Ginger Nuts of Horror
You'd be surprised how many toy franchises aimed squarely at children's markets have an overt horror motif, especially during the 1980s-1990s, when toy manufacturers were far less concerned with being taken to court or garnering negative press from certain moral-minded quarters for their products.
With that in mind, it's my pleasure to explore some of the most imaginative and inspiring examples thereof in the run up to Christmas, starting with one of my personal childhood favourites:
Alien. Yep; a film franchise whose 18 certificate is well earned and established, but which has experienced any number of spin offs and adaptations in children's media, including comics, video games and a rather popular toy line from the mid-to-late 1990s.
The decision to create a children's toy line based around an overtly adult horror film franchise is an interesting -but, as we'll see, hardly unique- one, which begs certain questions of the cultural climate of the era: given the existence of numerous other toy lines also based on film franchises that children -technically- weren't legally allowed to be exposed to, it's fair to say that the manufacturers knew their markets; correctly assuming that, thanks to the then new-fangled technology of VHS cassettes, children would see these films whether they were legally allowed to or not, they may as well capitalise on their inevitable popularity.
Thus, the Alien toy line.
A highly stylish and well designed (if somewhat short lived) franchise, the Alien toys pay reference to certain implied elements of the eponymous xenomorph's mythology and life-cycle: whilst the range contained numerous examples of your standard, anthropomorphic variety, there were also numerous others that were designed along the assumption that they had found other “hosts” to splice their DNA with.
As such, the range consisted of variously inventive monstrosities including the superb snake and bull aliens, the anatomically unlikely crab and mantis aliens; an alien hatched from a jaguar host, another from a gorilla. The designs of most of these creatures is quite beautiful, as is the level of raw detail sculpted into each toy.
Along with the animal-influenced xenomorphs are a number of less specific entities, including a glorious, winged queen alien, a “Queen Face Hugger;” a giant, arachnid monstrosity with numerous action features including legs that snap together, so as to envelope the human figures also available in the series and a jaw that shoots forwards in the manner of the xenormorph's iconic secondary mouth.
It was no doubt tempting for the designers of these figures to dilute the H.R. Giger, bio-mechanoid elements of the xenormorph itself to make the toys more child friendly. However, clearly having some greater degree of comprehension concerning their target demographic, the designers seem to have gone out of their way to do the exact opposite; making the creatures more grotesquely elaborate and disturbing (the “crab” alien wins this hands down, with its multiple legs, snapping claws and “chest burster” firing missile gimmick).
For my part, I recall being entranced by these toys as a child; not only were they superbly detailed and extremely atmospheric monsters, they appealed to a very particular aesthetic sensibility that I'd already begun to cultivate thanks to an exposure to horror films and media in general (including the Alien film franchise, which I already loved and still do).
As for the human figures in the range, they are a token bunch at best; a smattering of iconic characters from the film franchise, including Apone, Hicks and, of course, Ripley, all with their own array of weapons, gimmicks and even little, rubber face huggers that can (perhaps in a step too far) actually fit around the figure's faces!
It's very clear comparing the two “sides” of this line where line where all the effort and inspiration went; whereas the aliens are superbly detailed, designed and beautiful, the human figures are essential G.I.Joe cast-offs; generic and indistinct military style action figures that could fit into an entire range of toy franchises.
This is because no child worth their salt gave a fig about the human characters, nor should they: the aliens themselves were always the central focus and the core appeal: the entire line is deliberately aimed at kids that love monsters and horror films; that were likely a little strange and isolated (like myself) and that were never going to be terribly interested in the “good guys” of the line.
Even amongst present day toy lines, the Alien series stands out in terms of its raw quality and is much beloved amongst collectors, not to mention those of us that remember it fondly as a part of our childhoods.