Franchise Corner Entry: CHILD’S PLAY

CHILD’S PLAY **** USA 1988 Dir: Tom Holland. 87 mins

A mainstream, slasher-era reworking of the unforgettable Zuni doll story from Dan Curtis’ TRILOGY OF TERROR, this also replays the “boy who cried wolf” scenario from director Holland’s earlier FRIGHT NIGHT. Hapless vampire-bothering teen William Ragsdale is replaced with juvenile hero Alex Vincent, who equally fails to convince cynical adults that his annoying “Good Guy” doll (catchphrase : “I’m your friend to the end!”) is possessed by the murderous spirit of gunned-down serial killer Brad Dourif. Chris Sarandon, the suave vampire of FRIGHT NIGHT, is given a functional male lead role as the cop who terminates the murder spree of the “Nightshore Strangler”, but Catherine Hicks is terrific as the big-hearted blue collar single mom who buys Chucky from a grim Chicago backstreet for $30 and is almost raped for her trouble. Vincent has two expressions (contrived pout / toothy grin) and a voice that sometimes makes you sincerely miss “Bob” from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY.
This highly commercial movie, written by Don Mancini, John Lafia and Holland, is at its best in the first half, melding the gritty urban locations with a potent sense of threat generated from the barely-seen doll hiding under sofas and skittering past in the background. The creepiness peaks early, with the heroine’s realisation that the doll has been functioning without batteries the whole time. Once the audience knows the doll is alive, Hicks is transformed into a motherly Final Girl, efficiently dealing with the almost-indestructible pint-sized Terminator, and the script milks the comic possibilities of Dourif’s coarse vocals emanating from the sneering living doll (“Fuuuuuuccckkkk you” is a typical line).  Suspense is diluted due to our confidence that no Hollywood horror movie is about to kill off its kiddie protagonist, which means that Vincent, like Danielle Harris’ character in HALLOWEEN 4 and 5, constantly escapes from potentially fatal confrontations.
The Chucky FX, which would become even more sophisticated in the first sequel, remain outstanding, combining puppetry, animatronics and diminutive actors to convincing effect. The film’s engaging satire of the crass 1980’s kids’ toy business – complete with manipulative TV ads and irksome jingles – would also be carried over in the follow ups. The dynamic pacing and production values were absent from most of the Chucky-wannabes that followed though the interesting RELATIVE FEAR offered a variation on Holland’s preferred concept that sustained the ambiguity about whether young Vincent was the real killer.

CHILD’S PLAY 2 *** USA 1990 Dir: John Lafia. 80 mins

Ditching the two adult survivors of the original, CP 2 heralded Universal’s takeover of the series, though each instalment would continue to be written by original screenwriter Don Mancini, with his CHILD’S PLAY co-writer Lafia directing this one. Alex Vincent, pegged as a disturbed kid living in a fantasy world, is put in the foster care of a peculiar couple (awkwardly played by a miscast Gerrit Graham and Jenny Agutter), joining their rebellious teenage foster daughter (Christine Elise). Only slightly concerned about panic stories surrounding the events of the original, the Good Guy company reconstruct Chucky from his charred remains, and he is soon back on Andy’s trail in his obsessive mission to take over the kid’s body before his soul is eternally trapped in plastic.
In many ways a typical, unambitious 80’s horror sequel, this rehashes Chucky’s inevitably unsuccessful persecution of Andy, with a peripheral character murdered every 10 minutes or so. Even this early in the series, Chucky is far too over-exposed to be frightening, and his post-Freddy wisecracks are generally lame (“Goddam women drivers!” is about as good as it gets). Elise is good in an underwritten role but Vincent is still a one-note child actor. The strongest suits of this movie are the engaging kills (the best of which has social worker Grace Zabriskie stabbed on a photocopier that punches out images of her bloodied face) and terrific production values, particularly evident during the gooey Good Guy factory climax.

CHILD’S PLAY 3 ** USA 1991 Dir: Jack Bender. 88 mins

This rushed cash-in sequel was in U.S. cinemas less than a year after CHILD’S PLAY 2, and was single-handedly responsible for killing audience goodwill for the series, until Don Mancini reinvented it for the post-SCREAM generation seven years later. It opens with the Good Guy company cynically relaunching their profitable doll, after a satirical sequence at their HQ, with suits reflecting on reputational damage done by the events of the earlier films. Unwittingly foreshadowing the UK tabloid attacks on the series when this particular sequel was linked (with no evidence whatsoever) to the Jamie Bulger murder, the company men ponder “What if the doll somehow affects another child in the same way…we could have a public relations nightmare on our hands…!” Ultimately potential profits outweigh potential lawsuits and Chucky is soon back in action, killing the company CEO (“What are children after all but consumer trainees?”) with kids’ toys before heading to the military academy in which the now 16 year old Andy (blandly played by Justin Whalin) is being put through his paces.
Dispensing with the now-tired preamble in which various characters doubt Chucky’s existence, part 3 still follows the equally worn path of Chucky attempting to hijack Andy’s body, but sadly the ever-willing Brad Dourif’s one-liners (“Don’t fuck with the Chuck!”) don’t deserve the relish and malevolence he injects into them. Death scenes are tame and flatly staged (even a garbage truck crushing disappoints), and Chucky’s amusing response to a would-be-victim who collapses of a heart attack (“Oh you gotta be fucking kidding me!”) sums up the audience’s viewpoint quite nicely. Only saviours of this series low-point are Andy Robinson’s performance as a sadistic barber and the lively send-off afforded Chucky during the visually impressive climactic fairground sequence.

BRIDE OF CHUCKY **** USA 1998 Dir: Ronny Yu. 86 mins

“Chucky? He’s so 80’s! He isn’t even scary!” Thus laments an expendable character in a typically self-mocking moment in writer Don Mancini’s satirical reinvention of his shop-worn slasher. Evidently influenced by SCREAM’s feature length commentary on the slasher cycle, this sets its tone with an opening evidence room sequence in which Chucky’s remains share shelf space with the iconic masks of Voorhees and Myers, alongside Leatherface’s chainsaw.
Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), buxom former squeeze of Charles Lee Ray aka Chucky, swiftly brings the doll back via some stitching and voodoo incantations but soon pisses him off and she ends up taking a fatal bath with a TV (showing BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, no less), her soul also becoming trapped in a plastic prison. They set off together to New Orleans for redundant plot reasons, and the movie has lots of spirited fun referencing Universal monsters (“We belong dead!”), NATURAL BORN KILLERS, HELLRAISER and, repeatedly, Chucky’s dated status.
If the humour echoes Kevin Williamson’s self-satisfied SCREAM script (down to lines like “If this were a movie, it would take three or four sequels to do it justice!”), it’s less smug and more fun, with Brad Dourif relishing his marvellously nasty double act with the perfectly cast Tilly. Imported director Yu (enroute to the slapstick FREDDY VS JASON) makes this the most visually inventive of the series, with spectacular kill scenes, including a double impalement on a water bed and a pre-FINAL DESTINATION road-kill demise for a sympathetic gay sidekick. Mancini even finds time for his own personal response to the ludicrous charges levelled at CHILD’S PLAY 3, with Chucky turning off in disgust a radio discussion about movie violence.

SEED OF CHUCKY **** USA 2004 Dir: Don Mancini. 87 mins

Fulfilling the promise of the gross doll-fucking and climactic birth scene of BRIDE, this delayed follow-up (a UK-Romanian co-production) saw perennial Chucky scribe Mancini seize greater control of the franchise by taking over as director. SEED furthers BRIDE’s shift to coarse splatter comedy by transforming the series into an extremely warped sitcom peppered with regular nasty murders, post-modern jokes and sick puppet fun in the vein of TEAM AMERICA. The title sequence, following the journey of animated sperm to plastic egg, is the first time the spry, versatile music of Pino Donaggio has accompanied the splashy appearance of homicidal doll-cum. The inevitably warped offspring of Chucky and Tiffany is a gender confused, pacifist doll (voiced by Billy Boyd) who regularly pisses himself. First seen as one half of a Glastonbury ventriloquist act named Psycho And Shitface, he sets out to find his real parents in Hollywood, on the set of CHUCKY GOES PSYCHO, yet another sequel starring Jennifer Tilly (as herself). Chucky is keen to have a son – despite the doll’s lack of genitals – and quickly names him “Glen”, indoctrinating him that violence isn’t wrong, it’s violins that are ruining the country.
As director, Mancini relishes the opportunity for various Hitchcock homages (at least three big nods to PSYCHO), alongside visual odes to THE SHINING and HALLOWEEN, dialogue nods to NIP / TUCK and Martha Stewart and various amusing references to Tilly’s role in BOUND. The narrative sets up a series of guest stars to be horribly killed, including its FX man Tony Gardner (as himself), S Club 7’s Hannah Spearitt (she says “fuck” and gets set on fire), John Waters as a sleazy paparazzo who mistakes Chucky for a wanking midget and Redman as a lecherous wannabe filmmaker who gets disembowelled. In a throwaway joke sadly spoiled by the trailer, Chucky maniacally runs Britney Spears (not playing herself) off the road to her doom. Tilly gets the biggest laughs, boldly portraying herself as a washed up, slutty actress with an ongoing weight problem and considerable bitterness about her career downturn (“I’m an Oscar nominee, now I’m fucking a puppet!”). It’s hard to think of any other Hollywood actress game enough to go to such self-deprecating lengths, and she is consistently hilarious.
It has lower production values than BRIDE and a more sketch-based approach that results in a hit-and-miss success rate (the then-topical digs at PASSION OF THE CHRIST soon became dated), but SEED is so enthusiastically twisted and cynical about Hollywood, that it’s almost as much fun as its predecessor.

CURSE OF CHUCKY **** USA 2013 Dir: Don Mancini. 97 mins

A decade after SEED OF CHUCKY confirmed the franchise’s seemingly irreversible transition into self-parody, writer-director Mancini did the fashionable thing and presented a “reboot” of the series, in which paraplegic Fiona Dourif (daughter of you-know-who) receives a Good Guy doll in the mail at her oppressive mansion and, while hosting a wake for her late mother, the unwelcome package starts to take on a murderous life of its own. Mancini smartly dials down the overt humour and returns to the slower-burn approach of the first film, unravelling Chucky’s rebirth gradually and offering only fleeting shots of the iconic slasher in the first half, while employing a juvenile character (a la Andy Barclay) as the first character to figure out the truth. False scares are cannily employed, the confined setting superbly used and the restraint extends to Brad Dourif’s first words appearing around the halfway mark. In short, Mancini made Chucky scary again.
As with BRIDE, Mancini playfully references the 80’s (Good Guy Dolls are likened to Smurfs and Cabbage Patch Dolls), but the movie is dedicated to atmosphere and intensity, heightened by a terrific visual sense (all shadows, ominous tracking shots and reflective surfaces) and an evocative score by Joseph Lo Duca. Gore is used sparingly but vividly: an eye stabbing and a graphic axe-in-the-face kill are as nasty as anything in the series to date, while the employment of the old-fashioned handicapped-heroine gambit is cleverly handled : her paralysis means that, in her battles with Chucky, she can take an axe to the knee with no pain. After a suspenseful first hour, the movie surprises by positioning itself within the continuity of the previous five movies. Brad Dourif gets a satisfying opportunity to play Charles Lee Ray in flashback sequences for the first time since 1988, and an elaborate series of false endings (“completion anxiety” jokes Chucky) unleash last-minute cameos by Tilly and Alex Vincent. CURSE turns out to be Mancini’s smartest script, beginning as a remake, evolving into what seems to be a prequel and finally unveiling itself as a tonally contrasting but direct sequel to SEED OF CHUCKY for those that have been paying attention.

CULT OF CHUCKY **** USA 2017 Dir: Don Mancini. 91 mins

With the once high-profile theatrical franchise now firmly positioned in straight-to-DVD territory, Mancini continues to have a rare creative freedom for the continued evolution of his creation. CULT picks up characters, plot threads and heroine Fiona Dourif from CURSE – the latter institutionalised after being convicted of that film’s murders. While her doctor introduces a Good Guy doll to therapy sessions, Andy Barclay, the juvenile hero of the first three movies, spends his evenings torturing Chucky’s surviving head while receiving verbal abuse in return. As a new series of murders unfold and our heroine faces suspicion again, her aunt / legal guardian – suspiciously played by Jennifer Tilly – also shows up with a Good Guy doll.
Evidently inspired by the third ELM STREET movie, Mancini has fun with the institution set-up, yielding incidental laughs as Chucky expresses disappointment at the lack of reaction his appearance receives from a succession of schizophrenics and self-harmers who are prone to aggressive delusions anyway. The “is-she-or-isn’t-she” narrative is sustained well, as authority figures stubbornly insist the very Chucky-like murders are merely elaborate “accidents” and each early set piece kill is carefully engineered to be potentially interpreted either way. In a neat twist on the familiar set-up, Chucky can now inhabit multiple dolls, which allows Brad Dourif the chance to play multiple Chucky’s, while Fiona Dourif gets to toy with her Dads malevolent mannerisms playing a Chucky-possessed version of her character.
Like CURSE, it’s played mostly for straight tension and scares, continuing the earlier film’s tendency for brutality by delivering two of the nastiest moments in the series to date during a final half-hour of crunchy mayhem. Mancini has developed into a very stylish filmmaker, always wearing his influences on his sleeve, and the manic punchline inevitably sets up further sequels…as does the now-traditional post-credits scene in which yet another character from much earlier in the series prepares for a comeback.

CHILD’S PLAY **** USA 2019 Dir: Lars Klevberg. 90 mins

Chucky, last seen in CULT OF CHUCKY, continues his own cinematic / televisual journey via original creator Don Mancini, but the original rights holders of CHILD’S PLAY (United Artists) have smartly retooled the initial concept to be relevant for our times while finding fresh and fun avenues for a familiar antagonist. Wisely abandoning the over-played black magic element of the original run, this sets a splendidly cynical tone right off the bat: at a Vietnam sweat shop, a disgruntled employee deliberately removes the safety features and violence inhibitors of a “Buddy” doll on his assembly line before taking his own life. Said doll, Chucky (marvellously voiced by the well-cast Mark Hamill), is a 13th birthday gift for young Andy (Gabriel Bateman) from his single-mom (Aubrey Plaza) and bad-shit goes down while the stores gear up for selling the new, improved 2nd generation version of the same doll.
Chucky’s 2019 upgrade includes linkage to his home’s smart hub system, an in-built camera and recording abilities so today’s kids can get him to say “dick-cheese” on command. CHILD’S PLAY 2019 deftly combines sharp black humour while playing Chucky straight as the central menace. A terrific sequence of Chucky desensitised by the goriest moments (“Incoming mail!”) of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 pays off with a bout of Hitchcockian sick humour involving a severed head. In a typical commentary on “kids today”, one character is killed in plain sight outside his window while his two kids are too busy looking at their tablets to notice what’s going on. The dialogue (“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me…”) and production design (KILLER KLOWNS!) nod to the era in which the original CHILD’S PLAY emerged and the script ditches the laboured earlier sub-plot in which Andy is suspected of Chucky’s murders. It’s a witty, fast-paced, well cast picture: Plaza is terrific as the mom, the kid is likeable and Tim Matheson nails the dead-eyed smile as the face and voice of The Company. This remake’s coup de grace, however, is a marvellously mean-spirited climactic consumerist takedown in which Buddy 2’s toy shop launch is host to a massacre. Bonus points for Bear McCreary’s score: you will struggle to get Buddy’s theme out of your head.

Reviews by Steven west

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