The Boy Behind the Door. 2020.
Directed / Written by David Charbonier & Justin Powell.
Starring Lonnie Chavis, Ezra Dewey, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Scott Michael Foster, & Micah Hauptman.
Not Rated / 88 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
The following essay contains SLIGHT SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
David Charbonier and Justin Powell directed and co-wrote The Boy Behind the Door, their first feature film together. If this is any indication, they’re going to terrify us a whole lot more. The film’s a bare bones horror-thriller that doesn’t need to focus on anything more than its lean plot to scare. Doesn’t mean this isn’t a wonderfully made piece of work. The look and atmosphere are as important as anything else, it’s just that the screenplay offers more than enough to frighten its audience, and it does so through intense realism.
The story picks up with two young boys, Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), whose normal lives are shattered when a random creep (Micah Hauptman) abducts them. Bobby comes to in the trunk of a car. When he’s on the verge of freedom he hears Kevin scream and remembers his best friend is still stuck in that house. Bobby makes the impossible decision to go back, unwilling to turn away while something horrible could happen to Kevin. This begins a tense cat-and-mouse chase.
What’s so chilling about The Boy Behind the Door is the plausibility of its premise and how real the plot feels, particularly once the story’s horrors fully reveal themselves. Charbonier and Powell explore, through Bobby and Kevin, how young people trapped in small towns and rural places yearn to escape, pushing these boys to their extreme before such escape is possible. Within the story are grim realities of everyday life, the kind right-wing maniacs pretend don’t actually exist in lieu of insane conspiracy theories like Q. This film depicts things happening right now in America, in small towns and big cities. Bobby and Kevin represent children who’ve been forgotten in society, left to survival by their own means.
We see from establishing shots early on that The Boy Behind the Door takes place in rural oil country. The pumpjacks are prominently displayed as part of the landscape, busy sucking the ground dry while people go about their business. Perfect setting for two boys of colour dreaming of escape from their isolated hometown. They spend their spare moments imagining where they’ll go: “Somewhere where the sun‘s always shining.”
This hope of a different, better life beyond the rural can also choke and suffocate, if one comes from a working class background that doesn’t necessarily guarantee college, et cetera. Dreams of the ocean are initially hope for Bobby and Kevin, imagining going to California and getting away from their stifled life in that town. Later, when Bobby is stuck in the car’s trunk the same image of the ocean becomes psychologically claustrophobic— waves crash against him, suffocating and drowning him at once. That image of freedom from Bobby’s tiny hometown now transforms into one of doom instead of escape.
A major part of the film is how the boys’ hope for a better life elsewhere is violently held at arm’s length by the creep abducting them, an intense and horrifying juxtaposition. They want to escape small town existence, but then find themselves forced to escape abject human horrors to even retain their dream of the ocean. And the boys realise they’re lost in a world where even police can’t entirely help them. A cop’s car offers more protection than a cop does, albeit not much more. It’s only after Bobby and Kevin have done most the work do other cops arrive. Their clash with their abductor thrusts them into a bigger, scarier world they’ll have to face outside of a relatively sheltered town.
One significant moment reveals a Make America Great Again bumper stick on the creep’s car. Then a right-wing radio station automatically comes on when Bobby puts the key in the ignition. Something the MAGA crowd love to harp on about are the supposedly forgotten people in ‘flyover country,’ all the working class people in small rural places— Trump supporter code for working class whites. The Boy Behind the Door presents one of those forgotten spaces, but goes against the conservative Republican view, depicting the non-white people that usually get neglected in the many MAGA fantasies. The right-wing also often love to pretend like the worst crime only ever occurs in cities, that small towns and rural areas are somehow more wholesome. Charbonier and Powell show us that preying on children doesn’t magically end at the city limits, and there are worse things happening in flyover country than unemployment.
Just like those forgotten spaces in the rural, Charbonier and Powell depict the forgotten children who inhabit those spaces. The film made me think of people who believe in the Q conspiracy theory/theories. They only care about the white children they claim are being abducted by the tens of thousands all over America, bolstered by bad statistics provided by the FBI (remember, the agency that assassinated Fred Hampton). They’d rather subscribe to a conspiracy theory with little to no basis in actual reality, rather than pay attention to the children in cages guarded by ICE; the racially profiled kids getting beat up by cops and having guns pulled on them; or, boys of colour like Bobby and Kevin being abducted by some seemingly normal white guy from the neighbourhood. These right-wing conspiracy theorists prefer to fabricate ways to make white people victims by way of children, and also at the expense of real children of colour. Even the shadowy paedophiles buying up stolen kids in the background of The Boy Behind the Door are racists. Bobby’s told customers don’t “normally go for ones like you“— again, MAGAts love code-speak rather than directly expressing their hideous beliefs, so “like you” is roundabout code for Black.
Charbonier and Powell have crafted a film that I found to be one of the scariest of 2020, and one of the scariest horrors I’ve seen over the past couple years. I’ve always found realism more effective for scares. That’s not saying I’ve never been frightened by the supernatural, I have, but real horror and terror is what gets under my skin the most of anything. The Boy Behind the Door is so real it actually felt uncomfortable to watch, like a case pulled directly from the headlines despite not being based on one specific true story. Lonnie Chavis deserves huge credit for delivering a performance that had me both worried sick for Bobby’s life and rooting (out loud by myself) for him to save his friend, as well as himself.
Fantastic Fest 2020 has been a treat. This film is one of the best I’ve seen. The Boy Behind the Door is a strong horror-thriller that’ll keep most people on the edge of their seats the entire 88 minutes. The way it gets into the social and political landscape of America today is not to go unnoticed or unappreciated. Charbonier and Powell made deliberate decisions here when they showed that MAGA bumper sticker. The fact the two boys are Black and Asian is hugely significant in context with the sticker. We see that there are, indeed, forgotten people in the United States, however, they’re not exactly who the right-wing would have you believe. Although the far right-wing acts like they care about children, they only mean white children. Kids who look like Bobby and Kevin are left to survive however they’re able while people like the creep and his business partners are busying making their own America great again— a land where cops kill unarmed Black people weekly and the federal government puts brown children in cages, not the America in which Bobby and Kevin hope to live. Maybe America, like the two abducted boys, can eventually escape their creep, too. But it’s going to be hard.