Child’s Play is a franchise near and dear to my heart. I’d actively avoided the murderous doll wherever I went growing up whether I was online, at the video store, or even if it was just mentioned by name. Dolls used to (and still sort of do to this day) terrify me. There’s just something… inhumanly human to them. After all, we all had that one statue, toy, or painting in the basement or attic that shook us to the core. And a movie about a tiny Cabbage Patch doll with a knife visiting me in my sleep wouldn’t have helped matters.
One Fall though, a whole decade-plus later, I worked up the courage to finally come face to face with the movie and conquer my childhood trauma. I gulped and put it on… and it was the most fun and hilarious experience watching a movie that I’d had in a long, long time. Something about the doll having a dirty mouth and there being near-action movie setpieces relieved a lot of the tension for me and I was having more fun than being scared. Was my younger self just a complete wuss, or is it that being afraid of the unknown makes us aware of our own mortality? My money is on the former.
By the time I started to really get into the series, Curse of Chucky wasn’t even out yet, so I had five movies to keep me full and each movie had I had different degrees of obsession to them. Today I’ve decided to look back at each movie, with help from my friend Victiny who’s in the midst of watching everything for the first time. He’ll be covering the first four films, leaving me stuck with the baffling post-Bride films. So I’ll let him take it away:
To analyze the catalyst of the foul mouthed, delightful asshole doll franchise, it’s important to consider the context of horror films in this era. In the year of 1988, George Michael’s Faith topped the billboard, and Friday the 13th entered it’s seventh (!!!) film entry. In other words, both forms of horror media had entered a bit of a stagnation period (not Elvira, Mistress of the Dark however, which released in the same year. That is an evergreen title). Sure, the boys Freddy, Jason and Michael were running the whole bloody affair with their overpowering (basically supernatural) strength and intimidating stature, but then a movie dared to ask the question: what if they were gaslighting people? By this I mean what if they were, say, three feet tall, had a plasticine body, and excelled at mentally destroying their victims instead of straight up moidering (noun: to be killed) them? This is how director Don Mancini approached our lovable lead character of Charles Lee Ray, the lakeshore strangler, known by his nickname “Chucky”.
On my first time viewing Child’s Play to this point (coincidental to all the recent events relevant to the series this year), I found that there was an undeniable 80’s charm and surprisingly quite a bit of nuanced build up leading into the doll’s reveal. The film really does not show its hand, other than the audience’s Grecian knowledge of the outer workings of the world unknown to the cast. I think that’s what I held on to the most in my viewing; that the film follows a very carefully laid out plot in order to establish helplessness before diving into the slashening™. Would Chucky have brandished a knife in the first 20 minutes in order to advance the plot inorganically, we would have missed on the wham shot of the doll’s batteries never being installed in the first place (a personal favorite of mine), and as such the audience would have unfortunately had less of a reason to care. Mancini’s choices here become exceedingly clear and deliberate in this way. What’s scarier than a machete wielding maniac or a home invasion on Christmas? Consumerism, apparently.
Don Mancini knew a similar villain in the roles that came before this film would have difficulty in standing out or giving new perspective (think 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, which while having a 2009 remake to its name, never quite lived out its potential and exists as a standalone property, a shame given it is a legitimately enjoyable experience). One look at the hysteria caused by dolls of the week such as Cabbage Patch Kids or whatever new property Hasbro shat out that morning told Mancini all he needed to know to make a banging basis for a horror film; that the people around you as they stare in disbelief or greed can sometimes be more frightening than that doll with the soul of a serial killer you stumbled upon. By mixing the themes of uncanny valley (dolls might be inherently scary), a frustrating lack of trust from adults, and perhaps even extending to a coming of age experience (hey, If I saw my aunt get pushed out a window by a doll at the age of four, I’d be forced to grow up too), Child’s Play was born.
Child’s Play 2
I love when the main cause of an entire horror film’s plotline is sheer negligence, not even malicious desire, or a penance against a specific character or anything like that. In this case, the factory that manufactured the “Good Guy” dolls which our friend Charles had inhabited had an opportunity to mull on the series of murders framed under the guise of one of their products and said “hey, it’s been two years. Make em again”, whilst vacuuming enough coke for a Teletubbies set designer. Oops! The serial killer now has a shiny new body and just killed the exec of the company! And he’s going after the kid from the first film to reclaim his corporeal form? We better hope he doesn’t utter the voodoo incantation while somehow the same kid ends up in the exact same scenario under his foster family!
Joking aside, while I mentioned this season was my first time truly sitting down and watching the Child’s Play franchise, I realized I somehow had very vivid memories of the kills in this film. Specifically, the schoolteacher meeting her end via yardstick and the poor factory worker having his eyes replaced laid dormant somewhere in the back of my mind, similar to what Luke mentioned about inadvertently avoiding this series out of sheer fear. On my unintentional revisit though, I found that the sequel took the first film’s plastic skeleton and carved (slashed?) its own identity, peppering in just a bit more tasteful violence and swears to make this feel like an advancement, rather than an obligation.
It’s like what Scream 2 would pen a few years in the future; the sequel must have the bigger body count, more elaborate deaths, and basically just more bluntness (there is a third rule, and that is to never assume the killer is dead, something incredibly relevant as we examine future films). And just like the Scream franchise, Child’s Play sought to innovate in what can be considered a loving parody of era specific slashers while also holding its own.
At the end of the day however, I feel as though the first film takes the edge over Child’s Play 2, if only because the mystery aspect was very well placed, which I believe lends better to the series than two’s straight murders and finally anime-esque showdown in the toy factory (which, admittingly, goes to a very entertaining scale not seen in the first entry.) Child’s Play does lose points however as I was disgusted at the meal Andy prepares in one of the first scenes in the movie. Tough call.
Child’s Play 3
Here’s where the formulaic, going through the motions part of the original trilogy begins to rear its head. Shot and released just nine months after 2, this film honestly is the secret lowest point of the series in my opinion. For one, a now 16-year-old Andy joining a military academy turns the first half of the film into a dollar store Full Metal Jacket, yet somehow the killer doll aspect is still shoehorned in? Kubrick would be proud, if a little confused. Even though 2 felt like a quick retread with generally more fun to be had, this is more of an awkward attempt to repaint the scenery and reheat yesterday’s meal, as it were. Don’t even get me started on the fact they decided to make the entire film’s palette brown, mix in some light puppet racism, and yank the cast of Fast Times at Ridgemont High with the promise of making a quick buck.
There is fun to be had though; after all, Mancini does know how to make his murderous puppet hold his audience’s attention. In particular, the kills are all classic Chuck (I swear he’s referred to as Charles more often than not in this film. Bizarre, but I’m here for it). Trash compactors, barber tools, loading a game of paintball with real bullets (which makes no sense when you consider it for more than ten seconds, but I digress) all are hallmarks of the bastard villainy Chucky has shown in this series thus far. Also, at one point Chucky refers to his next host, a young black kid named Tyler, as his transformation into a “bro”. The bizarre script choices, unintentional or not, kept me engaged as it’s always been the murder marionette we know and love.
I do wish the film, and I never thought I would say this in regards to any movie in existence, kept the tone and momentum as it’s opening credits sequence. There, the toy company once again decides to move forward from their bad publicity (again) and begin manufacturing the Good Guys once more. The audience is treated to a sequence of Charles Lee Ray blood mixing with the latest batch, and slowly reassemble his form with some fantastically horrifying imagery dispersed in it. Sure, it has ultimately little to do with the military academia plot, but is that a bad thing? More films should just go buckwild with their openings, regardless of the content or quality of the actual film that follows it.
Bride of Chucky
My personal abyssal low for the series is followed by my absolute love, the Bride of Chucky. In my ratings, I held this film slightly above even the first one, on a scale to how much fun I had in it’s brisk 89 minute runtime. Chucky smokes weed, gets laid, and listens to rock music. In other words, considering the history of the franchise thus far, it’s the most perfect film in existence. Jennifer Tilly’s Tiffany and Chucky play a power couple here, if by power couple the phrase meant “two killer dolls who are possessed by the souls of serial killers and damned to walk the earth, ruining tandem relationships in their stead”. It’s the perfect pairing.
Running back a bit, the franchise following Child’s Play 3 took a seven year hiatus. Where we left off, Chucky was ripped to shreds by a very peculiarly placed fan in 3’s funhouse showdown (obviously meant to be a sidegrade to 2’s toy factory). Mancini hit a writer’s wall, evident by 3’s odd attempt to further the doll and Andy’s relation well into his teenage and presumably adult life. So, what better way to knock down a wall than to remove the problem character entirely! Andy is now gone, Chucky’s quest to inhabit the body of whoever first laid eyes on him in doll form is hilariously written out, and now the main man is Chuck, front and center. The lean into the killer doll as the comedic lead is a franchise decision I wholly respect. We all made jokes on “what if Michael decided to just be a regular guy one day?” or “Jason decides it’s time to settle down with his wife in a seaside resort”, and Bride’s comedy aspect is just that. I reiterate every year that the bastard, offensive slasher is always far more of a joy to watch (Ghostface and Freddy hold these aspects), and Mancini leaning into a full dark comedy routine in Bride reignited what I found appealing in the franchise in the first place; that an innocent looking doll suddenly swearing like a sailor will never not be funny.
It’s a balance to maintain this careful pendulum of comedy and horror, and I thank Bride for providing the kills in addition to the quips, without highlighting too heavily one or the other. Smartly, the script is written in a way that is more show than tell, as in the puppets lying still at the greatest moments rather than being too abrasive. In this way, Bride parallels the very first film in a fine way, though the directions are complete polar opposites. In Child’s Play, Andy is the protagonist and victim with the antagonist being the general idea of adulthood and moral shortcomings. Here in Bride of Chucky, the protagonist is a homicidal doll that entertains with the aspects of torturing teenagers who should know better than to lug the creepy dolls they found on the street into every available space. Really all Mancini did was tie the formula in a way that people would wholeheartedly want to see; the first film from Chucky’s point of view. Plus Jennifer Tilly is my love. If she asked me to become a murder doll and go on a honeymoon road trip with her, you’d catch me in that van in an instant.
Seed of Chucky
After a trilogy of horror-focused and slightly self-aware movies, and the fourth installment being a romantic road trip movie with horror elements, we’ve finally gone all out and made Seed of Chucky a full-blown comedy, with the thought of horror being in the far, far back of its mind. As the sequels got increasingly insane, Seed embraced its wacky characters and put them in a politically-incorrect acid-black comedy without the slightest hint of wanting to be “scary”. It’s certainly a brave – if juvenile – movie, which makes it stand out the most in this series. Well, does it stand out for the better? I mean, I can’t really say that.
Seed of Chucky more often than not devolves a lot of its comedy into meta-humor, Hollywood celebrity mockery, sexual situations, and ludicrous violence. The problem is it’s never as fun as it acts like it is, with some really disgusting sets and doll effects that look extremely janky. It’s seriously a wonder how a movie that came out a whopping sixteen years prior has far more impressive effects than this one does. Though the kills themselves can be fun, a lot of it is soured by iffy effects.
Joining the plastic trio is Glen, Chucky and Tiffany’s long-lost son. Glen is the polar opposite of his father Chucky, still retaining a kind-hearted nature with a strong moral compass while still wanting to please his sadistic parents. However, Glen can also completely change and turn into Glenda (an obvious homage to Ed Wood’s infamous Glen or Glenda), a murderous and mindless psychopath with a heart that’s darker than both her parents. Yes, Glen (and Glenda) is essentially genderfluid. Though the representation itself could be seen as questionable, series creator Don Mancini voiced that Glen’s relationship with Chucky is inspired by his own relationship with his father while growing up as a gay child. Though Glen has very much disappeared after Seed, he is still referenced in conversations, most notably the new series Chucky, where Chucky tells somebody he has a gay kid and further remarked they are “genderfluid” quite casually. So take it for what it is, but it seems Chucky is now a queer ally.
If someone were to say Seed of Chucky was the worst in the franchise, I wouldn’t fight them on that. At this point, it seems Child’s Play and its murderous doll have completely lost their original identity. 1988’s Child’s Play was a modern horror classic with ambitious practical effects and an iconic killer that would join the ranks of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Pinhead, among others, that devolved into family quarrels, slapstick, and an edgy sense of humor. After Seed was a critical and financial failure and almost a decade without the ol’ Chuckster in sight, it seems the franchise had put itself to the pasture, not with a bang, nor even with a whimper.
Then the comeback tour began.
Curse of Chucky
After falling into comedic abyss, Curse of Chucky is a textbook back-to-formula sequel that, while still very much canon to Bride and Seed, has reclaimed its darker and more sinister tone, bringing the series back into its’ much-anticipated horror roots. The atmosphere is stark and claustrophobic, its music score by Joseph LoDuca is enchanting and perturbing, and its cinematography by Michael Marshall is surprisingly captivating and eye-catching. The movie is still far from flawless though, but for a movie that dug its series out of its own grave, the problems are miniscule when compared to what the series has been up to prior.
The movie is led by wheelchair-bound Nica, played by Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif). Fiona is wonderful as Nica, constantly charming and serious in her role. The rest of the human cast isn’t quite as strong or memorable, but their family dynamic and drama is held together nicely enough. Oh, and speaking of family drama, this movie sure has a lot of it. While the drama isn’t all bad and effectively shows how torn apart and conniving they are, it takes up so much of the movie’s runtime that it’s so easy to grow bored and annoyed over it. For Chucky’s ultimate comeback, we really didn’t need this much family quarrel.
But most Chucky fans are only here to see the killer doll return, and he returns with fanfare. Though he doesn’t go full psycho-mode until well into the movie, his foreboding and ominous presence builds suspense into a satisfying and bloody climax as the body count accelerates, all without losing the snarky wit the series is known for. Without Tiffany or Glen to be his foil, Chucky goes on a murderous rampage with the series most impressive effects to date. At this point, Chucky voice actor and series veteran Brad Dourif wears the character like a glove. Though his voice has notably aged, he steps into the character with complete ease as if it’s just a regular and mundane task. His raspy voice gives the character endless personality and charm, and it would seemingly be difficult to see Chucky played by anyone else (we’ll get there soon).
Curse isn’t without its imperfections and is a little rough around the edges, but it’s easily the best entry since Child’s Play 2. As a Chucky movie, it pays tribute to the killer doll’s legacy and is an affectionate love letter to the series veterans that have stuck it out through better and worse. As a movie, it obviously has its problems, but on nearly every technical level it is impressive and inspired in its own right. Though inconclusive, the ending segues into Cult and the series beyond that.
Cult of Chucky
Cult of Chucky is jam-packed with style and bloody Chucky goodness. Taking place in a mental institution after Nica takes the fall for her family’s gruesome murder, this is perhaps the series’ most twisted, bloodiest, and darkest entry to date, with Chucky acting more ruthless than ever. Though the film takes place primarily in one setting, the clean, achromatic, and stylized look of the institution is eye candy, especially when the blood begins spilling.
Returning to Cult is Alex Vincent, reprising his role as Andy Barclay from the first two Child’s Play movies. He makes a brief cameo in a post-credits scene in Curse, but plays a far more prominent role in Cult as he interrogates the mangled head of the original Chucky. His acting chops aren’t the greatest nowadays, but hey, it’s good to see him back either way! Meanwhile at the mental institution, multiple rampaging Chuckies begin to turn the place on its head. While the movie is full of typical mental hospital tropes and stereotypes, there are some characters that we grow to care about even when they go in the most brutal of ways.
Despite the darker and grittier tone, the movie never shies away from the series’ brand of dark humor. This is absolutely the funniest Child’s Play movie to date (moreso than the movies that actively TRIED to be comedies, but I digress), and Brad Dourif’s performance sells his corny one-liners and witty banter.
Cult is a celebration of the franchise, honoring all the highs and lows that came before it. Every prior movie has led to this, culminating in a sensational climax involving the trio of Chucky’s bringing the institution to its knees. With one Chucky taking over Nica’s body, Andy imprisoned, and another Chucky doll left to cause mayhem, everything is set for Don Mancini’s television show, the grand story of this era of Chucky. It’s been a ride, and Cult is a film that rewards die-hard Chucky fans. I’m eager to see where the show goes from here.
Child’s Play (2019)
After seven films that branched into a large story, we got the inevitable remake that nobody asked for. This is a hard movie for me to talk about, because while I can’t say it’s a bad movie on a technical level, its position in the series and its poor timing is very frustrating for me as a Chucky fan.
Charles Lee Ray is nowhere in sight. Instead, we have a line of robotic smart-dolls called Buddi, mass-produced by megacorporation Kaslan. The Buddi can help with homework, solve problems, and can connect to other Kaslan technology such as televisions and air conditioning; think of it as Alexa if Alexa was three feet tall and designed to be horribly ugly for some reason. One of these dolls, named Chucky, is glitched and begins to do whatever it takes to ensure nobody will separate him from his owner and “best buddy” Andy.
I think there are many things the movie does technically well. The music by Bear McCreary is really inspiring and gives the movie a really childlike personality, sometimes incorporating childish instruments into the mix. The movie is also very resourceful when it comes to its effects, only using CGI when absolutely necessary or to give Chucky some more fluid movement. Otherwise, the doll and its actions are almost entirely practical through using a real animatronic. I also really like the cast in this, leads Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Bateman having surprisingly good chemistry together. There’s a lot to appreciate about this film in those regards.
In all other respects, though, I simply can’t respect it as a horror-slasher, let alone a remake of Child’s Play. It feels just unique enough that it could’ve been its own story, like an extended episode of Black Mirror, and it’s cynically using the Child’s Play namesake for nothing more than recognition. After all, this same studio wanted to credit the franchise’s daddy Don Mancini as an executive producer, even though he could never provide any creative input. Don rightfully declined, and now my fear is that this remake put a mild wrench into his TV show plans. Do you think there was a subset of people unfamiliar with the original material who watched the show’s series premiere and were confused why Chucky looked different and wasn’t a corrupt A.I.?
Another drastic and more controversial change was the decision to recast franchise veteran Brad Dourif, with Mark Hamill taking over as Chucky. Now, I don’t think anyone can replace Brad Dourif for as long as he’s alive. Dourif is just as much a part of the franchise’s personality as the Chuckster is. But with that said, I was perfectly fine with this change. Hamill has had his fair share of voice performances, famously portraying Joker in various animated series, movies, and video games. He easily could have just done his Joker voice again, but Hamill shockingly fits Chucky quite perfectly. Sure, he’s playing a soulless robot doll, but he gives the character a much-needed personality and soul.
Child’s Play 2019 is a weird one. It’s very competently made, and my legitimate critiques are just surface-level stuff like the script and pacing. But as a Chucky movie, I just can’t get behind it. You can easily have some fun while it’s on, but it’s nothing special. At least, not much point in watching this over the other four or five good ones in this series.
Now that all the movies are behind us, all we can do now is enjoy what we’ve had and look forward to what the future has in store for the killer doll and his family. The show itself is off to a great and violent start, so as long as Mancini takes the wheel, I think it’s safe to say Chucky is in good hands. The franchise has been a tonal cyclone, but I’ve adored both its highs and lows from the beginning.