There is something eerily joyful in the new indie horror film Sick for Toys, a Christmas-themed thriller that is part psychological study, part torture porn from a refreshing female gaze. The story of the afflicted Emilia, played devilishly well by Camille Montgomery, is a surprising tale seen rarely in horror: Men who are lured, captured, raped, and tortured by a seemingly normal and beautiful young woman without the twists and tendentious exploits of a Jennifer’s Body or I Spit on Your Grave. It is odd to see such a film appear so ordinary, normalizing a character’s mental illness and exploitation of men, yet still be so effective by having viewers questioning if Emilia is in fact our villain.
The opening scene captures Emilia “playing” with her toy, a man we later learn is the friend of the film’s protagonist, Jason (Justin Xavier) and Roy (David Gunning), respectively. By playing, I really mean raping. It’s an odd perspective for the viewer, especially males who are accustomed to a plethora of horror films that see men sexually assaulting seemingly helpless young women; a trope that borders on cliché. We learn that Emilia views these men as literally toys that serve to pleasure her, and not always sexually. If Jason, for example, speaks out of turn or doesn’t submit to a demand, Emilia deems her “toy” to be broken or defective.
Translation: Kill the toy.
But Emilia isn’t alone in her prowl. She is aided by her brother Edward, played by Jon Paul Burkhart, whose performance edges on the veracity and sensitivity of Norman Bates. Only it is Emilia who serves as the mother-like figure who we learn Edward is obsessed with, a twist later that shows familial bonds of this nature always cross in to Freudian nightmare. It is, after all, Edward who manages to keep Jason alive, free from infection and erect for Emilia, using a trove of prescriptions to ensure the “toy” works effectively.
Most of the narrative, however, is not really focused on torture, which is what makes this film quite engaging. For nearly an hour, we follow Roy around town as he searches for Jason, his oldest friend, who is suddenly missing, with only hints that he may have skipped town for a tryst, a rendezvous that ultimately leads to a clue about his disappearance: Jason’s empty apartment, a worried girlfriend, and a napkin with Emilia’s number. Roy of course calls the number, and like his fate, he will meet Emilia to uncover the truth about his friend.
But Emilia’s child-like sensibilities charms Roy, and it is Montgomery who truly warms the screen with her performance. Even though we – the audience – understand that she is masking her true, murderous self, she somehow appears as a victim of sorts, channeling her years of trauma and mental illness into behavior she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate. Like loving someone to (their literal) death, one wonders if Emilia’s true affliction is the abuse of her parents and enabling brother, blurring Emilia’s concept of pain and suffering.
After all, these men are just toys. Not a surprising sentiment for a young woman who we learned has been toyed with since childhood. Sick for Toys is therefore an excellent character study and a refreshing Christmas horror film.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality
Images: IMDb& Devilworks