road trip

The Toybox

toybox

An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Downrange

downrange

A group of friends, acquaintances, and strangers carpool together on a road trip. While in the middle of nowhere they get a flat tire. The group soon realizes the tire was shot. There is someone hidden nearby, and he wants to take them out one by one. With no other people in the area, and no cell reception, the group is stranded. They will have to fight and do whatever it takes to survive.

This film has a simple and effective premise. It also feels very timely considering recent events happening in the United States. A lone shooter is well hidden from a vantage point, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This is something that has been in the news a lot lately; the idea that there could be a shooter anywhere at any time is a fear many people experience these days. The realism of the premise makes the plot all the more intense to watch. However, there is one thing that takes away from the realism of this film: the gun. This is an issue in many films, but there is a lot of inconsistency when it comes to the gun used and how many bullets it can shoot. The gun is described as an antique, and when shown up close it appears that only a single round can be loaded at a time. Yet, there are scenes where multiple shots are fired without the man reloading his gun. This is a common flaw in film, especially action films. It is a detail many viewers will likely be able to ignore, but it took me out of the otherwise realistic plot.

What makes this premise stand out from similar plots is that the group aren’t necessarily friends. There is a couple in the mix, but everyone else just met in order to do a group carpool. We don’t know where each person is going, and no one knows anyone else’s background. That anonymity makes the dynamics between the group very interesting. It also adds an extra layer of intensity because each character doesn’t know how the other will react, especially in a situation like this where anxiety is at an all time high. In films where a group of friends are attacked, one can assume the friends will do whatever they can to save each other; when it is strangers, you never know what will happen.

The performances in this film start out a bit rough, but each character seems to get their groove as the film continues. Kelly Connaire (For Art’s Sake) plays the timid Jodi. In the beginning Jodi seems like a weak side character, but as the film progresses Connaire makes Jodi stronger and more interesting. Stephanie Pearson (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Insidious: Chapter 2) plays the most industrious of the group, Keren. Pearson gives the strongest and most consistent performance of the group, and she often is the one keeping the plot exciting. The dynamic between these two characters is also interesting because they are two opposite personalities. Witnessing how they react with each new horrific situation makes for a compelling juxtaposition.

There are a few aspects of the film that don’t quite translate. One of those things is the humor. There are scenes where half the audience will laugh, and the other half will find those scenes to be quite serious. Without speaking to writer Joey O’Bryan (Fulltime Killer) and writer/director Ryûhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train), there is no way to know if parts of the film were meant to be humorous or not. Another aspect of the film that doesn’t translate, and could potentially relate to humor as well, is the practical effects. The gore is fun and brightly colored, which many horror gore fans will love. Unfortunately, there is one practical effects gimmick used twice in the film that doesn’t quite fit. First, it seems odd to use such a specific gimmick twice in a short amount of time. Second, the effect looks cool, but it doesn’t seem very anatomically realistic with how the injury happened. Luckily this happens earlier in the film, and likely has a hand in why the film gets better the further into the plot it goes.

Downrange is a thrill ride playing into audiences’ fears over current events. The film takes a while to to get into a rhythm, but once it does it is exciting, gory, and filled with a couple fun twists and turns. There are parts where the potential for humor is a bit muddled, and many people will likely not find the film humorous at all. This film will likely be viewed very differently depending on who watches the film, but that may also be one of its charms. This may not be Kitamura’s best work, but it is still highly entertaining.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10