Child’s Play: Chucky’s 20th Birthday Edition

When a horror movie has been franchised to death, it’s often so easy to overlook what made audiences connect with the series in the first place. The Halloween franchise reached an untimely demise when, in 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, Busta Rhymes shouted out “Trick-or-treat, motherfucker!” The Friday the 13th series lost it when 2001’s Jason X featured a young astronaut riding Jason’s metallic body through the Earth’s atmosphere like a bobsled. Though both of these franchises were running out of gas long before these moments, it was these specific events that showed more than anything else that some of the old horror strongholds had truly Jumped the Shark (or Nuked the Fridge, if you prefer).

Yet looking back, the first Halloween is a genuine masterpiece: an advanced course in cinematic horror, showing the paranoia and psychological dread can be far more fright-inducing than just “cool death sequences”. This goes for Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and — of course — Child’s Play.

What made Child’s Play so profoundly scary to begin with was simply the very nature of Chucky himself: he was a child’s toy. Chucky was one of many “Good Guys”, an off-shoot of a fictional TV series in which “Good Guys” pledged to be your child’s friend to the end, and the $100 Good Guy animatronic dolls were just starting to hit the market, causing a Furby-like frenzy among consumers.

Of course, Child’s Play was released in 1988, and just one year prior, the animatronic-doll fever was in full swing. Don Mancini’s original screenplay (first titled Batteries Not Included and then changed to Bloody Buddy for legal reasons) capitalized on this fear, suggesting that there was something far more sinister lurking within these human-like creations.

The script went through three re-writes, with director Tom Holland’s final version integrating the element of voodoo, something that serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) is a fan of, and who practices on a Good Guy doll while bleeding in a Chicago toy store, transferring his life into the figure before dying at the hands of cop Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon).

The now-possessed Chucky doll eventually gets into the hands of loving single-mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), who buys it for cheap off of a street peddler after her friend Maggie (Dinah Manoff) informs her that there’s a way to get the popular doll for cheap. Karen happily bestows the gift unto her son, Andy (Alex Vincent, six-years-old at the time of filming), a virtually friendless child who is absolutely wrapped up in the entire Good Guys franchise, watching the animated show religiously while owning such excessive things like the Good Guys Tool Set.

The absence of a father in his life is never explained, so the audience is left to guess as to what happened. Andy immediately bonds with the Chucky doll, and being a kid, he fails to notice such odd occurrences as when Chucky’s head whips around to the television to catch a news report on his own death (as Charles) or even when he calls Aunt Maggie a bitch. Even though the Good Guy dolls always pledge to be “your friend to the end”, Andy’s reluctant bond is tested as the body count around him slowly rises, starting with Aunt Maggie and chaotically blossoming from there.

The emotional crux of the movie, however, hinges on Karen, as following the events of Maggie’s untimely demise, her maternal instincts kick into overdrive, first chastising the police officers for insisting that Andy might have had something to do with Maggie’s death (he wears Good Guy shoes, the same design that Chucky wears), then later chastising Andy for insisting that these events are all the result of Chucky’s doing. Of course, her attitude changes after Chucky spits out some catch-phrases to her … and only then discovers that the batteries required to operate the doll had never been installed in the first place. This leads down a road filled with vile voodoo doll practices, sanitarium visits, and many, many slow-motion shots of Chucky being shot (all of which prove to be surprisingly effective).

The heart of the movie remains the bond between mother and child during a time of crisis, but the crisis in question is rendered with an incredible finesse, something that’s exhibited with the loving plethora of extras scattered on the “20th Anniversary” DVD edition of Child’s Play. First, there are two commentary tracks: one with Hicks, Vincent, and Chucky designer Kevin Yagher, the second with Mancini and producer David Kirschner. What’s remarkable about both of these is just how informative and in-depth they are.

On the first one, Hicks and Vincent reminisce vividly over the elaborate rehearsal process they went through, often with Dourif himself “acting” as Chucky just to get the feeling of his character instilled in the actors, all while Yagher points out the many technical challenges that were involved in bringing such a character to life on screen (and long before computer effects were the Hollywood norm). The commentary with Kirschner and Mancini, however, details the casting process, what original drafts of the script contained (Maggie initially dying via bathtub electrocution, an effect that was held over for another Chucky movie), and some of the logistical problems that the crew had to overcome in order to animate Chucky (the Barclay’s apartment set, for example, was actually built four feet off of the ground so that the puppeteers could work Chucky from underneath).

Dourif also gets to have some fun by doing some in-character commentary on select scenes. Yet the real takeaways are the numerous behind-the-scenes docs that detail not just the creation of the movie, but the many, many robotic incarnations that the Chucky doll went through, including the construction of at least nine different Chucky dolls (one for walking, one for close facial movements, etc.). There’s a genuine love and appreciation for this movie that just radiates from these extras, making it a real treat for horror aficionados.

Some 20 years later, Child’s Play still delivers some excellent thrills, the whole film radiating a sinister darkness that got lost with its numerous, much more “humor-based” sequels. The original film doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary, but that’s because it doesn’t need to: by effectively working traditional horror tropes, Child’s Play manages to get a lot of fright mileage out of its simple concept alone.

Besides, it’s a refreshing reminder of how good this franchise was in the beginning, instead of sequels in which Chucky runs Britney Spears off the road, causing her car to explode. In order for a movie to be franchised to death, it has to be great to begin with, and Child’s Play, thankfully, retains all of its punch two decades later. Heidy-ho!

RATING 7 / 10