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The condemned: The Toybox (2018)

The plot: The most likely explanation for the plot of The Toybox is that someone wanted to make a horror movie about a place that was haunted, scrolled through every existing iteration of a haunted location on film (“Haunted... bed? Rats, it’s been done. Haunted... spa? Darn it!” and so on), finally landed on the realization that nobody had made a movie about a haunted camper van, smiled, wrote it down on a Post-It, and took the rest of the afternoon off. Unfortunately, that means they likely didn’t linger overlong on the question of why no one had ever made a movie about a haunted RV.

Confounding title aside (it’s vaguely justified by an offhand piece of weird dialogue), the film begins with a kid riding his bike home, only to stop and explore an empty RV parked on the street after its side door pops open as he passes by. He goes inside, and after a cursory exploration, is suddenly yanked backward; the door closes, headlights flare and flicker, and the whole thing rocks for 20 seconds. Then silence. The deadly recreational-vehicle fun has begun!

We then cut to the next morning, when a family begins loading up their possessions into the newly acquired RV in preparation for a road trip. The trip is implied to be an attempt by the elder patriarch, Charles (Greg Violand), to bring his kids closer together following the recent death of his wife. That includes son Steve (Jeff Denton), who brings his wife Jennifer (Denise Richards) and little daughter Olivia (Malika Michelle). There’s also Steve’s younger brother, Jay (Brian Nagel), smoking joints and sullenly grumbling about the whole thing. (There’s also a family dog, but he runs away halfway through the film and none of these people really seem to care.)

En route to their planned visit to a cave in the desert, they stop and pick up a pair of siblings, Samantha and Mark (Mischa Barton and Matt Mercer), stranded when their car broke down. But soon, the supernatural happenings begin: The auto wrests control away from Charles when he’s driving, sending them careening off the beaten path, slamming down into the desert dirt, and killing Mark in the process. The engine then refuses to start, and as they try to figure out a means of either fixing the vehicle and/or making the miles-long trek to get back to the main road, the malevolent motor home continues its killing spree, revealing the evil that possesses it in the process. The ending is only surprising if you’ve literally never seen a movie like this before.

Over-the-top box copy: None to speak of—just the tagline, “Vacations can be deadly.” That is very true, The Toybox, in the same way that just about any journey could potentially end in tragedy. Still, I like to think this particular tagline just got lost on its way to Weekend At Bernie’s.

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The descent: This is a movie about a haunted RV. If that isn’t prime Home Video Hell material, I don’t know what is. It’s the kind of film tailor-made to appeal to horror fans with a fondness for premises so dumb, they have to be seen to be believed. It’s the same boneheaded appeal that draws viewers to Death Spa, Jack Frost, or Brainscan. “That sounds idiotic—I have to see it” is, broadly speaking, the reasoning you can assign.

The theoretically heavenly talent: The above-the-title stars on this project are Denise Richards and Mischa Barton, neither of whom are a reason to watch a movie. Plus, The Toybox is how I learned former O.C. star Barton has entered a new phase of her career: appearing in lots of horror cheapies and straight-to-VOD genre potboilers, nearly 20 in the past couple of years. Still, you have to hand it to the creative team (this appears to be a cast and crew who have made a number of shorts together) for even landing these names—their sole feature film prior to this, Clowntown, had as its biggest name the director’s brother, whom Katy Perry superfans could hypothetically recognize as her boyfriend in the “Roar” video. (Don’t worry, he’s still here, playing Jay. Also, patriarch Charles is played by their uncle, a sweet testament to family being more important than casting the best actor.)

The execution: Not great, Bob! The Toybox is horror made by people who probably really love horror movies, but just don’t know how to actually make one effective; like a lot of low-budget attempts to craft serious horror, it has all the trappings of a scary movie without any of the actual scares. Ugly, greasy-haired serial killer? Check. Ghostly spirits popping up in lazy jump “scares”? Check. Faucets dispensing blood that later vanishes? Check. Polaroids that depict grisly scenes of torture meant to provide insight into the supernatural goings-on? Check. These are signposts meant to convey “you should be scared,” but nothing about the editing or staging manages to build the all-important tension that would actually generate goosebumps. It’s possible to make a good movie from basically anything, but inert filmmaking wedded to a laughable premise is a real one-two punch of crap from which you can’t recover.

The idea of a possessed camper van is awfully dumb, and the film is at least self-aware enough to realize this. “Don’t say it,” Charles admonishes when one of the sons is finally going to come out and announce what it painfully obvious by that point—namely, that their RV is haunted. And there are very few ways of making an RV menacing in a cinematic way, which is probably why the filmmakers almost immediately pivot to having the ghost of a serial killer (who formerly owned the vehicle) appear to murder our protagonists face-to-face, rather than using, say, a deadly air-conditioning vent, or something. This is clear from the first attempt to deliver a scare, by having... the window try to slam on little Olivia’s fingers. Spooooooooky!

Seriously, though, that editing is just weird. The cross-cutting between Denise Richards chopping carrots and the little girl’s baby teeth is more bizarre than unsettling. Besides, who chops carrots on the freeway just a few hours into a road trip? She chops so many carrots. One of my favorite things about this film is that roughly an hour after this scene (in the story, that is—it’s about 10 minutes of movie), after they’ve picked up Mischa Barton and her soon-to-be-dead brother, we see Richards’ character standing up again during the drive, and she’s chopping more carrots. How many carrot sticks can this family eat? I am surprised they are not murdered by the spirits of all those chopped and uneaten carrots.

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Similarly, there’s a scene where Barton’s Samantha goes into the RV bathroom shortly after they’ve been given a lift by the family, and while in there, the faucet starts pouring out blood, which pools in the sink. Sam then decides to reach into this pool, at which point she pulls out a long strand of hair. It’s all ominous and gross, and then, when she cries out and opens the bathroom door, she turns around and it’s all vanished. Pretty standard horror stuff, albeit fairly limp. But she then turns to her brother and says, “I’m getting a weird feeling.” Oh, you are? Was it possibly the fetid strand of human hair you just pulled from the pool of blood that vanished?

It’s those kinds of clunky and tone-deaf moments that at least provide some unintentional laughs amid the portentous balderdash. The film just can’t come up with scares that aren’t simultaneously really dumb. Here’s the first time Jennifer has a spectral run-in, and it’s in the form of the RV’s TV set playing footage of them getting into the vehicle earlier in the day—only with gh-gh-gh-ghosts behind her!

Almost all the scares are like that—uninspired and telegraphed painfully far in advance. At one point Charles reaches into the engine while they’re trying to fix it, and you’re just counting down the seconds until the possessed motor fires up and uses its possessed fan blade to chop his arm off. (Lamely, he just gets a nasty cut, not a severed limb.) Whenever the door to the fridge is opened, we see it’s filled with rotting food items, which nobody seems to connect with the haunting, leaving you with the uncomfortable impression that this family just leaves rotting food in their home refrigerator on a regular basis. “God damn this fucking RV!” someone exclaims at one point, which doesn’t have quite the same staying power as “I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!”

Still, the finest moment of comedy is so blatantly absurd that, were it not for the film’s obvious efforts to be serious as all get-out, I would be certain was an intentional instance of self-mockery. Richards’ character finally meets her fate an hour into the film (spoiler alert, if you care) when she’s left alone in the RV and the serial killer’s spirit appears and strangles her. Before she dies, however, there’s a protracted struggle that includes her banging on the window of the vehicle while her clueless husband and step-father stand outside, obliviously discussing their options. It’s like an old-school slapstick bit, as though a scene from The Naked Gun had suddenly been edited into this movie. But The Toybox plays it straight, bless its little heart:

Another excellently bad moment is when the killer RV sets its sights on Charles. The retiree has by this point watched several members of his family murdered and had it essentially confirmed that his new motor home is attempting to kill them all. So when he’s outside the vehicle, trying to figure out how to free his sons, and the motor suddenly roars to life, where do you think he decides to stand? Watch this clip and tell me it’s not begging for “Yakety Sax” to be played over the score, as the world’s slowest and silliest death chase ensues.

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You know things aren’t good when Denise Richards delivers one of the more believable performances in your film. I decided against including any clips here (it’s pretty standard bad-movie-eliciting-bad-performances stuff), but these are wheezing, student-film-level performances by struggling actors that actually serve to make the other elements of the film seem more professional by comparison. Mischa Barton’s performance, though? That we can have a laugh at. She holds her own for the better part of the movie, but she’s eventually undone by the stupidity of the material with which she’s saddled. Here she is at the end, when (again, spoilers) she’s the only one still alive, and fighting to try and escape the RV, which has now locked her inside. She eventually gets hungry, which leads to this:

It’s basically a scene from Evil Dead 2 without the self-awareness.

I do want to give credit to the filmmakers for one thing, however, and that is having the chutzpah to murder the little girl about halfway through the film. They literally have the RV magically turn on, slam into reverse, and run her over while she’s jumping rope behind the motor home. It would have been more unexpected had they not set it up so far in advance you could make reservations, but I wasn’t convinced they’d actually go through with it until she disappears under the bumper and you see the whump-whump of the cabin as it rolls over her. So kudos, The Toybox, for your commitment to child murder; you join the ranks of other Home Video Hell luminaries like Don’t Grow Up that proudly refuse to let good taste get in the way of offing young ’uns.

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Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Very little. This is a bad movie, anchored by bad performances, and even an idea as lunkheaded as, “You know how RVs are inherently not scary? Well, what if one was possessed” isn’t enough to save subpar material.

Damnable commentary track or other special feature: There’s a nine-minute behind-the-scenes doc included on the Blu-ray, which is an exposition-free assemblage of moments from the production. Everyone seems to be having fun, which is probably the best you can hope for. It also includes a commentary track by director Tom Nagel, writer-star Denton, costar-producer-director’s brother Brian Nagel, and producer-man responsible for coming up the “haunted RV” idea, Jeff Miller. The tone is amiable and low-key, with stories you would tell someone at a dinner party who asked you what it was like making this movie—i.e., mild anecdotes about shooting in extreme heat and frigid nights and so on, lots of dad jokes, nothing to get excited about. Then again, if you’re listening to the commentary track for The Toybox, you’re already probably weirdly excited about this production.