Toys are often the earliest conduits for our fantasies. Silent actors, they play out our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Toys enable us to project our intangible desires onto the substance of the material world. Yet, toys can also be unsettling. Their proximity to living creatures – whether human or animal – combined with their inert rigidity conjures up uncanny scenarios in which their stiff limbs become animated and their plastic bodies are imbued with life. Horror and exploitation cinema both make extensive use of this trope, imbuing dolls and figurines with life only so that they may terrorise their human owners. From The Twilight Zone’s “Living Doll” (1963) to Child’s Play (1988), genre film expresses anxieties about the uncanniness of toys by bringing them to life in increasingly unsettling ways.
Stanley H. Brasloff’s 1972 exploitation curio Toys Are Not for Children avoids this kind of supernatural or literalist rendering of the imaginative potency of toys. Instead, the film focuses on the often-disturbing manner in which toys can serve as repositories of their owner’s desires. Brasloff’s film pivots on ideas of projection and how inanimate toys can be transformed into fantasy objects, symbols of repressed urges and buried yearnings. Toys Are Not for Children centres on a young woman named Jamie Godard (Marcia Forbes). Although in her early twenties, on the cusp of adulthood, Jamie is not merely innocent and childlike, she is also possessed of a troubling fixation with the toys her absent father (Peter Lightstone) sends to her. The film opens with a now infamous scene in which the camera lingers on the naked body of a young woman who, lying in bed, clutches a stuffed toy to her breast and repeatedly moans “daddy” in masturbatory excess. This scene sets the tone for the entire film, not in its lurid voyeurism but rather through its subversion of audience expectations. After a few moments the door opens, the bedroom light is switched on and Jamie is chastised by her overbearing mother (Fran Warren). With the room bathed in light, we are immediately made aware of a disconcerting visual incongruity: Jamie’s room is that of a child, filled with bright primary colours and adorned with vibrant toys of all varieties. This juxtaposition of confused sexuality and childish iconography not only sets the visual tone for rest of the film, it also establishes the central narrative conceit and fully embodies Jamie’s confused, conflicted character.
Jamie, we learn, was abandoned by her father as a young girl, and the trauma of this event has caused her to remain in a stunted, childlike state. Although an adult, she carries a perpetual air of innocence and remains fascinated with toys and games. However, Toys Are Not for Children diverges from the exploitation cinema mould by its refusal to fetishise Jamie’s innocence. She is clearly framed as a troubled young woman who is repeatedly objectified by those around her. When she is initially chastised for her uncomfortable closeness to her toys, her mother reminds her that her father has deserted the family, only sending Jamie toys because he still thinks of her as an infant even though she is now a grown woman. Thinking of Jamie as a child enables her father to assuage his guilt by sending toys to the eternal infant he recalls in his memory. Her mother articulates this by informing Jamie that her father only sees her as a baby, a thing. And this reflects on how Jamie is viewed by the rest of the world. Securing a job in a toy shop, she appears like a strange living doll. Jamie, with her long hair and candy-coloured dresses, is perfectly at home amidst the primary colours and whimsical tones of the toy shop. There, she is courted by her co-worker Charlie (Harlan Cary Poe), who falls in love with her, projecting his fantasies onto this innocent doll-like creature. However, once the pair marry, Charlie becomes increasingly upset by Jamie’s disinterest in sex. He is unable to countenance this strange woman-child who spends her nights blissful acting out scenarios with her stuffed bears and dolls while ignoring her husband’s increasingly frustrated desires.
Charlie, like everyone else in her life, has conflated Jamie with the dolls to which she is so attached. Seeing her as a beautiful and innocent girl, he projected his fantasies of wedded bliss and sexual satisfaction onto a young woman who has no interest in these things. He doesn’t know her. She is merely a fantasy creature, and this becomes clear once they are married. He fails to buy her a birthday gift because he doesn’t actually know when her birthday is. To him, she is a beautiful object, not a person. In a subsequent scene, a bartender observes that Charlie is “married to a real doll”, and this throwaway comment encapsulates how everyone in her life views Jamie.
Afterwards, when Jamie is befriended by a middle-aged sex worker named Pearl (Evelyn Kingsley), she is subjected to a similar process of projection. Initially, Pearl constructs Jamie as a paragon of innocence, a surrogate daughter to be coddled and protected, while later she imagines Jamie as a sexual object to be seduced and enjoyed. Breaking with the voyeuristic conventions of seventies exploitation cinema, Brasloff never allows the audience to enjoy Jamie’s objectification. Instead, he renders it disturbing, uncomfortable, a violation. Rather than tracking the girl’s victimisation, Toys Are Not for Children follows Jamie’s attempt to reassert her own subjectivity and reclaim her own sexual agency.
Much to Pearl’s dismay, Jamie becomes increasingly eager to follow in her friend’s footsteps as a sex worker. Cutting off her long hair and trading her childish pastel dresses for sophisticated fashions, Jamie begins to work as a prostitute and enjoys it! For the first time Jamie is not victimised or objectified by others. As a prostitute, she does not have to remain the passive repository of others’ fantasies. Instead, she is empowered to create an imaginative space where she can act out her own desires and explore her sexuality. In one quasi-surreal sequence, she plays hide and seek with a blindfolded John (Jack Cobb) and happily delights in her own sexual fantasies.
Toys Are Not for Children is a strange film, and its climactic scenes (which I won’t spoil) are disturbing, sensational and tragic. However, it is also a unique entry in the canon of 1970s exploitation cinema. It depicts a female protagonist whose traumatic past has rendered her eternally childlike and innocent, but rather than sexualise this innocence, the film depicts how Jamie is objectified by those who fetishise her childlike nature. Nevertheless, Jamie’s journey is not that of a victimised sex object. Brasloff focuses instead on how the young woman learns to reclaim her own agency and discover her sexuality on her own terms.
When the film was released in the early 1970s, critics were decidedly puzzled, and it received overwhelmingly negative reviews. As Heather Drain notes on the audio commentary for this release, the film’s negative reception may have been linked to the fact that it was “more arthouse than grindhouse”. Contemporary critics simply didn’t know what to do with a film that conjured up such a lurid scenario – a young woman sexually obsessed with toys and frozen in a state of eternal childishness – without rendering it in a pornographic manner. Toys Are Not for Children seems to take every opportunity to reject any attempts the audience might make to treat the film as a sexual spectacle. The narrative is complex and non-linear. Throughout, there are repeated flashbacks to Jamie’s childhood and her painful abandonment by her father. Numerous scenes of the adult Jamie that have the potential to be sexualised are intentionally undercut by flashbacks to her troubled childhood, a perpetual reminder that Jamie’s adult disfunction stems from the sorrows of her youth. The editing in Toys Are Not for Children is truly spectacular. The film interweaves past and present so as to highlight the agonising manner in which antecedent trauma can inflict the contemporary moment.
This sense of pain and lingering childhood trauma is also reinforced by the film’s score. Jacques Urbont’s instrumental score echoes the film’s refusal to sexualise Jamie’s predicament. Although occasionally employing a sensual tone during moments of erotic tension, Urbont frequently undermines this eroticism by switching to more sombre, melancholic tones as an auditory reminder of the trauma that underpins Jamie’s adult sexuality. The film also features a haunting and deeply unsettling theme song, which in the opening credits is juxtaposed with images of mid-century children’s toys. Written by Cathy Lynn and performed by TL Davis, “Lonely I Am” reflects the film’s melancholic mood while also gesturing towards the more disturbing oedipal themes explored within the narrative.
Toys Are Not for Children makes excellent use of colour, which it employs in service to the narrative. Changes in palette signal changes in mood and pivotal turns in the story. The toy shop in which Jamie works is a rich kaleidoscope of primary colours that unite to form a childish wonderland, and Jamie’s pastel-coloured dresses and childlike mannerisms mark her out as a natural inhabitant of this fantasy realm. In contrast, when Jamie is at home in the house of her domineering mother, she is intentionally clothed in patterns that match the wallpaper behind her and suggest how her individuality is constrained within this repressive environment. Similar narrative deployments of colour can be seen in some of Jamie’s memories of her father, which are bathed in a gentle blue light, suggestive of loss and painful nostalgia. The filmmakers’ exquisite use of colour is bolstered by Arrow’s stunning 2K restoration of the original film elements. The restored film amplifies the already astounding colour palette and creates a richly textured visual experience.
Although attacked by critics for the perceived stiffness of its primary actors – with the notable exception of Luis Arroyo who was praised for his convincing portrayal of Pearl’s pimp Eddie – Toys Are Not for Children actually boasts some incredible performances. Marcia Forbes, who plays Jamie, is amazing. She exudes an innocent and sweet naivete that never feels performative or foolish. Likewise, Fran Warren and Evelyn Kingsley also give strong performances as women who are alternately maternal and dismissive, warm and cruel, kind and vindictive.
The Arrow release of Toys Are Not for Children is a spectacular production and a fitting tribute to this often-overlooked artefact of American exploitation cinema. In addition to the beautiful restoration work that presents this vibrant film as a visual cornucopia of dazzling colour, this release also comes with some excellent and truly worthwhile special features. Extras include a newly filmed appreciation by Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower and a new transfer of the theme song “Lonely Am I” taken from the original 45-RPM vinyl single. Additionally, there is a wonderful video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that tracks the relationship between female sexuality and toys from the silent era through contemporary films like Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). The essay is extensively researched and provides a thorough analysis of the complex and often disturbing relationship between femininity and toys. The Arrow release features an audio commentary by authors and film historians Heather Drain and Kat Ellinger (full disclosure: the latter is also editor-in-chief of Diabolique). This commentary provides some invaluable insights into a film that has been largely overlooked, even in accounts of exploitation and genre cinema. Not only is the commentary filled with useful contextual information on the film’s production history and the backgrounds of often elusive cast and crew, it is also superbly analytical. Eschewing trivia for a more thorough analysis of the film, the audio commentary is highly sophisticated in its unpacking of key scenes and its exploration of key themes and ideas. The first pressing of Toys Are Not for Children also includes a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Vanity Celis.
Toys Are Not for Children is available now from the Arrow website