Carrying on our 'Favourite Haunts' series we haaaave: a favourite horror-themed toyline of mine!
No matter how good they are, some toy lines just don’t take off – sometimes their source material bombs (the Black Hole), sometimes there’s reasons beyond sales or quality (the SPACE Adventures of Bucky O’Hare), sometimes they’re just too bloody expensive (Sectaurs), sometimes they just don’t sit well with parents (Skeleton Warriors), whatever, they get one wave, one push, and then they’re gone. The good thing about today’s internet culture is that it has allowed the few kids who did love these toys to make them known to a wider audience and turn flops into cult classics, giving the likes of Food Fighters, Spectra or Mad Scientist the appreciation they damn well deserve. But even then some great toys still fall through the cracks; Horror Pets is one such line (and that was a lot of build up for pull-back animals).
There’s not really much to tell you because these poor sods have virtually zero internet presence, no one is online doing interviews about their role in making Horror Pets: they were released in 1994 by Mattel and were seemingly far more commonly stocked in the UK and Europe – where they were definitely available at Toys R Us – than in the US, and multi-language cards are thus more common than US ones but despite that they remain cheap on the second hand market. They were split into 3 sizes: Insectoids, Scuttlers and Monsters with the smaller two using the standard pull-back mechanism (albeit with slightly altered mechanics to give them a more ‘life-life’ movement) while the big Monsters were battery powered, you turned them on and they went careering around lighting up and being creepy, well so long as the ground was lino. They were advertised with the standard ‘look boys they’re gross – scare your sister’ rhetoric that is still being used today, does it really work? I’m an only child you see. So yes, despite being best described as ‘rubber animals stuck on top of pull back cars’ they were and remain far cooler than the sum of their parts. What sets them apart from boring rubber animals is threefold – one) they’re a lot more durable and a lot thicker sturdier rubber, they don’t feel like ‘jigglers’ (which make me feel sick) but rather like big McDonald’s toys; b) they’re all designed and sculpted in their own cartoony style giving a unique and easily recognisable look that sets them apart from the standard rubber frog or centipede and 5) the big ones’ eyes light up, you can’t go wrong with light up eyes.
My dad bought me Belcha and Skaar for my birthday in 1994 (thus forever making these ‘summer toys’ in my mind), I had never heard of Horror Pets, I had never mentioned them or indicated in any way that I would like to own some but that’s never bothered my dad, it still doesn’t really, he has one criteria for buying me gifts – he has to think they’re cool. As I understand it he was in Toys R Us looking for something I actually wanted, saw these and impulse bought them while my EX-step mom rolled her eyes at his enthusiasm for weird rubber animals. I thank him for that.
The smallest and cheapest Horror Pets, though quite ingenious in their own way these are the ones that interest me the least, in fact I only own 1 (Attakka) and I can’t find him. Each bug averages at about 2 and a half inches long and comes with a hard plastic hinged ‘lair’ for them to hide in, the Lairs are by far the coolest thing about these – not that the bugs are bad, but there’s just a few boring generic filler sculpts mixed in with the cool guys – probably because they needed so many compared to the relatively few Scuttlers and Monsters and couldn’t be so choosy with who made it to production. There were (to my knowledge) 12 different Insectoids released, each bug is unique (though the mechanism inside is the same) but only 6 lair sculpts were made, meaning that two bugs each use the same lair, albeit painted differently for each. The mechanism these use is pretty cool btw, even though you pull it back in a straight line, the bugs zip off in wiggly lines, mimicking the rough movement of a beetle, and the rubbery material allows the bugs to twitch and wiggle with the movement, it might not be Robosapien but it does give a pretty good approximation of the cardback’s boast that ‘they move like they’re alive’.
Antla & Skul
Always open a gig with a big number – these two dwell in the cracked and maggot filled skulls of an unknown creature (they’re a bit horse-like and a bit dingo-like but I think they’re just supposed to be generic animal skulls). The skulls are fantastic, they could as easily be found at the foot of the Space Jockey as in your own backgarden and wouldn’t look out of place in either; I prefer Skull’s more realistic coloured headbones to Antla’s blue alien noggin but not by much. The bugs themselves are good showing of what I meant about generic filler mixed in with the cool guys; for the cool guys we have Skul, who I’m guessing I supposed to be a death’s head moth, with his detailed and stylised body sculpt, an instantly identifiable and likable face and his badass skull design on his wings, he looks like a cross between The Punisher and a Toxic Crusader. For the filler we have Antla, who I’m pretty sure isn’t an ant but rather some kind of beetle…oh I just got it, he’s a stag beetle isn’t he? And stags have antlers – antler, Antla – clever but why would you choose a play on words that’s also a play on words of another bug that is also often the colour of Antla? Illogical. Antla has a mean little cartoon face of his own but really he’s just kind of boring.
Howla & Vennum
No need for you here Marvel Comics lawyers, we have changed the requisite amount of letters. To counteract these two being some of the cooler Insectoids they have to live in the most boring lairs, it’s just a rock, yeah it has a millipede but it’s still just a rock, they must see Skul or Lomaz’ houses and be hella jealous. I owned many of these as a child and Vennum’s shell reminded me more of a muscle shell (muscles being quite plentiful on the coast I live nearest too) and I just assumed it was one and Vennum was some kind of beach scorpion; I didn’t understand part sharing at age 8. Howla the wolf spider’s damn cool, boasting the most detailed and easily identifiable cartoon face design of the whole range which, while inaccurate, is nice and menacing, he also comes in a great range of green, including a metallic arse, with an arse that metallic he should have a far swankier pad than a rock. Vennum the scorpion can’t quite measure up to Howla’s greatness but he does live on the beach so that’s something, scorpions are rarely uncool though his face is a little less cartoony that I’d like, his colour scheme at least is pleasing, he looks like ‘do no cross’ tape, and you wouldn’t want to cross a sunbathing scorpion would you?
Stompa & Gorga
I’ll be honest; I have absolutely no idea what these two live in, as a child (when I owned Stompa) I considered his lair an alien egg and I can’t really come up with anything better than that as an adult thus I’m declaring them to live in the eggs of four armed alien moles, though possibly they could be dirt mounds of some kind. I also can’t place what beetle Gorga is, I know it, but I just can’t think of its name and it’s pissing me off, not that it matters, Gorga’s definitely on team filler, he’s just a bug with a standard buggy paint job and a butt that looks like spotted dick. Stompa the centipede’s a little better and his prominent place on the card art kind of makes him feel a little bit above the others, he’s also a unique species in the line – there’s only one ‘pede in Horror Pets and that’s Stompa, though his face makes him look more like he’s been caught in someone else’s photo than that he’s zooming out of his weird-ass lair to eat your sister’s toes.
Sparc & Grabbit
When I was wee (and owned Grabbit) I assumed the lairs of these to be a clam, I was a stupid child who was forced to spend way too much time at the seaside (my grandparents owned a beach hut, too many Saturdays were wasted on the cold, windy, salty, empty of all entertainment seafront of Clacton-on-Sea). Now I figure it’s just a rock, but unlike Howla and Vennum’s boring dwellings this rock has decoration to make all the other bugs green with envy – the remains of a huge spider in a web, these two bugs are so tough they killed a spider a full head taller than them – in its own web – and left it on display. Grabbit looks the part too, with his angry cartoon eyes (though some paint jobs make him look drowsy, my old one did); a classic beetle with HUGE fangs he could easily take down a giant spider. And Sparc has superpowers, he’s a firefly bitches; no spider can resist his glowing arse! Sparc’s another generic design though, he’s just a regular firefly (he’s even regular firefly colours give or take) with a slightly exaggerated mouth.
Stinka & Lomaz
Between lair and bug this pair are easily the coolest Insectoids, again I know ‘cool’ is as subjective as ‘awesome’ but again there are standard ‘cool’ things, like metallic arses. Stinka the fly looks the grossest, with his obvious hairs and just by being a fly, flies are gross, and he has a really spiteful looking set of eyes, look at him, narrowing them into slits, Stinka fucking hates you, plus – metallic arse. Lomax meanwhile is the black widow spider from hell – or at least an episode of Aaaghh Real Monsters – with ginormous sharp teeth (it’s teeth are bigger than its head) and multiple beady red eyes and generally speaking black and red is a good combination of colours with multiple uses, it can be used to mean sexy, post-apocalyptic, dangerous or in this case, scary as fuck. What secures their status as ‘coolest’ is their lairs, you may be thinking “yeah, the others have skulls and venus fly traps, what’s so good about these” – look hard, these two live inside the curled up skeletons of monsters. I think they’re supposed to be small dinosaurs but with their colouration and design – which is nothing like any dinosaur I’ve ever seen – they look more like Gieger-esque alien corpses; in fact by living inside a metallic silver alien skeleton and being a black widow spider-monster I am naming Lomaz ‘most Metal thing this month’.
Attakka & Cruncher
Attakka is the only Insectoid I have left, though I put him in a box at the back of the loft and couldn’t get to him for this article, as such I can say from experience Attaka is kind of naff – he just looks surprised all the time, especially if he’s running on bumpy ground, he doesn’t say “I eat little girl’s noses” he says “aaaah! I can’t stop! Why is it so bumpy? Aaaah!”. Cruncher meanwhile is the single most boring toy in this entire line, he’s just a normal bug, sure he has a little bit of metallic going on but he’s just so…normal; if you put him next to Howla or Grabbit you’d think they were from completely different lines, and Cruncher’s line were sold in three packs in £1 shops. I reckon after sculpting the utterly awesome lairs for these they just thought ”well everyone’s going to buy these because of the giant, evil, veiny Venus Fly Trap, just throw the in two bugs we rushed out at the end, or came up with at the beginning before we had a definite style down”. The lairs are really sweet, I think I actually prefer Attakka’s yellow ‘desert’ style colouring (I once owned both of these), Cruncher’s trap looks very much like an enemy in a 16-bit video game, not that looking like something out of, say, Mick & Mack Global Gladiators or Three Dirty Dwarves is a bad thing but it gives it a look that doesn’t’ really fit with either the exaggerated monster style of Horror Pets nor the realistic style of its inhabitant. These are also the sturdiest lairs too, the others are far from cheap but, I think maybe so kids didn’t break the teeth of the Venus fly trap off, these are pretty thick plastic, the other lairs are closer to Mighty Max or the 90’s Poly Pocket while these are closer to Street Sharks.
Mid-size and mid-price point the four Scuttlers come the closest to the standard rubber animals in feel and thickness– I think it comes from a combination of lots of limbs, their size and the size of the mechanism in them - as such they kind of gross me out sometimes – especially Mondo. They’re also noticeably shinier than their smaller and larger peers.
Please note that my poor Fangz has a warped wing, he came out of the box like that – both his wings should be up like he’s divebombing. As the least like the standard rubber toy, Fangz is my favourite of the Scuttlers, he has a far more solid feeling to him than the other three despite having thin wings and ears – I can’t explain that, but you can trust me, I’ve spent many a minute feeling Horror Pets. He’s also boasting the nicest face design and sculpt, not quite going as wacky and Ren ‘n’ Stimpy style as Repto or as ‘badly drawn’ (or unbalanced) as the others.
With his bulging eyes and huge mouth Repto also reminds me of the art style of one of those obnoxiously ‘wacky’ cartoons from the 90’s like Ren ‘n’ Stimpy, Cow and Chicken and Rocko’s Modern Life (I take that back, Rocko was pretty sweet) but as I’ve never seen Repto resort to unnecessary gross earwax joke. Like all the Scuttlers Repto benefits from having a smaller mechanism compared to the size of his rubber animal allowing him to jiggle and bounce far more than the Insectoids or Monsters when he moves, but having the thickest limbs makes him less kinetic than the two arachnids
I hate Mondo, to me he’s easily the worst toy in the line.
You need more? Ok. I hate him because his thin limbs and small mechanism make him feel like a standard rubber spider – and I hate those. He’s easily the worst toy in the line because he looks so cheap, and by feeling like a rubber spider, he seems to cheap: the paint apps on his fur are just sprayed on willy-nilly without any rhyme, reason or attempt to make them look like lighter patches or fur or make them fit in with his sculpt, plus his face is just awkward with weirdly placed, he looks more like a Horror Pets knock-off (they didn’t exist to my knowledge – even the knock-off people couldn’t be bothered with this line and they knocked off Battle Trolls and Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs). So in conclusion Mondo is easily the worst toy in the line and I hate him.
Clawz is a much better toy, despite, or perhaps because of, his thinner limbs he’s made of far sturdier rubber, taking away lots of ‘cheap rubber toy’ feel that makes Mondo fall so low in my opinions, but his flat shape and again those thin limbs and long tail make him a top jiggler, I’ve always been convinced he’s faster than the others too but I think that’s just me being mad, he does zip along but thanks to his texture and colour he looks more like a really speedy piece of liver than a horrific scorpion. Oh well, I’m sure loads of little sisters are scared of liver.
The centrepieces of the line, three large, boxed, battery operated toys with light up eyes and sound effects. As well a achieving the ‘scuttering’ movement through a different mechanism to their little brothers (and sisters?) the three are made of harder and far less shiny rubber, they’re also amongst my favourite toys.
Have you seen Elvira: Mistress of the Dark? The film with Elvira and Kenickie from Grease in it? It features a Tic-Tac pie at one point and Belcha looks a bit like that Tic-Tac pie, or at least he reminds me of it enough that ‘oh I see you’ve made your famous Tic-Tac pie’ is often the first thing I think of when I see the frog. Now I’ve connecting him with small minted sweets in your mind – Belcha is fucking awesome! For me he’s the Horror Pet I think of first when I think of Horror Pets (and I think of them fairly often, actually), and as he’s displayed so prominently on the box art for the whole line I think I’m justified in that. Why do it think he’s so awesome? He’s a clawed and fanged monsterfrog with light up eyes that’s covered in spikes (albeit Tic-Tac looking spikes) with a mouth that looks like Audrey II, I just find that awesome in a toy design, I apologise if you don’t and feel sad for you. There’s also a weird thing I have: I’m terrified of real frogs and toads, I won’t go in the garden if one’s been seen there in the last…week, so I tend to really hold any toy frogs that don’t freak me out in high regard and as realistic frog toys tend to do that, monsterfrogs for me are the way forward in the world of frog shaped playthings.
I’ve had Belcha and Skaar the longest, having (again) received them for my birthday in 1994, and I have oodles of nostalgia and love for Skaar because of this and I don’t want Skaar to be offended or think I love him any less by saying this but…he’s kinda one of the weakest Horror Pets, certainly the weakest Monster (though look at his competition). He’s mostly just a cartoon rat and not very original with it, he does have those weird red…spines? Warts? Gnat bites? Whatever they are and that earn shim the ‘kinda’ in ‘kinda one of the weakest Horror Pets’ but beyond that he’s just a fairly standard cartoon rat – wearing lots of lipstick. If I was someone’s little sister I don’t think I’d be too worried by him after the initial jump scare and immediate confusion that he might be a real rat, I’m kind of leaning more towards little sisters using him for tea parties, still at least with his one raised eyebrow he can show his disdain for that. to say something nice about poor ol’ Skaar he looks the best in movement, he’s really rat-like and his tail jiggles really well, it’s a bit upsetting.
If you think I’m being a bit harsh on Skaar’s execution up there, here’s Arakno to prove me right. Mattel’s design team decided to execute ‘giant spider’ as: skull faced Xenomorph spider – which by itself is cool but then they decided to make him metallic! In comparison they decided to execute ‘giant rat’ by just drawing a giant rat and adding some red lines on his arse, not bad but certainly not as creative as mace monsterfrog and Xenomorph spider. I never owned Arakno until I was an adult and discovered that eBay thing everyone’s always talking about so I still enjoy a quick, quiet thrill when I see my two Arakno, sad yes but since when I have claimed to be anything but? The reason I have two Arakno is because the first one I bought – despite being sealed and boxed – had most of his legs fall off immediate after being depackaged, each of his legs is glued onto his body and that glue had dried up. I don’t know if this is a common problem – my other Arakno didn’t have the issue but it might be something to watch out for because if it can happen to Arakno then it can also happen to Belcha’s limbs and Skaar’s tail so if you see one second hand somewhere, give those a little tug just to make sure they’re still stuck on.
Good god I wrote that much about observations on rubber animals? And you read it? Thank you so much! These fairly plentiful online (especially the Scuttlers and Monsters) and they’re far from expensive so if you’re looking for a new monster toyline to collect I heartily recommend them, the bigger types have a really nice value for money feel to them (except Mondo, Mondo can go fuck off), they have a consistent look so look superb as a group and the Monsters look great in cabinets, plus so few people know what they are you can be all smug and hipster and shit. Personally I find them a lovely complement to the old Mattel Monsters (Suckerman, The Krusher and Gre-Gory), especially Gre-Gory – hell they’re pretty much Gre-Gory’s bastard offspring!