Exploitation drama favors character and theme over explicit shocks

It’s arguable that the greatest sorts of exploration films dial back their visually explicit shocks in favor of the power of suggestion. The most obvious example might be PSYCHO, with its skillfully edited shower scene making us think we see more than we do. But that’s not particularly fair, as PSYCHO was made by a major filmmaker and studio and released during a period where nudity, sex and extreme bloodshed were simply not on the mainstream menu. But later, the same Gein-centric source material was mined for THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, a 1973 release that was produced at a time when all manner of gushy thing was allowed and accepted on screen. And yet, CHAIN SAW, one of the most brutal and notorious pictures of its kind in the world, refused to show too much either, using sound and suggestion and style to to turn stomachs and smack its audience senseless. Other films, like 1971’s BLOOD AND LACE, 1973’s THE BABY et al also proved ample sleazy and upsetting while teetering between PG and R and using theme and tone to their advantage.

Which brings us to 1972’s harrowing and hideous and unforgettable trash sorta-classic TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, now widely available via a splendid, feature-packed Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, a restored 2K visual upgrade from the long out-of-print Something Weird Video DVD release, where it was paired with the icky and awesome THE TOY BOX. The film is as perverse and seedy as they come, telling the tale of the emotionally disturbed young woman Jamie (a fascinating one-shot turn from Marcia Forbes), who we first meet masturbating in bed to one of her many stuffed animals as she breathlessly chants “daddy, daddy”, a sweaty session interrupted by her braying mother, who chastises her and accuses her of being “just like her father”. Seems Jamie’s dad was a cad who tom-catted around and eventually bailed on the family, leaving the vulgar mother to smother her only child. Though MIA, Jamie’s pop has continued to send her toys, which she keeps littered around her room and whose presence have contributed to her bizarre, sexually stunted, childlike state of mind, where she yearns for daddy’s love while yearning for other more carnal pleasures.

While working in a toy store, Jamie meets the gentle Charlie (Harlan Cary Poe), who falls in love with her innocence and shared love of children’s playthings. The pair soon marry, but Jamie is unable to consummate their union, bringing her stuffed bears and soldiers into their bed and leaving poor Charlie with a crushing set of blue balls. After a chance meeting with a cheery prostitute and her lecherous pimp, Jamie soon finds herself gravitating towards the world of sex work, creating a persona that caters to perverted men who want to screw their daughters. All of this bubbling, lurid melodrama soon leads to a climax that is both inevitable, pleasurably revolting and unforgettable.

And yet, despite its sickening concepts and character arcs, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN rarely pushes the envelope of explicitness. There’s some nudity, but not much. An attempted rape. Endless bad behavior and a central story that is as greasy and tawdry and taboo as they come. But director Stanley H. Brasloff chooses to focus his grindhouse opus on character first. Jamie is a tragic figure, a little girl whose perverse parents have battered her beyond repair. He also ensures that Charlie is equally as complex, a young man who loves his wife and is at a loss on how to fix her and make her love him just as much. Even when the unthinkable happens in the grim finale, we feel for the players involved. This is as much a titillating piece of trash as it is a Tennessee Williams tragedy.

Arrow’s release offers an entertaining commentary by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, video essays by Steven Thrower discussing Brasloff’s work and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on trash cinema’s linking of female sexuality and toys. All the icing is lovely, but its the fluid-soaked cake that is the flick itself is the main attraction. TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN is a kind of masterpiece, I’m just not sure what kind. It’s intelligence and restraint anchor its twisted story in reality and it’s a tough one to shake. It would make an ideal double-bill feature with THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, a far more visceral but thematically similar damaged female-driven exploitation gem, also recently re-released by Arrow.