The Boy Behind the Door doesn’t do much that hasn’t been seen before, but mostly works on the strength of its careful, expert craft.
A tough, tense little thriller, David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s The Boy Behind the Door wastes no time in setting up its queasily effective scenario. Two 12-year-old boys, Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), are abducted from the woods where they’ve been playing, thrown in the trunk of a car, and driven to a secluded home nestled in some undisclosed rural enclave. An unnamed man (played by Micah Hauptman and listed only as “The Creep” in the credits) drags Kevin inside and locks him up in the basement, leaving Bobby alone. He manages to wriggle free of his constraints and gets the car trunk open, but instead of fleeing, decides that he can’t leave his friend behind. What follows is largely familiar stuff, albeit so superbly crafted that you might not mind. Charbonier and Powell prove adept at depicting the cat-and-mouse pursuit between The Creep and Bobby, who roams the dark house trying to avoid detection while searching for a key that will free Kevin. There are a few surprises along the way to goose the narrative, as the film introduces a second kidnapper who proves to be far more resilient than The Creep, as well as an unfortunately timed visit from a police officer. Like a home invasion thriller played in reverse, escaping the house is only the first step, and navigating the wooded area outside can be just as deadly.
Charbonier and Powell are threading a tricky needle here, taking very real fears of kidnapping and child sex trafficking and turning them into something of a twisted kid’s adventure tale. Eventually, veteran genre enthusiasts are going to want this story to escalate, but doing so means potentially alienating viewers who are (understandably) squeamish about violence being inflicted on children. It doesn’t always work — the threat of danger dissipates as the film progresses, rather than ratcheting up — but The Boy Behind the Door never crosses over into morally abject territory despite some effectively grisly moments. In keeping with the general Amblin-but-darker vibe, the filmmakers make creative use of their young protagonists’ perspective. They’re too small to physically overpower their captors, and the directors smartly play the adult culprits’ familiarity with the home’s layout against Bobby’s diminutive frame and ability to tuck away into smaller spaces. And when an opportunity to steal a car arises, Bobby can’t figure out how to drive a stick shift. There’s also a great bit where Bobby finds a rotary phone but doesn’t understand how it works — one of the only laughs in an otherwise deadly serious film is Kevin telling Bobby that he needs to find a cord that looks like an Ethernet cable to connect the old phone to a wall jack, which he knows because his “grandma has one like that.” It’s hard to maintain tension with a small cast running around a single location, and while the film’s climax is mostly a matter of going through the paces (an extended homage/rip-off of Kubrick’s The Shining is particularly irksome), the kids are so likable that you can’t help but root for them. Like a particularly dark Hardy Boys mystery mixed with an R.L. Stine storybook, The Boy Behind the Door is probably destined to be more successful the younger you are.
You can stream David Charbonier & Justin Powell’s The Boy Behind the Door on Shudder beginning on July 29.