[Review] ‘Toys of Terror’ Favors Retro Yuletide Fun Over Scares

With Boys in the Trees, director Nicholas Verso spun a coming-of-age tale steeped in dark fantasy and Halloween. The festival favorite captured the ‘90s, but more importantly, it showcased Verso’s sentimentality. That continues with Toys of Terror, a feature written by Stan Against Evil and The Simpsons’ Dana Gould. Gould’s sense of horror-laced humor combined with Verso’s distinct feel for nostalgia-induced sweetness makes for a surprising yet imperfect entry in yuletide horror.

Hannah (Kyana Teresa) and David (Dayo Ade) have promised their kids a fun Christmas holiday at a reclusive mansion set in the snowy mountains. Teen Alicia (Verity Marks) is less than enthused, having traded a trip to the tropics with her mother for a dilapidated place with her dad and stepfamily. Worse, she’s stuck with step siblings Franklin (Saul Elias) and Zoe (Zoe Fish), no cell reception, and the realization that the trip is a renovation job masquerading as family bonding. When Franklin and Zoe discover a mysterious trunk full of old toys, things go from bad to worse.

From the outset, Toys of Terror will likely elicit groans. The dialogue tends to be stilted at best, and exposition or character details are delivered in the most clunky manner. The acting only exacerbates this. Yet, it works to set up the film’s biggest surprise- the toys. A familiar setup, which borrows from many different horror movies across multiple subgenres, gets transformed thanks to Verso’s particular nostalgia brand.

The moment Franklin and Zoe unbox the chest of toys, they bear the familiar symptoms of possession and haunted objects. Unlike most horror movies to feature evil playthings, these toys look like things actual children would want to play with. As in, they’re not dingy, creepy things, but familiar retro toys of all variety. The assortment allows for creativity and range in scare methods, from NES style video games that mirror reality to action figures that spring to life.

Above all, these toys act like objects that entice children; Verso goes all-in on stop-motion animation to bring these evil things to life. When the adults are away, the toys sing and dance their way into Zoe and Franklin’s hearts. It’s surprisingly charming. It’s Verso’s genuine, affectionate approach to the story that saves it from becoming standard direct-to-video horror. In the process, he winds up subverting a long-running cliché in the subgenre.

Toys of Terror invokes a Rankin/Bass Production vibe with stop-motion animation and voice acting in these killer toys. It’s delightful, though never scary. The mythology is paper-thin, and the story beats play out predictably. At least one of the kills will elicit eye-rolling laughs. The script and acting can be stilted, but it somehow winds up working with the wholesome tone. It’s a shame Verso didn’t have a stronger script or story to work with, but he elevates it nonetheless. If not for the cussing and bloody moments, it’d make for excellent gateway horror. Toys of Terror won’t be the breakout holiday horror hit, but it does offer some entertaining silliness and surprising heart.

Toys of Terror is available on digital as of October 27, 2020.

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