The doll’s house is the arena where (typically) little white girls play out, or occasionally resist, the model of life that they have inherited from their family and culture, in an idealised, plastic parody of patriarchy. The Toy Terminator opens with an image of a doll’s house – a cottage (that is clearly a model) on a wooded mountain (also a model) in the moonlit night. Inside this hilltop microcosm there is, breaching the divide between human and doll, a ‘real’ person playing with an assortment of toys. Yet far from being a Caucasian child, the ‘Toy Terminator’ (played by co-writer Fred Polone) is an unhinged, eye-patched African-American adult engaged in a horrifically gory race war with his grotesque puppets, whom he trusses and tortures, mutilates and murders in a fantasy scenario of black power.
In this chamber of terrors, the Terminator’s only friend is also the only black toy: the white-bearded Pappy, carried over from director/co-writer Matt Wisniewski’s previous short film Pappy’s World (2018). Pappy is ‘old-school’, but as the Toy Terminator warns him, “It’s a new era” – and so as the Terminator sleeps (under the Stars and Stripes), the dolls rise up. Coming under fatal attack from these (in more ways than one) revolting dolls and plush toys, Pappy will complain, “Goddam white people!” Awoken by the ruckus, the raving Toy Terminator will (try to) take his combative revenge, having “an O.J. moment” with a “white bitch”.
Politically incorrect in a way that perhaps only puppetry can get away with – think Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles (1989), Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police (2004), Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders (2018) and Tommy Wiklund & Sonny Laguna’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018) – The Toy Terminator is a scuzzy love letter to the whole ‘killer doll’ subgenre, as well as to the cheap sensibilities and practical effects of Eighties cinema’s bargain basement end. Whether we regard the Toy Terminator as a Rambo-like veteran working (and playing) through his PTSD, or a beleaguered POC getting his own back against the white man – and woman – within the relative safety of his own (doll) house and home, this short film, throbbing to the pulse of Ron Cannon’s retro synth score, offers a discomfiting snapshot of an American war (in the head) that never ends, and will leave you unsure whether to laugh or despair.
© Anton Bitel