Ask any teen and they’ll tell you, there’s just something creepy about dolls. Pixar reminded us with its tremendously popular Toy Story franchise that toys might just have lives of their own. Hopefully not like Chucky from Child’s Play, Annabelle from the series of the same name or the violent little dolls from the terrific Puppet Master series. But what if the dolls and toys are actually animated by evil intention, not the love and happiness of a child? In fact, what if that box of toys your kids found in the attic of the ominous old house you’re trying to flip are possessed, not inanimate objects after all?
That’s the core story of the entertaining, albeit trope filled horror indie film Toys of Terror, just released from Warner. It’s a competent film with plenty of dastardly behavior from evil retro stop motion toys in the spirit of 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and other classic holiday movies.
Young mom Hannah Cashman (Kyana Teresa) is perpetually buying rundown houses, fixing them up with local subcontractors and reselling them to make a tidy profit. Hoping for a big win, she buys a mansion deep in rural Washington state, a house that previously served as a home for orphans. At least, until something tragic occurred, at which point it was abandoned. The house is in pretty poor shape, with shaky banisters and precarious floorboards. Her husband David (Dayo Ade) tries to be cheerful about their working holiday but it’s surly teen Alicia (Verity Marks) who wears her upset on her sleeve, not at all happy to find out that their vacation is going to be spent at a ramshackle house straight out of Homes of the Damned for Dummies. Their nanny Rose (Georgia Waters) doesn’t seem too affected by the spooky residence, but wouldn’t ya know it, she has a secret of her own. It’s the two little ones Franklin (Saul Elias) and Zoe (Zoe Fish) who are delighted with the home and quick to adopt the strange new toys they find in, yes, the attic.
There’s a certain subgenre of horror films that are entertaining simply because there’s a thrill associated with yelling at the actors as they’re poised to make yet another dumb decision to put themselves at risk yet again. Toys of Terror fits neatly into that category as we viewers know the dolls are bad news and I definitely found myself yelling “don’t take the $#&*$ doll in the car with you!” and similar as the story unfolded.
The film is also a grab-bag of horror tropes and clichés that will have any hardcore horror fan either groaning or snickering as the story unfolds. Well, I say “story” but it’s a pretty predictable journey from the flashback opening scene to the era of the house being an orphanage in the early 1900’s to the final climactic scene where, oh, well, no spoilers! While some horror films surprise and play with your anxieties by offering a story that’s hard to anticipate – like the terrific indie The Babadook that my kids and I rewatched just a week or two ago – there’s also enjoyment to be found in a known and predictable journey too, when competently assembled.
Where Toys of Terror is particularly fun is in recognizing its nods to Toy Story and others in the “evil toy” genre movies that have preceded it. Are the performances standout? No, though the little ones are effectively creepy when they get pulled into the tainted spirit world of the toys. But this is just junk food horror and it’s fun take in that context.
Dad At The Movies note: While adults will find this entertaining, younger viewers might actually be upset or frightened by some of the images, particularly of the evil toys. Probably be best to skip letting tweens or younger watch this unless they’re already somewhat demonic or immune to the scares of a typical horror film.