As one of the most prominent American producers and distributors of exploitation cinema of the 1960s & 70s, the name Harry Novak (1928 – 2014) should be familiar to anyone with an affinity for grindhouse and drive-in cinema from that period. Through his Box Office International Pictures company, Novak left no smutty stone unturned in his quest for celluloid profit, dipping his hands into horror, softcore sex, low-rent crime, rural roughies and just about every other genre that could be produced on a low budget and needed no excuse for a bit of boobs and blood.
While he wasn’t always directly involved in the films he handled, Novak’s fingerprints are all over some pretty fine pieces of psychotronic cinema. There’s the classic monster-theme nudie cutie Kiss Me Quick (1964), the go-go dancing psychedelic trip of Mantis in Lace (aka Lila, 1968), the rape-revenge seediness of The Black Alley Cats (1973) and the supernatural horror of The Child (1977), not to mention Vidal Raski’s truly deranged Danish flick The Sinful Dwarf (1973) and the surreal French vampire films by Jean Rollin which Novak picked-up for distribution within the US. And this is literally just the tip of Novak’s incredibly prolific iceberg.
My own introduction to Harry Novak came as a teenager, when home video was just starting to invade Australia’s living rooms, and local low-budget labels like Star Base, K&C and King of Video were scouring old film vaults looking for cheap product they could slap to a lurid campaign and ship out to help fill the shelves of all the little independent video rental stores that were starting to appear across the country with increasing regularity (this was years before the big hungry chains came through and sadly swept most of them away). Through these labels, and via endless all-night movie marathons fuelled by copious amounts of booze and bud to heighten the experience, I became familiar with such Harry Novak productions and pick-up as Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman! (1975), Kidnapped Co-Ed (1976), Hitch Hike to Hell (1977) and Axe (1977), along with the aforementioned Mantis in Lace and The Child. Seeing the Novak name, or that of Box Office International Pictures on a video cover automatically made it a must-rent. Movies like Hitch Hike to Hell might have sucked you in with its lurid box art and provocative tagline (“There is no such thing as a free ride!”), but it was the film itself that hit me on an altogether other level with its hypnotic low-rent seediness, an ambience that seem shared across many films under the Harry Novak banner, despite the varied writers and directors who were behind the actual movies.
While he was always on my radar in the ensuing years, it wasn’t until the early-2000s that I began getting re-acquainted with Harry Novak and digging deeper into his history and catalogue. I had started doing some writing for the famous Something Weird Video company in Seattle, composing reviews and synopses for their video sleeves and print catalogues. Writing for Something Weird was akin to entering a lucky dip at a fete run by smut peddlers, and it provided a wonderful opportunity to expand my exploitation film education. Once a month a box with five new tapes would arrive on my doorstep, and while they had a general idea of the type of genre I was mostly interested in, everything was up for grabs and until I opened the box I had no idea what I was going to be in for. Sometimes it would be a truly electric pandora’s box – a H. G. Lewis film combined with a sleazy black & white New York shot roughie, a compilation of gory World War II-era G. I. training shorts, a slice of 70s sexploitation softcore and a low-rent drive-in drama set around the Southern racial violence of the 60s was as likely a combination of any.
But there was one point where they were organizing and cataloguing all of their Harry Novak and Box Office International titles, which Something Weird founder Mike Vraney (RIP 1957 – 2014) had leased from Novak himself. Of the many Harry Novak films which winged their way to me during this period, two titles in particular have always stuck with me, and which Something Weird would eventually issue as a fitting DVD double-feature: Ron Garcia’s The Toy Box (1971) and Stanley H. Braslof’s Toys Are Not for Children (1972). I have always found an additional element of disturbing creepiness in exploitation films which played around with ideas and themes relating to childhood, even if only by association, and these two movies certainly delivered their own unique viewing experiences, one an erotic and surrealist fantasy and the other a bleak Freudian thriller.
The Toy Box is one of the most (deliberately) mind-bending films to emerge from the skin flick genre from that era, with its mix of classic Old Dark House horror elements and late-sixties psychedelia, a couple of wacky sci-fi angles that seem to just jump up out of nowhere, and the aesthetic of a creative (and drug-fuelled) underground student film. The movie is genuinely unsettling in a couple of spots (including one hallucinatory sequence that hints at necrophilia), and the sex scenes don’t drag on endlessly like they do in many softcore films from this period (although for a softcore film The Toy Box certainly pushes the limit into very hard R-rated territory). There’s also a reflection of the media’s post-Charles Manson paranoia at the so-called peace-loving counterculture’s capacity for vicious and violent, ritualistic crime.
The plot, coming on like an adults-only episode of The Twilight Zone, has young couple Ralph (Evan Steele aka Sean Kenney) and Donna (Ann Myers aka Ann Perry) heading to a swingers’ orgy at the mansion of a mysterious figure they call ‘Uncle’ (Jack King), who appears to be dead and rewards his visitors with items from his magic toy box whenever they share their erotic fantasies with him. Some of the women who arrive to pay their respects to Uncle include Russ Meyer fave Uschi Digart (who gets seduced by her own bedsheets) and Marsha Jordan (a buxom blonde with great hair and a full but curvy figure who was slightly older than most of her contemporaries, which often saw her cast in the role of the bored and frustrated housewife). The twist at the end comes when both Uncle and Donna reveals themselves to be of an alien race who are collecting people to take back to their planet, where humans are considered a valuable and addictive narcotic, and the most desirable strain of human drug are those with depraved minds, hence the organising of strange orgies to lure the best quality product into their trap. The film ends with the coming of early dawn, as strange sounds rumble through the mansion with all the participants of the orgy trapped inside, clawing at the window while their muffled cries for help go unnoticed by the outside world.
The toy box of the title may well be a metaphorical one, with Uncle’s gloomy mansion being the box and the human guests his playthings, but the footage of dolls and toy trains that accompany the opening titles link the film’s themes to the physical toys of our childhood (when the credits suddenly end with a shot of a baby’s milk bottle falling over into the path of the oncoming toy train, the film isn’t trying to jar us awake, but rather to jar us into its dream).
Writer/director Ron Garcia later went on to have a prolific career as a cinematographer, mostly in television and highlighted by his work as the photographer of the Twin Peaks pilot movie from 1990, as well as the 1992 cinematic offshoot Fire Walk With Me. Interestingly, The Toy Box is the sort of film you could easily imagine Twin Peaks creator David Lynch making, had he been cutting his cinematic teeth in the sexploitation genre at the time. Garcia also photographed several oddities for director Paul Hunt, including Wild, Free & Hungry (1969), the nudie spy comedy The Harem Bunch (1969), and another Harry Novak title in the spaghetti western-inspired Machismo: 40 Graves for 40 Gun (1971).
If The Toy Box was the sexploitation equivalent of a wild acid trip, then Toys Are Not for Children is its bummer, Quaalude-fuelled comedown. Filled to the brim with unpleasant and unsympathetic characters, and exuding a very bleak atmosphere, this movie should be required viewing for psychology students studying the Oedipus complex. Poor nineteen-year-old Jamie Godard (pretty Marcia Forbes in her only known film role) has been sexually repressed and permanently weirded-out by her domineering, bitter mother Edna (Fran Warren, a singer/actress whose previous onscreen performance was twenty years earlier in 1952’s Abbot and Costello Meet captain Kidd). She also pines for her absent father Phillip (Peter Lightstone), and spends her night lying in bed sensuously massaging her body with one of the soft fluffy dolls which daddy dearest has sent her. “He’s with his whores!”, Edna screams at in disgust at Jamie when she asks where her long-absent father is. The Brady Bunch household, this isn’t.
When mom becomes fed up and kicks Jamie out of the house, she seeks refuge and security by marrying Charlie (Harlan Cary Poe), her womanizing co-worker at the local toy store (collectors and nostalgia buffs will dig seeing all the vintage mint condition toys lining the shelves, which would probably be worth a small fortune by now!). Although Jamie behaves frigid and cold towards the increasingly frustrated Charlie, who becomes understandably concerned when his new wife brings a suitcase of her favourite toys along on their honeymoon, she eventually succumbs to the “charms” of Eddie (Luis Arroyo), who looks like a Puerto Rican version of Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart (1991) and is the pimp boyfriend of her older friend Pearl (Evelyn Kingsley). While having sex with Eddie, Jamie moans “Oh daddy, oh daddy”. The fact the she is mixed-up and unbalanced doesn’t stop Eddie from immediately putting Jamie to work on the streets (truth be told, they are probably two of the qualities that that draw cinema pimps to their prospective new recruits).
While Charlie searches for his MIA wife (Edna tells him that “She’s in a whorehouse where she can do all the unnatural things she wants”), Jamie is out playing games of “Daddy’s Little Girl” with dirty old men. During these sexual encounters, she has flashbacks to her father lovingly tucking her into bed when she was a little girl (Jamie is played by young Tiberia Mitri in these sequences). Jealous at all the attention (and money) which Jamie to taking away from her now that she is the new queen of Eddie’s stable, Pearl arranges for a surprise “John” to visit her, who turns out to be….yep, you guessed it. When Jamie’s horrified father realizes he has just done the dirty deed with his darling daughter, the ensuing confrontation inside dad’s high-rise apartment quickly escalates into a tragic case of patricide. The haunting final shot of the film shows Jamie, a blank and emotionless stare on her face, sitting naked beside the shattered window which she has just pushed her father to his death from.
As photographed by Rolph Laubie, Toys Are Not for Children exudes the look (and occasionally, the feel) of a typical 16mm social guidance/classroom education short from that period, particularly in its use of colours and static camera set-ups. The bizarre opening credits sequence (with battery operated toys zooming around as one T. L. Davis croons “Lonely Am I”) comes across like an acid-drenched promo for Sesame Street (the title is even spelled out with children’s blocks). “Lonely Am I” was actually released as a 45 single by the obscure Heart & Soul Records, the label identifying it as the “Theme from the Motion Picture Toys Are Not for Children” and stating that it comes from the LP of the same name, though it is unknown if the album was ever actually released.
Another interesting aspect of Toys Are Not for Children is the way in which editor Jerry Siegal expertly cuts in multiple flashback sequences which succeed in filling us in on Jamie’s childhood, as well as conveying her off-kilter state of mind, while Jacques Urbont’s electronic score helps to underline her rapid descent into dementia. Toys Are Not for Children was one of only two films to be directed by Stanley H. Braslof, the other being the black & white sexploitation roughie Two Girls for a Madman (1968), which Something Weird also released.
To round-up my look at this toy-centric double from Harry Novak, I should briefly touch upon the aforementioned The Sinful Dwarf. The story of a demented dwarf (chillingly played by kiddie TV show host Torben Billie) and his mad alcoholic mum (Clara Kelle) who kidnap and drug young women and hold them for white slavery and prostitution in their decrepit boarding house, The Sinful Dwarf also plays around with a disturbing toy motif at times. Torben Billie’s character, a leering sicko named Olaf, uses a white fluffy battery-operated puppy poodle toy to lure a hopscotch-playing young girl back to his boarding house during the film’s opening moments, before knocking her unconscious with his cane as soon as he gets her behind doors (the fact that the young girl is played by an actress clearly a good decade older than her character only adds to the movie’s unique off-kilt ambience).
More battery-operated toys – including a bear, a penguin, a monkey playing maracas and a clown playing drums – feature in the opening titles of the film, jumping about against a black background as Ole Ørsted’s experimental theme music effectively sets up a tone of jangled nerves and psychosis. Toys can be spotted elsewhere throughout the movie, either as background props to provide juxtaposition with a depressing or menacing environment, or as wicked playthings for Olaf (who amuses himself by making his mechanical sailor and monkey toys simulate the sex act). There’s also a local toyshop called Santa’s Helper is a front for heroin distribution, and when Olaf commits suicide rather than face arrest by throwing himself out of a window at the film’s conclusion, his toy poodle scampers and yelps its way across the dirty concrete alleyway to his dying body, falling over into a blood-soaked palm as the Sinister Dwarf breathes his last. But it’s the score, Avant Garde sounds put through a kindergarten filter and combined with spooky wood instrumentation and outbursts of wild acid rock, along with the film’s general griminess and production values of an 8mm porn film loop, which help make The Sinful Dwarf such a uniquely creepy and borderline repellent viewing experience, though a huge part of its power is also due to Torben Billie’s unnerving performance as the leering, repulsive title character.
Whenever Harry Novak decided to dig around in his cinematic toy box, the result was always disturbing, never for kids, and had the special knack for skewering our own memories of toys and the pangs of sweet nostalgia which they usually illicit.
While the individual Something Weird Video VHS titles and DVD double of The Toy Box and Toys Are Not for Children are all now out of print, copies of the later show-up on eBay, though usually at collector’s prices (a quick search during the writing of this article found three copies available between US $35 – $50). The DVD release is well worth picking up, especially if you see it going cheap. Apart from featuring digitally mastered prints of the two films, it also features a wealth of extras including the original trailers, some vintage toy-themed classroom education and nudie shorts, a gallery of Harry Novak exploitation art and much more. The Sinful Dwarf was released on VHS by Something Weird Video but skipped-over by the company and their partner, Image Entertainment, when issuing a bunch of their Novak titles on DVD in the early-2000s (supposedly the folks at Image thought the film went just a bit too far). Fortunately, Severin corrected that by releasing The Sinful Dwarf on DVD in 2009, before upgrading that to a stunning 2016 Blu-ray that includes both the soft and hardcore versions of the film (Severin even produced a limited 11” plush doll of Torben Billie’s Olaf character as a tie-in to the release!).