The Boy Behind the Door opens with a stunning shot of an evergreen forest shrouded in fog. It’s a beautiful sight, but the soundtrack cues us that something’s not right. Another drone shot evokes The Shining with a view of a single car driving down a deserted road, and the ominous soundtrack continues as the car drives up to a deserted home, where the true horror is revealed: two kidnapped boys, their mouths duct-taped, trapped in the trunk of the car.
David Charbonier and Justin Powell, who co-wrote and co-directed The Boy Behind the Door, are marvels of efficiency, wasting nothing in the 88 minutes of this film. Immediately after the trunk reveal, the film jumps backward six hours to show how the boys came to be there. In a scene that really is idyllic, best friends Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey) are playing catch in a sunlit field and shooting the shit over how they’d like to escape their small-town life. Then Kevin chases down a missed throw, and he doesn’t come back. Bobby goes looking for him when, out of nowhere, a stranger grabs him and knocks him out.
Some time later, Bobby wakes up alone in the trunk. He manages to free himself, and is about to take off, when he hears Kevin’s screams from inside the house. Strong as Bobby’s instinct may be to save himself, his loyalty to his friend is even stronger, and he puts himself back in harm’s way to try to save Kevin. In the process, he must rely on his own resourcefulness to defeat a very real enemy that’s not in the least supernatural—just plain old human evil. It’s hardly a fair fight—a normal kid is up against several experienced criminals, a decent person must outwit against a crew who have no problem harming others—but that’s the kind of stakes typical of this type of film. You might say Bobby is a teenage Roger Thornhill unwillingly ripped out of his normal life and thrust into perilous circumstances, with no choice but to fight back however he can.
The Boy Behind the Door is first and foremost Lonnie Chavis’ film—he’s the character we spend the most time with, and the one with whom we are invited to identify. It’s a masterful piece of acting by a young man barely into his teens (but who has an impressive list of credits already). For most of the film the main function of Kevin, who has the misfortune to be selected as the first victim by his captors, is to need to be rescued by Bobby, while the adult characters are mostly seen briefly. The exception is played by Kristin Bauer van Straten, who is positively demonic in the character of a woman who is apparently in the business of supplying boys to men for a price.
After the opening minutes, Charbonier and Powell keep the story in and around the house where the boys were taken, a choice that both increases the film’s sense of claustrophobia and undoubtedly made it cheaper to film. The result is a masterpiece of small-scale filmmaking, a taut thriller which uses classic cinematic techniques to tell a well-formed story effectively. There’s a bit of body horror in The Boy Behind the Door, but the film’s effectiveness relies mostly on psychological tension. There are a few too many quotations from The Shining for my taste, but you can’t blame a couple of first-time writer-directors for stealing from the best. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Boy Behind the Door is available for streaming on Shudder beginning July 29.