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The Toybox (2005)
Director: Paolo Sedazzari
review by Paul Higson
If the only true crime a film can commit is to be boring then surely the solution is to keep it busy. This appears to be commonly understood. Therein lies the answer to a Brit horror aficionado's problems, the reason we are no longer receiving horrors in the classic mode of old, films that sit comfortably with us in retrospect as unconfused and a complete whole. The viewer meets the pace set by these films and we are always alert, and the new films, as a result, are unable to take us by surprise. Our skin is not given the time to crawl. We are not given the opportunity to ease into a thrill. We experience horror interruptus. We are poked and jabbed by images, words, colours, anything to keep our attention. The makers know how many films are out there and they are desperate to convince us to stay and wonder at their work. Do they ever ask our views? Are they aware that with rare exception (this review, for example) that with everyone badgering and badgered that when something half-decent or excellent comes along, before the word can be spread we are pulled into the next vortex of sound and light? Back to the duration of the viewing itself, in the rave scene the music only appealed when the drugs designed to accompany it were consumed. Many of the films are delivered in an amphetamine rush and the viewer either struggles to keep up or is left behind. Film as a leisure time occupation! Football isn't all goals.
The chief problem in Paolo Sedazzari's The Toybox, on one level, lies in the director's lack of control. This is a good film and there is terrific promise, it's a first feature, so there is no reason not to assume a great future. It's showy on a tight budget, a minor success. Its future could lie in a viewer's memory of the film and its re-examination, but first it must survive the dogfight for a format release that will bring it to the fore. The threat is that The Toybox will become just another noise in a din.
It couldn't be any more English a horror at least, set entirely in the small radius of a Norfolk village, chiefly in a farmhouse. The abode is an unnecessary prescription for reclusion for a young family with the result of a stereotypically disturbed household of father in slippers, mother in slip and children in brain slings. Berenice, the daughter (Claudine Spiteri), is convinced she is the reincarnation of the witch Celeste Noir and the children play a game called "Freddy's Gone Missing" in the kitchen, perilous for Freddy, the hamster, a minor mammal never to clued up on kitchen appliances. In four minutes this viewer is grabbed and is rubbing his hands in glee. Only a week before I was appalled by Michael J. Murphy's payback on a fur-ball mutt in his 1985 Bloodstream; do it to humans, so what, who gives a damn, do it to animals, brouhaha, upset. She recounts for her brother Brian (Elliott Jordan) the grisly local legend of Jake the Midfolker, a man who "carved his own path" between the North Folk and the South Folk. Older, Brian has been suffering during the term time that his older sister has been away at college. Now though, she is returning for the Christmas meltdown, with a boyfriend, Conrad (Craig Henderson) in tow.
Awaiting them is the rest of the family. Grandmother, Eleanora (Heather Chasen), dons her recently deceased husband's clothes to keep him close and alive, unaware of the onanistic sessions he indulged in from his favourite armchair, seemingly timed for the entrance of the granddaughter. Father, Rod (Christopher Terry) is a dull, displaced suburbanite driving his sex-deprived wife, Madeleine (Suzanne Bertish) to the bottle and, over the holiday, under her daughter's boyfriend's bedclothes. Dramatically marching the fields and country roads towards them is the foreboding, stern figure of a man (Alexander Abadzis) with a shadowy hound with red eyes, Jake the Midfolker and Black Shuck (shuck being old English for a ghost) seemingly in a return, and a bloodbath in the offing. Brian's friend Gavin (Christian Westcott) nips over to quit their band and the corpse stack starts to build with Gavin as the foundation brick.
If you haven't already worked it out, the family surname is Usher. There is more than an element of playfulness. That toying reaches out to the genre, but also to primetime British culture and turns in on the plot itself. Sadly, this japery is disfiguring to any threat recurrently engendered. Jokiness precludes what could have been more delicious shocks. By Jove, though, is our interest kept. Unfortunately, the pluses are many but the few faults hang around, brew, build and cull the overall effectiveness of the film as a horror.
With Se7en, Fincher gradually took the contrast down darkening his film and the story in tandem. Sedazzari takes his cue from this with a different tack. He is the latest bad algebra director to mistakenly assume that jittery camerawork can infect viewers with the jitters, to wrongly accept a casual correspondence between the two. As the violence escalates so does the camera movement, but the only effect on the viewer is a wonky eye. The bigger the screen the worse this will be, perhaps they have already decided against a theatrical presentation. A pity that no one was reining the director in as the technical support is splendid. The stationary landscapes of the second unit (in charge, Peter J. Clapperton) and the smooth Steadicam stints of Mike Hawkins impress, and the entire film should have been shot that way, particularly as there was always plenty enough going on anyway. The slightly fish-eyed, blue balance camera chase sequences down country guinnels and, opportunistically, amidst the winter scenery is marvellous. It feels wrong to return to the wrong when the film gives so much but it has to be pinpointed in the hope that there is no repeat of it when the team reconvene for their follow-up feature. So let's list the rest.
The older women are killed off-camera and their bodies never shown. It nags and you ask questions of yourself instead of concentrating on the film. Did the actresses see cadaver work as beneath them? It lacks finality, closure. The performances vary too, most of the acting is absolutely fine, but Christopher Terry is a touch am-dram while Suzanne Bertish is simply too good, reducing the other performances to something of a lesser pallor. Bertish is exciting, her face a dance. She is sparkling and naughty, and steals the show. Her film appearances are all too rare. One day, people may be reaching back to The Toybox if only for this rare glimpse of her talent. Peter Ellis, formerly the Chief Inspector in The Bill is another recognisable face added to the broth, here playing the Vicar, a role to which he is immensely suited. Henderson is familiar too, I'm certain a customary Google will turn up other notable appearances.
The lore engaged in the script shows a genuine love of the receding British history of the lost gods of England. The music is good throughout, mostly the work of Iain Chambers and Miguel D'Oliveira, but something older has been snuck in to the soundtrack. The opening title theme is heavily reminiscent of Coil.
It feels like Saxon Logan's Sleepwalker, only without the politics and at twice the length. It falls into the subgenre of "British horror idyllica" an outpost for strange little films like The Appointment, The Gathering, Expose, Vampyres and Orchard End Murders, capitalising on the beauty of the British countryside. It is an unreservedly English horror show, bless, and the locations in Melton and Saxthorpe in Norfolk are well chosen. It is an intelligent film, but over the top, chronic in its strivings to overachieve. Relax, dear filmmakers, take it easy, unwind, uncoil and strike with cold bites next time. Less is more.
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