The Toybox (2018)

SEPTEMBER 12, 2018


Roughly 95% of my unread emails are links to screener versions of various low-budget/indie horror movies; the sort of thing I'd watch all the time back when this site was updated daily. Since "quitting" I'm much more selective, because a lot of these movies are bad and caused me to quit in the first place (or were so anonymous and bland I'd have nothing to say about them), but I keep them lying around for the days I find myself with time to kill. One such example is The Toybox, which I got a few emails about and didn't think much of it, but opted to watch the trailer and saw that the protagonists seemingly lived not too far from me in the deep San Fernando Valley, if the establishing shots were any indication. I mean, I couldn't quite see my house, but I saw the roads I drive on every day, so I was kind of endeared to it and gave it a shot.

Plus, it was about a haunted RV, which could be disastrous but at least offered more options than the usual haunted car (or haunted racist truck, if you're Supernatural), which made their choice of filming location tickle me even more. See, at my previous place, two miles from where I am now (and even closer to the street seen in the film), there was this motel around the corner that always had an RV parked in front of it. For the two years I lived there, I don't think I ever saw that thing move, and while it was kind of an ugly looking thing it was helpful to give directions to people who might have trouble finding our street - "Just look for the RV parked on the street and turn there." Plus I was amused at the idea of it being outside of a motel, as if to taunt them, since an RV provides the same "temporary" accommodations with the added bonus of a CB radio. But the fact that it didn't move kind of unnerved me - what the hell was going on in there?

So when I saw the neighborhood in this haunted RV movie I had to wonder if someone from the creative team (the story is attributed to four men) lived around there and had the same thoughts, and came up with the idea of someone taking the vehicle from the area into the empty desert on a family road trip, only for it to go all Christine on them and pick them off one by one. I've said in the past that the reason you don't see a lot of Thanksgiving-themed horror movies is because that's more of a family holiday and no one wants to see little kids and a kindly grandmother being offed, and this movie just kind of proves my point - it's kind of a grim affair. The family is a man, his two adult sons (the mom recently died), and the wife and daughter of one of those sons. The other son is introduced as and continues to act like an asshole, and then they meet up with two randos (including top-billed Mischa Barton) whose truck broke down, so I'm thinking those three and probably the father die, leaving the other son and his family intact, right? Well, I won't spoil the specifics, but I was wrong.

Thus, it's a darker film than I was expecting, and there's more to it than just the body count. I also figured the source of the RV's haunting would be a standard "an evil guy died in it" kind of thing and they'd find his rotting corpse stuffed under the bunk beds or whatever, but it turns out the RV was where a serial killer would torture/kill his victims (dubbed his "Toybox" - hence the title) and now that he's dead he's just keeping up his MO. We don't see a lot of his murders, just photographs and flashbacks, but again it's grimmer than the likes of The Car or something along those lines, which was a bit of a surprise. I've often wondered why so many of these indie horror films feel rather toothless, given that they aren't required to make $100m, so it's nice to see one that takes advantage of the fact that it doesn't have to appeal to everyone.

It also makes good use of the RV setting. For a while we get smaller examples of its power - the evil force tries to shut a window on someone's hand (after baking them a bit by not letting them open the windows at all), and the engine revs up when being worked on, causing a pretty nasty cut. But then it starts killing them off, running them over when no one's actually driving, or rocking about and sending folks toppling around and getting banged up. Even when it breaks down, the characters never stray far from it (a mix of having no supplies and the force seemingly keeping them there), but the DP and camera team manage to keep it from feeling awkward and cramped, even when more exciting things are occurring (if you've never been in an RV, trust me - it's not exactly spacious). I can't help but think of Michael Bay's meeting on Phone Booth where he asked the producers how they could get him out of the booth; even when they had a good excuse to leave the RV in the distance, they stick around and keep using it, so kudos to them.

The film only really falters with some of the acting, and writing for the scenes after a loved one dies (spoilers ahead, skip paragraph if you're a spoilerphobe!). In a move that was probably dictated by child labor laws more than anything else, the little girl gets killed shockingly early, but the parents seem more annoyed by it than devastated. Later on, another member of the family dies and not only does the person who should be most upset barely even seem annoyed this time around, he also encourages a conversation revealing why his parents split up a decade or so earlier. Is that really important right now? One could chalk it up to shock or something, but the actors in question don't seem to be displaying any of that sort of emotion - it just comes off like people not giving a shit that they just lost their family. It's one thing for a slasher or whatever when people are kind of blase about their friends dying, but here it really kind of sticks out as sloppy. My man should be a blubbering mess by the halfway point but he's coming off like he's just angry that the RV broke down and he's gonna miss an important work meeting.

There's also a strange, largely abandoned subplot of people seeing things that already happened, as if to suggest time travel is in play. One in particular has Barton's character inside the RV, looking out the window and seeing a death that happened not too long ago, banging on the window and such to try to stop it from happening (again?), but there's no real explanation for this or the several occasions where they see themselves on the RV's (supposedly broken) television. Normally I'd assume it was just aimless padding, but the movie runs a little longer than average (95 minutes) so it doesn't seem particularly necessary. It's not a crippling thing, but kind of gives the impression they weren't quite sure how to end the film and were setting things up just in case they needed them.

But it mostly works, and at least feels different than most stuff out there - it doesn't seem to be chasing any particular trend, and as far as I can tell the actors are all actual actors, not social media "stars". And it's also refreshingly tech-free: even when they say that they can't get a signal (as required by Horror Movie Law), we're spared shots of their phones, so five or six years from now it won't inspire any giggles the way folks do whenever they see a flip phone. Nothing essential, but it held my interest, which is more than I can say for most of its brethren, and if it ends up on Netflix or Prime (it's actually opening theatrically in LA tomorrow, with a Blu-ray next week) and you're not in the mood for another James Wan wannabe or teen-driven thing, it should do you just fine. And probably make you feel like a more loving parent.

What say you?

P.S. This is the second movie called The Toybox that I've seen/reviewed for HMAD, and oddly enough, I saw the other one the same week Halloween (2007) came out. Well guess what I'm seeing tonight?


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