Sunday, October 12, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Toy Story of Terror

Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are passing the time during a cross-country drive. The trunk of a car can be a dark and claustrophobic place so they distract themselves by watching a horror movie on a laptop. Which is kind of like an ophidiophobe chilling out with ‘Snakes on a Plane’. And it doesn’t help that Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) – who really ought to be called Mr Smartypants – keeps talking over the film, giving a running commentary on horror movie tropes and how the narrative plays out. When a flat tyre strands them at a dreary and, more to the point, isolated motel, Mr Pricklepants is in his element, confidently predicting that before too much longer the group will be split up and “picked off one by one”.

Confidently and accurately.

‘Toy Story of Terror’ may only be a short, but it’s as rich in ideas, inventiveness and entertainment as any of its feature-length brethren. While presenting a mildly scary tale for kids, the litany of horror genre lore and specific movie references that it throws out ensure its no less entertaining for adults. Indeed, the unforced panache with which its homages are staged – be it a shower curtain placed centrally in a tense cat-and-mouse scene or Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) declaring “I’ll be right back” – is a delight. It even teases the knowing adult audience with the possibility of Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) as final girl.

Speaking of whom, the film neatly keys into its predecessors, relying on Jessie’s backstory from ‘Toy Story 2’ to generate tension: her claustrophobia when she’s accidentally locked in a tool box in an early scene foreshadows her requirement to be sealed in a box during the denouement when she has to … Ah, but that would be telling. Moreover, the solidarity of the toys holding hands as they slide inexorably towards the furnace at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is subverted as the group are split up during the genuinely tense middle section. Likewise, a sequence of captivity and attempted escape also echoes that instalment.

How scary is it? Well, there’s nothing that reaches the clammy heights of the furnace set-piece, or even the evil playhouse that is Sid’s bedroom in ‘Toy Story’. Nor is there anything as squirmily tense as the airport sequence in ‘Toy Story 2’. But as a comedy-horror, it works brilliantly. It works because, like the absolute best of Pixar, it’s been made with care and wit and attention to detail. Director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote it with Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, understand the horror genre; they know when to spoof and when to scare.

Am I making it sound like ‘Toy Story Does Scream’? Then so be it, but with the caveat that ‘Toy Story of Terror’ is funnier, cleverer and more sophisticated than ‘Scream’ – and, at 21 minutes, mercifully shorter.

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