Director: Stanley H Brassloff
Stars: Marcia Forbes, Evelyn Kingsley, Harlan Cary Poe
The first word we hear in Toys Are Not For Children is a husky, lustrously whispered “Daddy”. Jamie (Marcia Forbes) is lying naked on her bed with a large toy soldier. She’s in the throws of a sexual fantasy, and the plush soldier is being used – it seems – as a kind of sex toy in this scenario; a scene rudely – nay horrifyingly – interrupted by her intruding mother, Edna (Fran Warren).
A scenario so nightmarish it would be conjured again, near 40 years later, by Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, what makes this attention-grabbing opening salvo so daring is not so much the icky intermingling of sexual fantasies and parents (more of that to come!), but rather the positioning of a female masturbation scene at the start of an American film in 1972.
Toys Are Not For Children is commonly lumped in (when it’s remembered at all) with 70’s exploitation fare like Ted Post’s tale of warped arrested development The Baby (both are now available from Arrow Video). ‘Exploitation’ is a muddled, sometimes lazily applied catch-all for low budget independent films catering to a perceived hunger for sex, violence, action or taboo material. On the one hand Toys wholeheartedly earns inclusion in the latter-most category (it is hysterical and shocking), on the other it dares to provide more than just lascivious thrills. It gives credence to Jamie’s sexual desires, no matter how warped they may ultimately be.
It treats them and her seriously.
Of course, this stance ought not be of note in an ideal world of equalised cinema, but the 70’s especially did not adhere to that daydream. Exploitation and horror were rife with misogyny (and that increases ten-fold if you look internationally and fold in the troublesome giallo films of Italy). Porn was a booming business, but again you’d be hard pressed to find anything that placed a woman’s sexual satisfaction ahead of a man’s.
But here was a film laying its cards on the table plainly. Jamie is our protagonist and the film will be about her approach to sexual matters… and what a strange but oddly touching roller coaster that will turn out to be.
Jamie is a thoughtful and outspoken 20 year old. Newly wed to a colleague, she still plays with dolls and indeed finds these far more interesting and stimulating than her bratty new husband. Many of these toys are gifts from her estranged father, with whom she is fixated. Displaying enough Daddy Issues to put Brad Pitt in Ad Astra to shame, the film maintains its tension with threats of some kind of collision course between the two.
Things progress when Jamie meets and becomes eager to please Pearl (Evelyn Kingsley); a veteran prostitute who takes Jamie under her wing. Despite her seeming naivety, Jamie is keen to get into the sex industry, and carves our her own niche tailoring to those who want an outlet for incestuous fantasies. Importantly, Jamie has full agency in these encounters. She plays a dominant role in the scenes shown (or at least incisive), and the scenarios cater to her own sexual preferences also. Granted, her curiosities are unconventional, but there’s a strong case to be made for calling these encounters healthy for her. She’s perfectly happy with the life she has made for herself; something that infuriates her overbearing mother.
Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. Spoilers; Jamie winds up entertaining her father (Peter Lightstone), who misconstrues her affectionate “Daddy”s until it is too late. They fight and she pushes him through a window, presumably to his death. Jamie is stricken, and we leave her broken, folded up on the floor like one of her inanimate dolls.
It’s almost a shame that the scenario feels obliged to tilt toward a violent and destructive end in this way as, for a majority of the running time, Toys is one of the most bizarrely sex-positive films to have been made in the 1970s. Its director Stanley H Brassloff was clearly passionate about bringing his creation to the screen, championing the idea for years prior to production in an effort to drum up funding. It is the second and last film to bear his name, and for a grindhouse feature displays an auteur’s eye for colour and staging. The editing – which clashes past and present artfully – is particularly refined.
Its star, Marcia Forbes, is wonderful, also. Her Jamie displays an eerily faltering innocence throughout, suggesting the arrested development seen in Ted Post’s The Baby, yet with the drive and resolve to forge her own way in the world. If it weren’t for the grimly fascinating ickiness, you’d even call it empowering. What it is certainly is tragic.
The film has been the subject of some loving attention again of late. Arrow Video’s bluray comes with an entertaining and thoughtful commentary from Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain of the podcast Hell’s Belles, while Anton Bitel has also provided a neat summary of the oddball charms in evidence here for an article on Little White Lies. In the shadow of these pieces, I feel like I can do little more than echo (a number of the points above are championed)… But this is such a unique film. True one-offs feel rare and by extension precious. Toys Are Not For Children is a shocking piece of tawdry cinema (are those final flashbacks really fantasies? which answer is better!?), but it is well made and, from conception to execution, retains a level of integrity that is often missing from ‘this type of thing’. A crazy cry of empathy from and to the margins.