Play Time is over…the best of killer toys!
We used to do horrible things to our toys. Maybe kids still do, though I suspect they do nothing more than play video games all day because I am an old man and I do nothing more than yell at clouds and complain about how much better it was in the good old days. Well, on this I am correct. We had AWESOME toys back in the day! We had chemistry sets that contained chemical that could KILL you if you ate them. We survived. Well, most of us. It’s called natural selection gang, look it up.
Anyway, your average kid would do things to his GI Joe collection that would have shocked Torquemada into impotence. At the very least, your 12 inch GI Joe with real hair and kung fu grip would be flung as high as possible into the air so that when he landed in a sickening crunch of bone, flesh and mostly plastic, one could observe the results with the studied interest of a CSI pathologist. As a result, you don’t see me falling out of any tall trees, now do you?
My point is, toys are scary. Doubt me? Take a look at this utterly terrifying commercial. Keep in mind that this was supposed to get you to BUY it.
You can tell me that this won’t keep you up all night but I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my EYES screaming. I don’t know what’s worse–the Hillary Clinton cackle, that face…that horrible, horrible face…of the desperate “I’m being held hostage” laugh of the narrator. While it’s unlikely that any mere movie could ever match that commercial, let’s look at a few movies that explored the inherent terrors of childhood’s little playthings.
10: DOLLS (1987)
Look, we might as well admit it…”Killer Toys” is pretty much “Killer dolls”. Nobody has made a movie where a Hungry Hungry Hippos game goes nuts. Though that would be great.
Fresh off the one-two punch of REANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, director Stuart Gordon took a decided shift toward something more akin to a grim fairy tale with this nicely realized fantasy/horror. A sweet child dominated by an indifferent father and cruel step-mother finds salvation in a haunted house presided over by a pair of kindly toy makers. By which I mean they are witches who punish bad people by turning them into dolls.
Probably a bit of a letdown for those expecting more of Gordon’s over the top Lovecraft horrors, I have a lot of affection for this, a film that shows you can do a lot with a low budget if you take the time to make some likable characters to root for and unlikable characters to watch get their just desserts.
9: TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)
Back in the 70s, TV movies were quite the rage. Higher production values than regular series offerings but a good bit less than Hollywood fare, they had to obey the strict restriction of network family friendliness, with little opportunity for blood or sex. But they made up for it with IMAGINATION! They made for it with CREATIVITY! They… Nah, most of them blew. But occasionally a solid nugget would emerge, which brings us to TRILOGY OF TERROR.
Here is a film that gives you the best and worst of the TV horror movie genre. An anthology of 3 short films (which explains the “trilogy” part) the first two are dull as dish water (so much for “of terror”). Karen Black stars in all 3 stories and is quite good but if you can’t figure out the shock ending of an “evil twin” story you just aren’t paying attention. But the third story…
Adapting his own story “Prey” ,Richard Matheson crafts “Amelia” as a taunt one-woman show with an unforgettable climax. Black plays the titular character, a meek woman oppressed by her mom, who must battle for her life when a Zuni Fetish doll comes to life and runs around the room with a big knife and sharp teeth. It sounds silly as all hell and ought to be but damn! Those teeth ain’t silly. I don’t want to give away the ending but there were a lot of folks sleeping with the lights on that night in 1975. A sequel followed 2 decades later; ignore it.
8: MAGIC (1978) (as well as DEAD OF NIGHT/DEAD SILENCE/DEVIL DOLL/THE GREAT GABB, etc, etc)
Let’s put all the ventriloquist movies into one big pile of horror. The story is always a variation of the theme of the dummy taking over the soul of the ventriloquist and, more often than not, making him do bad things. They all play off the scientifically well established fact that ventriloquists are, with virtually no exceptions, clinically insane.
If any of our gentle readers are themselves ventriloquists, I apologize but, let’s face it, you know more than anyone how right I am. Whether or not insane people become ventriloquists or becoming a ventriloquist makes one insane…well, does it really matter which came first when you are being beaten to death with a tire iron by a man in a tuxedo while a Knucklehead Mahoney doll sits in the corner urging him on?
So anyhow, an incredibly young looking Anthony Hopkins plays a failed magician who achieves success by combining magic with an incredibly unfunny and creepy potty mouthed doll. I don’t know why audiences would find “Fats” the dummy appealing but that’s what happens. Jeff Dunham isn’t exactly highbrow entertainment but he’s Nichols and May compared to the stuff this movie gives us. On the verge of stardom, Hopkins and his little pal run off to the boondocks, where he tries to have a normal life with Ann Margret. I grew up in the boondocks and there weren’t too many Ann Margrets around but there weren’t too many insane ventriloquists either so it evened out.
Some nice work by Burgess Meredeth, always a welcome presence. Good thing, because he pops up a LOT in movies of this time. The film is good enough at what it does but one expects more from the director of GANDHI and the writer of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
7: MAY (2002)
One of the nicest surprises I’ve ever had at a film festival was taking a chance on a completely unknown (to me) film by the name of MAY, based solely on the poster, on account of my frequently disproven theory that a good poster means that SOMEbody thought the movie was worth something. In this case it paid off. The film tells the story of a troubled, deeply introverted young woman who’s only friend is a doll named Amy. “If you can’t find a friend, make one.” her mom always said and you KNOW that’s gonna end up making the Goddess of irony smile.
The film is a slow burn, slowly working its way toward the inevitable climax (though the last shot holds a sweet surprise), buoyed by excellent performances by Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris. It manages the neat trick of making us root for the lead character to make it even as we remain aware that the horror elements that brought us to the theater require that she doesn’t. Definitely worth your while and to reveal too much would be wrong.
6: ASYLUM (1972) (a.k.a. House of Crazies)
Ah the good old days of horror anthologies. amicus may have been Hammer’s poor cousin but they knew how to do anthologies.. With a creative team that included Robert Bloch and Roy Ward Baker, this is one of 7 such films that Amicus released in its heyday.
With a framing device that involved a prospective employee at the titular nuthouse having to interview 4 different residents to ascertain the identity of the former director. i/n the last sequence, the great Herbert Lom claims to have created a bunch of homicidal wind up dolls with his own face that can kill. And indeed he has! And boy are they silly looking! And yet I can’t tell you how many people have mentioned that they were totally creeped out by these dopey little dolls.
5: THE PIT (1981)
For a lesson in why the 1980s were such a fun time to watch horror movies, look no further than this cheap but creepy little number, produced by Canadian but filmed in Wisconsin (close enough).
Jamie is a 12 year old misfit, picked on by the older kids and getting hit hard by puberty. Not a big hit with the ladies, possibly due to the fact that he gives off definite “future headline involving an assault rifle and a handwritten list” vibes (a nice performance by Sammy Snyders). Or maybe it’s the fact that he still plays with his teddy bear. Oh, and it talks to him. Yeah, he’s not taking the head cheerleader to the prom.
Right there you have the makings of a perfectly functional little horror movie but this is 1981 and a simple tale of a horny psycho kid committing murders at the request of Teddy Ruxpin ain’t gonna cut it. No, it turns out that Jamie has just happened to find a Pit in the woods full of hairy troll with a taste for meat. Jamie keeps them fed with meat scraps but eventually needs more and it takes Teddy to make the obvious suggestion that keeps the trolls sated and reduces the number of tormentors that Jamie has to deal with.
I don’t know what exactly it is that makes low budget 80s horror work so much better than most of the counterparts today. There’s a just a raw hand crafted quality to these efforts that makes their flaws more forgivable than those of the slicker prettied up shlock that keeps the Sci Fi channel knee deep in Sharknados.
4: DEMONIC TOYS (1992)
The Charles Band movie from Full Moon Entertainment were some of the first to achieve the kind of direct to video franchize success that has become the norm for today. The quality varied greatly but in a starbnge way they were almost a template for the shared universe concept that drive sso many modern superhero films. Demonic Toys spawned 3 sequels, 2 of them featuring other Full Moon properties such as Dollman and Puppet Master.
Probably a good idea since the demonic toys themsleves aren’t strong enough to carry the idea much further than the first installment, though Baby Oopsy Daisy certainly made an impression. The Demonic Toys vs Dollman crossover should have been a winner, but they went cheap with copious amounts of flashbacks to save money.
3: The PUPPET MASTER series (1989) til the end of time
9 sequels. How many films get 9 sequels? RAIDERS OF thE LOSt ARK only got 3. JAWS only got 3. And we’re STILL waiting for the further adventures of TH ESISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. But PUPPET MASTER, 9 sequels. Yep.
The Puppet Master series benefited greatly from the participation of talented practical effects artists such as Jeff Farley and the late David Allen, artists who knew how to squeeze out effective material on a fraction of the budgets needed to fully realize the ambitions of the productions. And this is why the Full Moon productions managed to grab such a good chunk of the video rental market back when video rental stores were hungry for a weekly infusion of new titles; they tried.
There are Nazis, psychics, a whole mess of cool puppets and a continuity so contrived and confusing that, near as I can tell, you have to watch the films in the following order to get them chronologically correct: #7. #3, #9, #10, #1, #2, #4, #5, #6 and #8. Jeeze.
2: CHARLIE MCCARTHY DETECTIVE (1939)
Not a horror movie, you say? It’s the scariest goddamn thing you’ll ever see. Most evil ventriloquist movies have, as their central conceit, that the ventriloquist act is entertaining, despite the fact that not a single good joke or routine is ever shown. Kind of annoying but it’s nothing compared to Charlie McCarthy, Detective, where there IS no routine. No, we are expected to accept that everyone thinks that Charlie and Mortimer Snerd and all the rest of Edger Bergen’s wooden pals are real humans, albeit humans the size of dolls who have to be carried around by a guy who’s lips are always moving. And they’re made of wood.
It’s madness. It’s a world of insane crazy people that’s 12,000 times scarier than Planet of the Apes. At one point a doctor operates to remove a bullet from one of the dummies and I’m waiting for someone…anyone…maybe a nurse or the guy holding the breathing apparatus to suddenly wake up and scream “Holy shit, we’re operating on a doll! Old Uncle Edger is just a RAVING NUTCASE!” or a big reveal where it turns out that Bergen has kidnapped all of their children and has them chained in a basement with a remote detonator that he will press if anyone refuses to indulge his insane fantasies and treat his toys like they are actual flesh and blood characters, but that moment never comes. And hey, let’s give it up for Bergen. They should have made this man secretary of the armed forces because he must have had balls the size of a chinese gong. He made his fame as a radio ventriloquist. A radio ventriloquist!!!
Savor that for a moment. Let it rattle around in your head. A radio. Ventriloquist. Yeah, and I play the French Horn, but only in comic strips. He was simultaneously the worst and greatest ventriloquist who ever lived. Worst because his lips moved like a madman when “throwing his voice”, which is no big problem on the radio but SHOULD have kept him off of TV and film. And the greatest because it didn’t. At all. “F*** it” he said, “I’m gonna walk around with my wooden puppets, my lips flapping away like a weatherman in a hurricane, and you’re all gonna buy it. Every single minute of it.” And indeed we did. This was Edger Bergen’s world and the rest of us were just along for the ride.
1: CHILD’S PLAY (1988)
Hail to the king, baby.
Was there any doubt? A six film franchise and a quarter of a billion dollars in box office! Comic books! Video games! Shows at Universal Studios! Not to mention actual Chuckie dolls you can buy for kids that you have a serious grudge against.
For those few who are new to the planet, a serial killer/voodoo practitioner manages to transfer his soul into a “Good Guy” doll, a life sized doll for presumably friendless children. Andy, one such child, is the lucky recipient and ends up with the possessed doll. Naturally, nobody believes him when he starts seeing the doll move on it’s own and say wildly inappropriate things but they soon see the error of their ways when the homicidal little action figure dices them up. For all the good it does them. Listen to your kids, ladies and gentlemen! Sure, they are probably wrong about that monster in the closet but why take the chance?
It’s a ridiculous premise but the first few films play it straight before adding elements of self parody in the later installments (admittedly, this probably gave the franchise a lease on life–you can only do so much with a killer doll before the audience starts laughing so beating them to the punch was a good strategy.). Chuckie has assumed a solid place in the pantheon of modern horror icons, right up there with Freddie, Jason and Michael Myers, the only doll to do so. A real trail blazer.
Terrifyingly, he is based on a true story. I am not making this up.