Following up his 2016 debut film Clowntown, director Tom Nagel returns with his second feature film, The Toybox.
As Charles (Greg Violand) and his estranged family deal with the loss of a loved one, they set out to venture across the desert in their new, but dilapidated, RV. After picking up a few stranded motorists, including mechanic Sam (Mischa Barton), everyone begins to have strange experiences inside the camper. As it turns out, not only does the vehicle have a morbid history, but it has a bloodlust, as well.
While it’s undeniable that this film is fairly unique in subject matter, it just doesn’t work on the whole. The RV itself is not menacing enough to elicit fear or anxiety and much of the film is comical, although the comedy seems unintentional. In fact, The Toybox is curiously stripped of its sense of humor, creating an overall confusing tone.
One such example of The Toybox ignoring its comedic potential is how Jay (Brian Nagel), one of Charles’ sons, is dressed like a teenager from the late 2000s, complete with a sleeveless hoodie and backwards snapback hat. He even speaks like an apathetic high schooler who wants to stick it to his parents. The problem is that, although he’s talking and behaving like a crabby teenager being dragged on a family vacation he doesn’t care about, Nagel is clearly in his mid-thirties and is not playing a teenager or college student. He’s just an adult man with an outdated fashion sense and an immature attitude, which seems like a character better found in a Scary Movie sequel. With the addition of a small wink and nod to the audience to show an awareness of how ridiculous Jay looks and sounds, this casting choice would have made more sense and could have played into a tongue-in-cheek feel. Sadly, there is no sarcasm to be found here.
Relatedly, much of the writing and would-be touching moments come off as silly. An example of this is when brothers Jay and Steve (Jeff Denton) are having an argument about Jay’s poor demeanor, during which they deliver parts of a tragic backstory regarding the loss of their mother. Typically, this moment would be touching and give depth to the characters. However, as the scene plays out in The Toybox, it induces an eye-roll and a chuckle. This is partially because of lackluster dialogue and flat acting, but also due to the fact that it’s a cheap way to try to force the audience to care about the characters. This combination makes the scene feel absurd simply because it is, indeed, so forced and trite. A more thoroughly developed story and characters would have gone a long way in giving these types of scenes some weight. As they are, they are laughable, at best.
A messy editing style also contributed to the jumbled feel of the film. While it’s worth noting that a few of the shots are both thoughtful and beautiful, some of the scenes are ruined by unnecessary time-ramping and strange cuts. One noticeable example of this is in the first few minutes of the movie, when a child is riding his bike down the street. The scene switches back and forth between hyper speed and normal timing, which adds nothing but distraction for the viewer.
Later, in an attempt to show time progressing, we see Sam flipping around in her tent, unable to sleep. Upon first watch, the way the match cuts are strewn together makes it somewhat unclear what’s actually taking place. At first, it looks like the scene is cutting back and forth between Samantha and Jay, who is sleeping next to her, with no time passing at all. The effect of a long period of insomnia is lost. Instead, it’s a head-scratching, disorienting moment – just one of several results of rough editing to be found throughout The Toybox.
In fairness, The Toybox is not all bad. In fact, there is one particular visual concerning a scalping which is so brutal one can’t help but wonder why the film didn’t veer in that direction in the first place. These few moments finally achieve the truly eerie tone the rest of the movie half-heartedly tries to accomplish. Although this specific scene is wonderfully gory and chilling, it’s short-lived, and sadly does not make up for what a slog the rest of the film is.
The Toybox is a truly puzzling work to endure. It manages to be both hilarious and utterly joyless. The film would have been much better served as a horror comedy, one which basked in its ridiculous premise. Instead, The Toybox remains decidedly and disappointingly tame, despite its wild concept.