[“Blame It On Toby” is just one of the horror shorts from my “7 Halloween Shorts for 2020” post. To view the other shorts, head over to THIS post!]
Giving off a R.L. Stein Goosebumps vibe, “Blame It On Toby” is both a freaky horror short film and very well pieced together that leaves you unable to turn away until it’s too late! Writer/Director Richard Knight Jr. actually created this horror short film to kick off an even bigger horror project, Rogues Gallery. Paying homage to classical horror series such as Night Gallery and Tales From The Crypt, Knight attempts to bring to life dark stories of the supernatural full of twists and turns that leave us horrified. “Blame It On Toby” does just that and I cannot wait to see what Knight creates next. But first, let’s dive into what makes this short so haunting!
Synopsis of “Blame It On Toby”
As eerie music starts to play, we witness a woman creating a doll using old world supernatural means. Adding bits and things into the doll’s body, she adds a special stone before sewing him up and putting the finishing touches on Toby. But it’s the taste of blood she gives him that makes us pause. Is that a grin on Toby’s face?
Skipping to a different time, Edward (Christopher Sheard) and Calvin (JJ Phillips) are enjoying a nice dinner at the social club. Calvin is actually proposing to his long-time partner, but right as the waiter brings forward the ring, Edward gets distracted by the oddest sight: there’s a gentleman dining at the restaurant with a doll! We quickly learn that that is Arthur Prentiss-Wilcox (Kevin J. O’Conner), one of the world’s richest men but equally quite eccentric. As Edward returns to Calvin’s proposal, he notes that they have financial issues and concerns, and they were waiting for Calvin to get a promotion before they get married. Suddenly, Arthur is standing beside their table, holding Toby. Being polite, they invite Arthur to join them for dessert but when Edward touches Toby, Arthur quickly excuses both of them – “Blame it on Toby”, he says. As Edward and Calvin chatter about what just happened, the waiter subtly mentions that befriending Arthur can greatly improve their financial situation! The trick, he relays, is making Arthur believe that Toby likes them too!
Back at home, the conversation about Calvin’s proposal and why Edward says its not the right time continues. Suddenly Calvin sees Toby in a mirror – with blood all over his mouth! As quick as he sees Toby, it’s gone. The spookiness continues when Edwin gets a phone call from Arthur – they’re both invited over to dinner tomorrow night! Edward accepts, later telling Calvin that if he can win over Arthur as a new client in the firm, his promotion will also be secured! The next day, Edward fills in his coworkers about meeting Arthur and the strange doll, Toby. Recalling a bit of gossip, they quickly learn that there appears to be something odd about the doll and that it got burned in a fire.
Dinner that evening is … weird! Arthur has continued to live in the family home – but without any staff because Toby doesn’t like gossiping staff. Right away, Edward and Calvin have to be reminded to say hello to Toby, who sits in his high chair beside Arthur’s seat at the head of the table. As Arthur comes and goes bringing the various courses of the meal, Calvin and Edward talk privately about their plan to convince Arthur to invest in Calvin’s firm – all while forgetting that Toby is sitting there. Suddenly, a picture falls off the wall and shatters. Blame it on Toby? When Arthur returns with the next course, he “listens” to Toby and demands Calvin apologise to Toby his remarks. Things seem to be better until Calvin brings up “property” and Arthur chides him for being disingenuous. Thankfully Edward interjects and asks when Toby “joined” the family. Launching into a pleasant back story, Arthur reveals how he was given Toby at the age of six and has been his closest advisor ever since.
Excusing himself, Arthur leaves the dining room. Calvin jokes that he can see his corner office now and then rubs his hands all over Toby’s face… and his hand comes away with gooey spit! Arthur returns with the main course and after Edwin tries to relate to Arthurs earlier comment of family disappointing you, Arthur has a flashback memory between he and his sister, Gloria. Apparently, Gloria wanted Arthur to bring in other advisors besides “the doll” and gets so worked up, she grabs Toby and throws him on the fire! Just before returning to the current situation, we watch Gloria suddenly die… Arthur remarks that he and Toby have fully investigated Calvin and Edward, and is aware of their financial situation. They’ve agreed to help! It appears Toby has taken a liking to Edward and Arthur is perfectly fine investing in Calvin’s firm if it will make Edward happy. But alas, the dinner is now over. But as they are walking out, Arthur tells Calvin that Toby wants to apologise and give him a goodbye hug. “He just loved it when you rubbed his face, he enjoys playfulness”, Arthur tells Calvin… eerie, since Arthur wasn’t in the room at the time!
The next series of events occurs in a montage: Calvin and Arthur go back and forth trying to hash out the details of the finances, while Edward continues to read up on the rumoured curse and many mysterious deaths that are connected to Arthur and Toby. Finally, on the day of the third attempt to sign the paperwork, Arthur calls Calvin and mentions that Toby has a few more questions before they agree. But when Arthur puts Toby on the phone, TOBY whispers “I Sorry” – shocking Calvin. That night in bed, Edward brings up all of the info about Toby and the rumoured curse, but Calvin won’t listen until the paperwork is signed. They eventually make up, and begin making out. That next day at work, Edward gets a call from Calvin – Arthur agreed and wants to sign the papers! But he insists that Edward be present or he won’t sign; Calvin is on his way over to Arthur’s house already.
But when Edward arrives, Calvin hasn’t arrived yet. Arthur remarks that he phoned to say he was caught in traffic and delayed. On his way to grab them drinks, Arthur reminds Edward to say hello to Toby, Edward just sneers and quickly mutters it under his breath. Arthur returns and quickly chides Edward for being rude, but to have a sip of a special red drink. All of a sudden, Edward starts to choke – Arthur encourages him to take another sip. Arthur then explains that after much consideration, he and Toby have decided to not go with Calvin’s firm. Panicking and concerned, Edward tries to call Calvin – Calvin’s phone is on the floor! When Edward asks what he has done with Calvin, Arthur explains that he is with all the others. Suddenly, Arthur pulls back a set of curtains in the dining room to reveal a monster – and Calvin’s head is visible within! As Edward passes out on the table, Arthur looks down at Toby and tells him: “Toby, are you ready”. Toby moves his head, with blood dripping from his mouth!
Our next view is rather odd – we are looking up at Arthur and can see Toby laying on the table. Arthur patiently explains to us that Toby is old and tired, and that at some point you need someone younger. Arthur continues to lecture on how you’ll get used to the endless hunger, but that eating souls will keep it at bay. Suddenly the camera angle reverses – Edward is now the doll, and sitting in Toby’s chair! “Time to rest now, Edward” Arthur says while reaching towards us to close Edwards eyes.
While I am a bit too young to have truly experienced horror classics like Tales of the Crypt, I grew up with Are You Afraid of the Dark on Nickelodeon and R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series. “Blame It On Toby” fits in perfectly like an old, worn glove. Even if I wanted, I cannot find a flaw or reason to give this queer short horror film anything less than full marks. To start, the casting is excellent! Not only did they land acclaimed horror veteran Kevin J. O’Conner (The Mummy, Lord of Illusions), but our other two male leads are captivating in their respective characters. O’Conner is a master of the macabre, knowing how to deliver lines with a sincerity that can unnerve anyone. While Phillips is the more naive of the two, both he and Sheard portray our young couple as innocent young men who are swept up in this horrific tale.
But even with excellent actors, a horror film is nothing without a strong story to unfold. One of the key components of the classic horror shows Richard Knight Jr. evokes is a slow buildup to the final twist. A lot of horror films rely on the killer running lose, or people randomly dying. In “Blame It On Toby”, it’s actually more about the supernatural. As Calvin and Edward learn about Arthur and Toby, a lot of the story is told via flashbacks – and often without truly revealing the full back story to Calvin and Edward, creating a nice tension of dramatic irony. We’re sporadically teased with snippets of Toby’s true nature, but even then we can’t predict the real horror of the story – because the focus is always on Toby. Even that itself becomes a catch phrase; it’s used so often that even we diminish the truth of the statement.
Yet the true exceptional aspect of “Blame It On Toby” is the cinematographic elements. The musical score is haunting and eerie, and is used in a way to helps move the story along while also providing that ounce of foreboding needed for old school horror. There’s a few scenes where the camera just zooms away and frames the mansion as the piano music swells up and just holds us in that moment of limbo. Even the camera work is exceptional. The camera work is clearly professionally along with the editing, lingering with long extended shots and smooth transitions but providing quick glimpses of fright when required. Knight clearly has a talent for horror and built up a team that help breathe life into the lifeless – just like Toby! The stunning moment is also one of the simplest: using the camera looking up towards Arthur at the very end, putting our perspective in line with Edward – and the doll he has become. It’s creepy …. I LOVE it!
While a tad on the longer side for most shorts, “Blame It On Toby” is just the right length to truly evoke the horrific supernatural story. Richard Knight Jr. has created an exemplary tale of horror that matches those of legend. Even though we knew there was something different about Toby from the start, the build up of tension captivated me right up until the very last moment; the twist was superb! If you are a true horror genre fan, definitely give this queer horror short film a watch. I cannot wait for the next entry in Rogues Gallery!
Queer Relevance of “Blame It On Toby”
At first glance, there’s not that much about “Blame It On Toby” that is queer. Yes, our young couple at the heart of the story are gay and in a committed relationship. But the two of them being a couple is not that relevant to the actual story. (Which is a GOOD thing! I love seeing films where a character’s sexuality is irrelevant, it finally shows queer folks representation that we belong.) It’s certainly enough to warrant reviewing the film for Queer Film Reviews too.
But in an interview with writer/director Richard Knight Jr., I discovered another reason why “Blame It On Toby” belongs to the queer genre – Richard Knight Jr. is an out gay man himself and well known within the queer film industry! Aside from bringing Scrooge & Marley to life, Knight is quite involved with Reeling: Chicago’s LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Furthermore, he revealed that the concept for this horror short came from a real life experience when he and his partner were dining in a restaurant and witnessed a man eating, surrounded by his teddy bears.