This film boldly walks home alone at night with clenched keys in one fist and pepper spray in the other.

The Sophomore film from Kansas Bowling (ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) is a shockumentary for the ages. More important than any syllabus film that screened when I was in school, and more potent than any drug-based propaganda like Reefer Madness.

CUDDLY TOYS (a tongue-in-cheek title if I ever heard one) is intense, iconoclastic and unrelenting in the best possible way. To simply call it a feminist piece would be reductive; this isn’t a fight for equality; it’s a brutal exposé on gender and how society has failed us and, more often than not, women.

In keeping with the theme of UNNAMED FOOTAGE FESTIVAL, this ultra stylish Mondo film [an exploitation documentary] is stated in the beginning as “an educational film”—and it turns out to be exactly that. We, the audience, are the worried parents and guardians of the women before us, and Kansas is here to both coddle and further agitate us with dark satire as her laser pointer.

Mondo films, like the infamous FACES OF DEATH series, often blend real and fake footage together in an attempt to make you second guess what you are watching. It’s hard-hitting, mass hysteria-inducing propaganda, but in CUDDLY TOYS, whether over the top or grounded in reality, everything on show has a deeply uncomfortable truth to it.

The poster’s tagline says it all: “There are 100 actresses in this film, statistically 2 will die before they turn 30. Who are they?”
This has to be the most gut-wrenching tagline of all time! It pairs perfectly with the nature of the film but goes far beyond a hook; this is a statement made in earnest about the film’s real life cast.

After a bubbly title sequence featuring Kansas’ sister Parker Love, infantilised and adorned with pigtails, we meet Professor Kansas Bowling, the brains behind the operation, serving as writer, director, producer, DP and editor of this film. *headspin* In awe of her talent!

KB speaks down the barrel to us from a set reminiscent of the professor’s office in the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. It feels light and goofy, but this camp facade is about to be eviscerated by a series of short anecdotes concerning young women who lost their way–facilitated by men-accompanied by matching crime scene photos. “Lock up your daughters,” Bowling proclaims before diving in.

CUDDLY TOYS is a mixed bag of thematically linked segments – like a sketch show from hell – documenting the plight of young girls at the hands of a male-dominated society: journal entries; interviews, pieces to camera and harrowing re-enactments of physical and sexual violence; seemingly spliced together in a randomised order, which only heightens our own hyper vigilance.

A recurring vignette features actresses singing ditties or limericks, innocent in tone but graphic in lyric. Occasionally this mechanism is utilised by a group of little girls chanting bawdy playground rhymes whilst skipping rope, reminiscent of the harbingers in A Nightmare on Elm Street, ‘The Jump Rope Girls’.

The soundtrack, which is comprised mostly of folky road tunes, drums up a feeling somewhere between idyllic daydreams and burgeoning misanthropy, a lot like the girls in this film. Most are depicted as what some might view as variations on the (now maligned) “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—one actor even wears an Audrey Hepburn t-shirt (often considered the original MPDG)—but there is no saviour narrative here. These women are merely trying to exist, and often with other women.

Between the nostalgic lenses, accurate wardrobe and set pieces, there is a sweet innocence maintained throughout the 102 minute runtime, not in a way that weakens the female character, but more so leans into the serene energy of femininity when the ecosystem hasn’t been tampered with.

A large talking point of the film is coercion, whether sexual in nature or just simply powered by the male gaze and their ‘I know best’ mentality. This is best captured in a scene where one girl goes to see a cosmetic surgeon for a breast enhancement, only to feel like that is the least of her concerns, and yet she remains excited as she knows it will only increase her appeal to men. Everything is connected, and that is the wink Kansas is throwing us. It goes all the way to the top!

Cuddly Toys runs the gamut on the ‘young girl’ experience and never holds back. Near the top, we see the “Queen Pre-Teen” pageant, where a panel of clearly predatory men make hard critiques of a girl who would be no older than 11, emphasising the casual sexualisation and expected beauty standards of women from men, even before puberty.

Other jagged “little” pills include virginity, sex trafficking, slave auctions, disordered eating and pregnancy.

The film finishes with a coupled piece called ‘Best Case Scenario’, and ‘Worst Case Scenario’. The former, a young lady chilling in her bedroom; the latter, hitchhiking, gone all too familiar. Yet, even the ‘best case’ girl wears a meme-ified Olsen Twins t-shirt: two child stars in a long list who lost their innocence to an industry run by men. She sits amongst posters from her favourite band – Collapsing Scenery – a name that perfectly describes what is happening to the characters in this film, the world’s beautiful facade is crumbling all around.

Bowling drives the point home in spades beyond what is tolerable, making it all too clear how much of a pandemic the vile poison of male supremacy is, and the over-encompassing retro mood of the film does well to convey just how long it has been a problem.
Vintage in style, timeless in message.

The film concludes back in the science theatre with Kansas philosophising:
“Your teenage daughters aren’t born wild; rather, they are thrust into the wild, a world of sexual violence.” The closing credits roll over the pigtailed girl from the beginning; however, now we see she was clearly under the control of an unnamed man.
A subtly dark end for a wholly dark film.

My takeaway: I wish for a world where you’ve just come back to class from recess and the teacher “wheels in” the TV, but instead of a documentary on Ancient Egypt, they broadcast this biting piece of cinema into the minds of impressionable school kids. This is a magnum opus of global proportions!

CUDDLY TOYS screened as a part of UNNAMED FOOTAGE FESTIVAL last weekend in San Francisco

“CUDDLY TOYS (a tongue-in-cheek title if I ever heard one) is intense, iconoclastic and unrelenting in the best possible way”

5 tombstones out of 5
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Jared Jekyll

Jared Jekyll

Jared Jekyll (they/them) is a writer and performer with over 20 years experience on the stage and screen who has now turned their interests almost exclusively to Horror (and Musical Theatre).

They like to indulge in the entire spectrum of Horror cinema, with a soft spot for the bizarre, and a guilty obsession with slashers, regardless of quality.

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