Chucky 101 | Buzz Blog

Monday, June 17, 2019

Chucky 101

Watching all the killer doll movies for the first time wasn't exactly Child's Play.

Posted By on June 17, 2019, 12:36 PM

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click to enlarge MGM PICTURES
  • MGM Pictures
If you were a teenager in the 1980s, there are things you're expected to have as part of your cultural nostalgia: MTV, arcade games, Back to the Future. But we all have our weird gaps in that assumed common experience. For me, one of them was Chucky, the doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer in 1988's Child's Play and subsequently the villain and/or protagonist of six sequels. I'd never seen a single one of them—until this month, leading up to the release of a remake of the original film (opening June 21). Here's a round-up of my Chucky-thon, which revealed a series considerably weirder, and often better, than I expected. Warning: Spoilers will be included!

Child's Play (1988): B-
Kind of goofy without being particularly scary, and occasionally flirts with outright interesting. The latter comes from the notion of Chucky's young owner Andy (Alex Vincent) as potentially a suspect in the murders himself, which might have worked better had screenwriter Don Mancini leaned into the idea of Andy as traumatized by the only-referred-to-in-passing death of his father. Apparently there was an early version of the script where Chucky's clear identity as the killer was hidden for longer, which I guess wouldn't have been as much fun as this eventually becomes once the living doll is front and center. And I do kind of wish there'd been more about the "Good Guys" cartoon/toy brand (to be continued, maybe?) as something just as implacable as the possessed Chucky.

Brad Dourif as Chucky's voice is exactly the kind of crazy this concept needs, but Katherine Hicks (as Andy's mother) and Chris Sarandon (as the investigating police detective) are both pretty blah; it's almost embarrassing how underwhelmingly Hicks plays the scene where she isn't sure yet if her apartment as scene-of-the-crime means her son is dead. Compare that to Alex Vincent's terrified meltdown when he sees Chucky coming to kill him in the hospital, and the adults should be kind of ashamed of themselves for not being as fully committed.

Holland's direction is fine, I suppose—best when he can give a sequence a little room to breathe, like Hicks' first realization that Chucky is alive, or Chucky attacking Sarandon in his car. It's interesting, though, that I have no memory of this movie ever really striking enough of a chord to become a long-lived franchise, the way I clearly remember, say, A Nightmare on Elm St. or Friday the 13th doing. I guess this one was clear enough in its tonal permission that you could both laugh at the funny-looking doll as resilient homicide machine and yelp at the jump-scares. Not sure that would be enough for me to keep plowing through a half-dozen more installments, if I hadn't already committed to it.

click to enlarge UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • Universal Studios
Child's Play 2 (1990): B+
Like a lot of sequels, this one has the advantage of not having to indulge in the throat-clearing introductions; we can dive right into Chucky doing his thing without playing around at whether he's actually alive. Christine Elise is an improvement on Catherine Hicks as the primary heroine/protector of Andy, and the combination of Kevin Yagher's practical-effect creation (a pretty phenomenal piece of FX work, with a design that makes incongruous ridiculousness like overalls and his shaggy red hair a feature rather than a bug) and Dourif's crazed shrieks carries this thing a long way.

It's also actually really well directed by John Lafia (one of the credited co-writers of the original), not just in the build-up of the creepy set pieces and jump scares, but even in the framing of individual shots. It feels like there's a missed opportunity in setting the big finale at the Good Guys doll factory—Chucky hiding amongst thousands of look-alikes—but that finale still comes off pretty well thanks to a nice job of turning Chucky's various plights into a weird brand of body horror. Way more stylish and fun than I had any reason to expect based on the first one.

Child's Play 3 (1991): D
Congratulations: You've failed on every level on which Child's Play 2 succeeded! As filmmaking, it's garbage, lacking a single remotely interesting idea or image. As storytelling, it's garbage, failing to find anything interesting to do with the now-teenage Andy at a military school besides give him a romantic interest (and one who, despite being apparently the best shot at this school, exists solely to be the damsel in distress). And the school setting itself is both a pointless distraction from the reason we're here to watch a movie about a killer doll, and uses the far-too-much time spent in this milieu simply to trot out bland young actors in cliches of sadistic commanders.

But the real inexcusable failure is not having any idea how to use Chucky himself, and consequently delivering a film that's just no damn fun at all. Chucky is responsible for seven deaths in this movie, but mostly in a weirdly passive way: He scares one guy into a heart attack, puts live ammo in paint guns that result in someone getting shot, etc. There's even a death where people show up to find someone having been shot in the head, apparently by Chucky, though we never see him do it with his characteristic glee. If you're going to have a movie about a killer doll, I mean maybe give us an actual killer doll.

The amusement park haunted house that serves as the site of the climactic showdown is the most weirdly elaborate and dangerous such place I've ever seen, with an animatronic Grim Reaper wielding an actual scythe that would kill guests given the slightest hiccup with the passenger cars, and a spinning exhaust fan blade similarly ready to murder people. Which makes this place scarier and more dangerous in this movie than Chucky himself appears to be.

click to enlarge UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • Universal Studios
Bride of Chucky (1998): B-
It doesn't take long for this thing to announce its intentions, what with the shots of the Jason mask and the Halloween "Shape" mask in the evidence lockers: We're gonna get meta af! I know some folks delight in this stuff, but a little bit goes a looooong way. "He's so '80s, he isn't even scary," says one soon-to-be-victim, yuk yuk yuk. After someone dies with a bunch of nails in his face, "something about him looks familiar," like Pinhead yuk yuk yuk. "It's a long story, like it would take 3 or 4 sequels" all right, I get it already.

Fortunately, the dynamic between Chucky and his wife-to-be Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) carries this one a reasonably long way, up to and including the (I'm guessing) legendary/infamous doll sex scene. Tilly is just perfect both as the human who's already kind of a doll, and as the doll herself, while Dourif again gets to cackle and swear. Plus, there's some solid direction by Ronny Yu, which I guess amounted to his audition for Freddy vs. Jason. But it's kind of hard not to wish that this one had gone all out at making the murdering toys the anti-heroes of the story, rather than bothering with the perfunctory human romantic leads (hey, it's young Katherine Heigl!). As long as everyone involved has decided to wink at the audience that this ridiculous concept is now actual comedy rather than supernatural horror, there's no reason not to let us cheer for Chucky without feeling psycho about it. So we'll see what happens next now that baby makes three.

Seed of Chucky (2004): B
So yeah, this one takes the meta stuff from Bride and dials it up to 11, as Don Mancini gets a chance to direct the series for which he has written or co-written every installment. Tilly has a blast here, and it's easy to ride along with her. A little of the self-referentiality goes a long way with me, but I find it hard to resist a movie that casts John Waters as a paparazzo, or Redman as himself directing a Biblical epic, or Chucky using Fangoria as porn for his semen sample, or frankly any movie willing to casually make use of the phrase "voodoo pregnancy." I even smiled when Chucky takes an axe to a door, peeks in, then pointedly pauses and says, "I can't think of a thing to say."

Then there is the curious matter of Chucky and Tiffany's progeny Glen/Glenda, and I suspect I'm not even remotely qualified to plumb the depths of whether this movie is improbably progressive in its views of non-binary gender identity, or exploiting those ideas. It's entirely possible that Mancini is just playing with the split personality dynamic of Norman Bates; I suspect it's no coincidence that the film-within-the-film is titled Chucky Goes Psycho. Then again, we get Chucky's final speech, in which he claims ownership of both his doll-ness and his murderous-ness. Kinda feels like a movie that, between creative ways to take human lives, genuinely believes in living your authentic self. And the fact that I'm wrestling with this subtext at all in a movie that actually makes use of the phase "voodoo pregnancy" has to count for something, I think?

click to enlarge UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • Universal Studios
Curse of Chucky (2013): B
Whatever it was I might have been expecting after Seed of Chucky from a next installment, also written and directed by Don Mancini, it certainly was not this. Mancini pivots 180 degrees from the all-out satirical comedy of Seed for something that's pure slasher horror. And for the half of the film before we ever see or hear Chucky speak, it's pretty great. There are some fantastic directing touches throughout that opening 45 minutes, from an expanding pool of blood that becomes a reflecting mirror, to the way unfocused images of Chucky in the background never snap into focus the way you'd expect, to the editing in the dinner sequence where it's not clear which bowl of chili has been Chucky-spiked with a dose of rat poison. There's real suspense and tension ... right up to the point where it turns into a Chucky movie, what with the quips and cackling and a whole mess of exposition. This is sort of the no-man's-land of the killer doll's effectiveness: not enough for it to be all about his craziness, and too much after an effective dose of throwback horror.

(Brief aside: It's amusing watching this '80s franchise emerge into the 2010s having to deal with the cliches that now haunt 2010s horror movies: The ubiquitous "someone using the internet to search for the story behind the creepy goings-on," and how to take cell phones out of the equation so it's not too easy to call for help.)

Gotta hand it to Fiona Dourif as Nica, considering I was expecting the worst from what I assumed was a nepotism hire. Jennifer Tilly notwithstanding, she gives the best performance in any of these movies. Hard on the heels of the genderqueer content in Seed, it's interesting to see this movie matter-of-factly make its chief protagonist a woman in a wheelchair, and one who resists being infantilized or victimized in her disability. Don Mancini, bringing the wokeness.

Cult of Chucky (2017): B-
This first of all: Don Mancini is a legitimately talented director. He's got a knack for pacing, for using locations (the psychiatric hospital hallway is terrifically creepy), for staging his creative gore, for knowing where to put a camera. He really goes for broke here with split screens and slow burns. Really wish he'd been given the reins of this series a lot sooner.

That said, this is a bit of a tonal mess. It's an attempt to pull together the three distinct phases of this franchise—the Andy Barclay phase, the Tiffany Valentine phase and the Nica Pierce phase—which is ambitious to begin with. But each of those phases was very tonally different, and instead of picking one, Mancini tries to make all of them work together. It's deeply weird and jarring that we have a mix of cheesy '80s "how creatively can we murder someone" aesthetic, over-the-top self-awareness (yes, Tiffany looks like Jennifer Tilly) and what feels like a genuine attempt to present characters coping with the aftermath of trauma. Infanticidal Madeline gets a deeply sincere speech about realizing what she's done right before Chucky reaches down her throat and rips out her tongue.

Finally, one last entry in the Don Mancini catalog of Dealing With Sensitive Issues Fairly Sensitively. He gives us a paraplegic woman with a chance to be an object of desire, and sexually active, not even remotely using it as a gag. He casually includes a gay man referring to his husband. And when Chucky is in the body of a woman, reuniting with his wife Tiffany, it's just another new world for Chucky. I can guarantee you that when I started this marathon, I was not expecting to discover a filmmaker willing to take an iconic franchise and make it part of a diverse real world.

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