David Charbonier, Justin Powell/ USA/ 2020/ 88 mins

David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s previous film The Djinn was pretty much a one-boy show, a genre exercise shaped by its constraints. Their sophomore feature The Boy Behind the Door is slightly more expansive in scope, but is still a fine-tuned, spartan exercise in pure suspense. A bare bones cat-and-mouse thriller that never lets its foot off the throttle, it is impressively tense throughout and unafraid to tackle the darkest subject matter.

Two young boys, Bobby and Kevin (Lonnie Chavis and Ezra Dewey) are kidnapped by an unknown assailant. The kidnapper drives the boys to a remote house, and drags Kevin into the house, leaving Bobby in the boot. He manages to escape, but instead of fleeing the scene, he decides to stay and try to rescue his friend. However, there is more than their abductor to deal with, as a man arrives to conduct a sinister business transaction with the kidnapper.

The Boy Behind the Door plunges its young protagonists into hell right from the start with only the briefest tangential explanation of how they got there. As such, the writing and directing duo leave the viewer as confused and disorientated as the boys themselves. The situation is only ever as clear as Bobby discovers himself. It asks a lot of its young stars, particularly Chavis, from whose perspective we view most of the action. It is a gamble that pays off as the young actor is thoroughly believable as a boy fuelled by equal parts resolve and terror.

Like its incredibly simple setup, our sense of character is also stripped to the bare minimum. We get little information on Bobby and Kevin beyond the fact that they’re best friends and they play for the same baseball team. Charbonier and Powell rightly assume that their plight is enough for us to engage with them. Not least when it becomes clear that Kevin is to be the latest victim of a child sex trafficking ring. The directors never show us anything graphic, but the various implications (bloody kids’ clothes found in a trunk, a video camera in a child’s bedroom) are more than enough to get across the sheer horror of the situation.

Shorn of practically any extraneous flesh as it is, The Boy Behind the Door does occasionally resort to some standard tropes, such as poor decision making used a catalyst to further the story. It feels more understandable that a young boy would make those decisions, but Bobby is otherwise a smart and resourceful character. The filmmakers also lift wholesale from The Shining, with the bathroom scene recreated almost identically, right down to a desperate dagger slash to the back of a hand. One luckless cop also suffers a very similar fate to Scatman Crothers‘ Hallorann. Such direct homage is either evidence of a lack of an authorial voice, or of wild confidence in their ability to keep such exalted company, depending on your point of view.

These more generic tendencies are more frustrating given nicely individual touches elsewhere. There is one moment in particular that indicates that Charbonier and Powell are more than capable of surprising the audience within the claustrophobic confines of their hide and seek parameters. Elsewhere, there are little moments such as the boys puzzling over a rotary dial telephone (“Where’s the plug?”), and a kettle full of water hurled at a pursuer that turns out to be cold, that show a welcome sense of humour in an otherwise relentlessly grim and harrowing affair.

It is these neat details that mark Charbonier and Powell as being more than efficient directors of standard genre fare. The Boy Behind the Door may ultimately be a familiar, and therefore slightly predictable, little thriller but it thrums with tension and dread from the very first seconds. The duo are clearly comfortable working with a limited cast in a single location. It will be interesting to see if they stretch themselves further next time around.

Available on Shudder now