The 1970s was the ‘golden’ age for exploitation cinema. Many of the innumerable cheap and nasty gobbets of trash that were churned out in that decade are justifiable forgotten. There are however some interesting titles whose obscurity is considerably less deserved. One of these is Toys Are Not for Children, a disturbing and sleazy but well-made and unsettling psycho-sexual melodrama that takes on the atmosphere of a Greek tragedy.

Jamie (Marcia Forbes) is an emotionally-stunted young woman who has never gotten over her father leaving when she was six. She still idolises her absent dad and remains in infantile arrested development. She works in a toy shop and plays with the dolls he continues to send her. She meets an aging sex worker (Evelyn Kingsley) and starts to cater to some niche and unsettling appetites, to the horror of her possessive husband with whom there has been no marital consummation due to her sexual hangups.

Toys Are Not for Children¬†clearly draws inspiration from the European tradition of exploitation, not least the Giallo films that were oozing from Italy at the time. There is the same air of louche decadence and knowing kitsch that paints a veneer of harmlessness over the more salacious elements. This is exemplified by several slightly stiff performances among the main cast (who all have precious few acting credits among them) and a carnivalesque score that’s jarringly convivial against the subject matter.

Where the film excels among many, many contemporaries is that it sees its tragic heroine as a fully-rounded person and not just a totem for narrative abuse and the cheap titillation of the viewer. The tentative, doe-eyed Forbes looks like a Giallo siren but retains the innocence of the most naive ingenue. This becomes incredibly creepy when combined with what she imagines to be seductiveness later in the film. Smart editing increases this unease, with frequent smash-cuts between Jamie as an adult ‘playing’ with her clients and as a child, using the same language to her dolls. Like all exploitation,¬†Toys Are Not for Children¬†will make you feel like you need a Swarfega bath, but through implication rather than anything explicit.

There are several reasons why Toys Are Not for Children may have been almost lost to the great genre junkyard. It was released in the days before video breathed extended life into many films beyond their cinematic shelf life. It is also notably devoid of the gratuitous surfeit of flesh you would expect in an exploitation flick. What nudity there is is utilised for the most disquieting impact possible. It isn’t by any means an art picture, remaining firmly in the Grindhouse, but is an unusually assured and psychologically incisive film that is worthy of belated attention.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 7 Oct 2019