the camera crew was getting out of their way. The badly-done ones include multiple fake-out wake-up shots - Liza is having bad dreams, I hope you noticed, and Bell and Menear are real excited to run with that - and a bit of the old "turns around and sees a person! -but it's not anyone to be scared of" routine. It was during an example of that latter that it struck me how remarkably bad Brahms is at doing any of these. Like, there's no real artistry in jump scares, just pushing a button that tricks the viewer into having a reflexive physical reaction, a nice adrenaline spike, it's basically like you just felt an emotion. They're over-used in horror films for a reason: they're easy, and they work. So it's always a bit surprising to bump into a movie that just can't get them right, and Brahms keeps failing that simplest of genre film tests. Maybe the rhythm is too slow, maybe the shots are too wide, I'm not quite sure. It's just that appallingly boring.

Still, all is not wholly lost. It's actually not terrible as a family drama, owing to some better-than-it-needs-to-be acting. Holmes is of course wildly overqualified for this kind of role in this kind of film, but she aces every test it throws at her, snapping at Jude for being naughty without us losing sympathy for her, and navigating the turn from "what a brat I've raised" to "holy fuck, it's a HAUNTED DOLL" smoothly enough that you can't see the seam. But Convery is quite good as well, putting up a little bit of the usual spooky kid menace, but also cutting it with the impatience of a child who's not quite mature enough to realise that the adults aren't paying attention when he tells them Brahms is talking to them. And Ralph Ineson, one of those indefatigable British troupers who will give all they've got to small roles in stupid movies because that's the job, is expectedly solid as the dour groundskeeper who holds all the secrets of the place. Yeoman isn't causing any damage.

And while it's a clattering disaster of directing and editing, it actually looks pretty decent: cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub mixes shadows and bright sunshine well to create a realistic baseline for the slow increase of spooky undertones, and production designer John Willet and the set dressing team have threaded the needle of making the guest house look a little rundown and "off" without pushing it into haunted house territory, so they can later pull that on us when the action enters the spooky old mansion. So honestly, not a completely unwatchable bit of dumb, boring, horror movie boilerplate; you just have to be ready for how much of it fucking sucks.