by Paul Deeter
In 2021, the streaming service Shudder has more than proved itself as a source of not only classic horror films, but a site for exclusive independent releases as well. With many strong original series and films Shudder has provided hours upon hours of content available for a reasonable monthly cost. I'm not just a subscriber of Shudder, I'm also deeply lucky to say that I've had the pleasure to interview multiple directors whose work was featured on the site, including Elza Kephart of the designer-jeans slasher film Slaxx and Aaron B. Koontz director of the witchy-western The Pale Door. Horror film addicts would be hard pressed not to find something to love on this channel, with its range of Italian Giallo horror to modern slasher-in-the-woods flicks. So on July 29th, 2021 an independent horror film titled The Boy Behind the Door was dropped after an extremely positive festival run. And David Charbonier and Justin Powell worked so damn hard to make this film, they ended up financially backing the film themselves after facing multiple closed doors by production companies. With a one-house setting and self-produced budget, the film still manages to feel far bigger than simply an independent project. And with its positive festival reception, the film has landed a near perfect 96% Rotten Tomatoes approval level, and I hope will continue to reach audiences now that it's available to stream.
The Boy Behind the Door is a film that sets the premise simply but manages to constantly pull the carpet from under the viewer whenever things about to calm down. The setup involves two 12 year old boys, one of them named Bobby played by Lonnie Chavez, who is recognizable from his role as young Randall in This is Us. The other child, Kevin is played Ezra Dewey who is also bound for greatness. Kevin and Bobby are kidnapped and separated, Bobby finds himself in a trunk and manages to free himself, but he can't quite free Kevin, whose stuck in a much more guarded room. They're not sure where they are, the house they're confined to seems to harbor a deeply disturbed man with unknown intentions. Whether the boys are to be sold, hurt or worse is ambiguous at first. But as the film progresses it sinks deeper into the darkness of the villain's arc as the kids find evidence of a sinister nature which I won't spoil. The antagonist is also veiled in secrecy for a majority of the film, with some major twists withheld to their identity and their involvement in the crime. Again, no spoilers. You gotta see it.
The two leads manage to command the screen even when the perspective shifts from one kid to another in various situations that involve solo endeavors. The tagline is: "The only way out is together" which is a good summation of the teamwork effort needed by both boys to make it out alive. Bobby is often on the move in the household, mostly hidden in his attempt to find a key to break Kevin free. But there's a lot of great acting from both kid, and Kevin carries some of the more poignant scenes in the second act. The real winner is Lonnie Chavez if I had to pick, his performance is so visceral despite his need to remain silent and speechless. He practically weeps continuously and is left jaw agape to the horror he finds behind closed doors. I'm just as confident that he'll find a career out of this film as I'm sure the directors will find funding for pictures beyond this solid debut. The direction is top-notch.
With a household setting that doesn't leave the grounds all film, the space is well utilized despite its limited size. The film finds so many new crooks and dark corners to explore that it almost seems like the viewer is trapped in an ever expanding hell house themselves. I was on the edge of my seat (my bed specifically) when one kid is stuck in a room while the villain lurks among them unknowing to their whereabouts. There's some really clever moments of continuity here, like if a kid accidentally leaves a door ajar or some furniture moved, and the way that follows through on the upper hand that leaves the hunter.
This may all sound like familiar territory, and the film does lean heavily on some influences that inspired it. There are some not so subtle shots taken directly from The Shining, with winks to other child endangerment films of the same genre, but TBBTD is undeniably a truly original project. A lot of my review is specific to the film's first act because this movie has just about as many twists as a bag of pretzels. It reminded me of the tonal shifts that films like Parasite (2019) took in the later half of the movie. The less you know the better about this plot, I promise you.
If I were to iterate a major factor of the film's originality I'd point back to the leads of the film. Outside of the solid performances given by each actor, TBBTD never lets you forget that these are 12 year old kids, and they're in peril. In fact if there's any major polarizing factor of this film, it's that these kids suffer psychologically and physically throughout the whole film. There's no shortage of blood and violence that you'd expect from any other horror feature. I believe this adds to the support I felt for the two. They overcome so much pain and fear that they deserve a happy ending. They deserve to break free. And like the film Hush (2016) the movie uses what could be considered a handicap in the deafness of the lead, to the strength of the hero. These boys are braver than most adults, but held together with the bond that only two best friends have. They're smaller and weaker than their assailant, but their determination is almost unmatched. I don't want to get cheesy, and say the power of friendship is what saves the day, but it's hard not to get a little choked up by their chemistry.
There's beauty to this bloodshed. With a shifting color pallette establishing the house as a multi-level nightmare, natural lighting is almost entirely abandoned in this film to red and green hues from room to room. The house feels like a nightmare. The staircases seem steeper, the rooms darker and the attic exists as a breathing creature than a room. The film's setting is a literal child's nightmare, as Bobby puts it eventually: "the worst thing that could happen to us, happened to us." And even in a waking nightmare, hope is never too dim. We sympathize with these kids and even put ourselves in their shoes. How would we have responded to a scenario like this as kids? How would we respond to a scenario like this today? Despite its unflinching grittiness, The Boy Behind the Door doesn't take away the courage that only a kid could maintain through even their darkest nightmares.