The Toybox, 2018.
Directed by Tom Nagel.
Starring Denise Richards, Mischa Barton, Jeff Denton, Brian Nagel, Greg Violand, Matt Mercer, and Malika Michelle.
An estranged family embark on a cross-country trip in an old, recently purchased RV. The father hopes this will bring him and his two sons closer together following their death of their mother. However, the RV has a bloodthirsty hunger, and starts dealing out its own grisly punishments.
Now, this is very clearly a B-movie horror. The vaguely sinister title, the relatively unknown cast (with the exception of Denise Richards), the grimy, rusty poster art accompanied with a fabulous tagline, ‘Vacations can be deadly’. So going in, you expect a fair amount of cheesy acting, stupidly glorious kills and a relatively simple plot. The basis of this, admittedly, grim story is pretty standard – the vehicle was previously owned by a particularly unpleasant fellow, and yes, you guessed it, it’s haunted. Nagel takes care to remind us that there’s a reason for the random drawers to open and food in the fridge to decompose with flash sights of a girl in blood soaked garments walking towards members of the family, and occassional glimpses of the killer himself. But with frequency comes familiarity, and the film loses its mysterious steam very early on.
Less is more is the old adage, one that strongly applies to The Toybox. The opening ten minutes make this flaw crystal clear – the initial credits are run over a gruesome montage of a crime scene, photos covered in blood, dirty body hair being pulled out of a drain pipe. It’s abrupt, graphic and feels quite out of place considering the very quick progression to a dimly lit suburban sequence. Nagel could have easily extended the latter scenes for the credits, but instead stuffed in something with blood in an effort to establish, “Hey, you need a tough stomach for this” when really, you don’t.
We then watch as a young boy cycles alone next to an abandoned RV, as its door happens to swing open. What happens next has a lot of problems; the boy pulls up next to a wall, and instead of sitting his bike beside it, pushes it away completely? Why? Who knows. Then, he proceeds to get in the pitch black vehicle, and mooches around. Why? Who knows. Naturally, this doesn’t end very well.
Then we cut to another suburban area. As seems to be the case as the film progresses, Nagel’s passion for a good ol’ slice of trashy horror is never in doubt. While he is fairly competent in the heftier, eventful scenes, he really struggles to fill the gaps. This too isn’t aided by Jeff Denton’s screenplay, which is packed with unnatural writing and dialogue which hasn’t been finessed enough, but its neither cheesy enough to become memorable for the wrong reasons (apart from one absolutely hilarious Room-esque post-death reaction), or realistic enough to add a gritty edge. That being said, a great actor can elevate poor writing, but the cast here, while game, aren’t able to play.
There is no amount of times that Richards can say “honey” or “sweetie” to her onscreen daughter to actually convince us she’s her mother. She plays the role with a constant, commercial-like expression, overreaching in her responses and pitching her voice in a way that feels more like someone is pushing a button rather than an organic reply. There are constant halted interactions which kind of feels like someone is constantly stalling the progression of any conversation – a sign of both poor editing and writing. The one cast member that copes well with the material she’s afforded is Mischa Barton who plays Samantha, an outsider who is eventually placed in frequently horrible situations. Managing to channel an inner sense of peril and actually making the audience believe she’s scared, she’s a league above the rest of the ensemble.
The music is a shambles in all honesty. Straight off the bat it’s overbearing and psychologically fazing, leaving you with that sort of dizzy feeling that comes from hearing a loud screech. Even when the composer, Holly Amber Church, is trying to implement lower-key, more emotionally resonant notes, she dictates the mood rather than complementing it, removing that sacred extra layer of surprise from some of more shocking moments that would have given this work an extra boost. As for the sound design, it’s adequate when it comes to slicing, chopping and rattling all within the confines of an RV, but in terms of audio effects to accompany the haunting visions, there’s an inclination to use that really cheap noise that sounds like someone scratching velcro.
The pre-death suspense is where the movie shines. While the music may signpost early on what’s coming, the quick feverish cuts and classic tropes, such as a knife slowly edging towards an edge, really do get the heart pumping. In these moments the filmmaking starts to work as one organism, fluid and crowd-pleasing, but these moments never last that long – but at least the forecasting of injury never lessens the fear factor. There’s still puzzling choices – there’s a sequence where the RV takes control of itself and ends up crashing, then we’re shown a hazy montage of what we’ve literally just watched, taking up another sweet ten seconds of screen time. There’s also some brilliantly moronic decision making from the characters (seriously you should never stand in front of or behind an RV while they’re trying to get it started). But within the dark realms of the badness, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. The climatic scenes are thrillingly and dare I say it, viscerally conducted, packing an impressive punch considering the low-value nonsense that came before.
The Toybox is not a revolutionary horror film. Not that that was ever the expectancy – it’s a predictably daft, reasonably gory ghost ride. It needed to be messier, more creative, and take a few more punches at itself. But alongside a few friends with a couple of drinks, you’ll kick back and relish in a bargain bin treat that is enjoyably mindless.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm