When Mariah isn’t home (she doesn’t like “killer doll” stories,) the younger daughter and I will sometimes put on a Chucky movie. (There are SEVEN of them now!) So what is it about this foul mouthed, murderous, little “Good Guy” doll that seems to have struck such a chord with the sickos and freaks? To answer that question, I think we have to go back to where it first began, and take a look at the movie that started the whole Chucky phenomenon…
Child’s Play, which exploded into theaters in 1988, was directed by Tom Holland (the DIRECTOR version of Tom Holland, not the actor Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man—that younger Holland wasn’t even BORN yet when Chucky got his first kill.) The movie is based on an original screenplay by Don Mancini, which was significantly rewritten by Holland and screenwriter John Lafia before filming began. Incidentally, according to the special features on the version of the DVD that we own, the leading lady of the film, Karen, (who was played by Catherine Hicks) went on to MARRY Kevin Yagher, who created the Chucky puppet for the film! (That doesn’t have much to do with the movie itself, I just thought it was interesting…)
For the two or three of you out there who haven’t seen the film (or for the significantly larger number of you who probably haven’t seen it in a years), here’s what Child’s Play is actually about. A hard-working, single mother, Karen, is attempting to raise her young son, Andy (played by Alex Vincent), in a media saturated world where the television shows that kids watch are pumping out products left and right that the kids MUST HAVE (“Gotta catch ‘em all!”) or be ridiculed as the only kid on the block without! Andy eats “Good Guys” cereal, and we see him wearing a “Good Guys” shirt as he’s watching the program on t.v. AND all he wants is one of the fancy, new, (EXPENSIVE), animatronic “Good Guys” dolls, that are almost as tall as he is and say THREE PRERECORDED PHRASES! Sadly, the toys are too expensive for Karen to buy, so she has to see her son disappointed when he opens his present and gets clothes and not what he really wanted for his birthday.
Meanwhile, in an action / suspense film that’s shooting across town, a serial killer, Charles Lee Ray (played by Brad Dourif), is being chased by real life good-guy, Officer Mike Norris (played by Chris Sarandon—in one of his rare “good guy” roles!) Norris wounds the fleeing murderer, who slips into a toy shop and, thanks to some magical voodoo training he’s had, transfers his mind / soul / consciousness (or whatever) into a toy—one of the “Good Guy” dolls, one of those fancy new one’s just like the one Andy wants—before he can be either killed by Norris or arrested and forced to face justice for his crimes. The spell works but draws a lightning bolt from the sky that causes the toy store to explode. We learn later that at least one of the dolls was thrown clear of the explosion and ended up in the hands of a street person (can you guess WHICH one of the dolls?), and the hard-working, single mother who just wants her son to be happy, buys the toy, in a slightly damaged box, from the street person in a back-alley deal (for less than market value!) Of course, back-alley deals sometimes come with strings attached, and in this case those strings involve the doll being alive and inhabited by the soul of a serial killer—a killer who has vowed to get revenge on the getaway driver who ditched him and left him running from the police on foot, and on the policeman who shot him. Unfortunately, since no one believes Andy when he says it’s his DOLL that’s killing people, the cops think it’s the little boy who’s causing all the mayhem, so there’s that whole “adults don’t believe the kid” angle and the “will they realize what’s really happening in time to stop the villain” plot…and so on…
The question is, how does the movie hold up thirty years after its initial release? Surprisingly, it holds up pretty well. The puppet effects are quite good, and the choice of having Dourif be the VOICE of Chucky was absolutely inspired. According to a short featurette on the DVD, there is an entire cut of the film with a different voice actor as Chucky, a female voice actor for some reason, but the production team realized that it wasn’t working, and they asked Dourif, who was originally only going to play the human version of the Charles Lee Ray, to come back in and redub the Chucky parts in his voice instead. (Thankfully.) Dourif’s delivery is the perfect combination of snarky smart-ass and psychotic fiend, and after all these years of him doing the voice, I personally can’t even IMAGINE someone else playing the role.
The story itself isn’t THAT great—it’s not Hitchcock by any means—but the plot is really only a vehicle that allows us watch this creepy little doll scurry around and murder people in various ways, and laugh in that nasty, psycho voice of his! There are a couple of clever murder scenes in this film, and we also get the genuine creep-out factor of watching Chucky get transformed from a nice, clean “Good Guy” doll into the fiendish little ghoul that he really is as the movie progresses. He gets shot and burned on the face by a cigarette lighter and then melted in a fireplace and so on—and each time he gets more damaged, the doll looks creepier and more disturbing. Again, I don’t think that this movie is particularly SCARY or intricately plotted or anything like that, but it’s got some decent jump scares and several darkly humorous (violent) moments. (“Batter up!” Chucky yells, right before clubbing the kid in the head with a Louisville Slugger.)
I want to reiterate, without Dourif’s voice-acting, I don’t think the movie would work as well. The other characters in the film are solid enough (I’m a little bothered by the young boy’s “baby-talk” cadence, which sounds to me like he’s playing it up a bit too much—but I don’t like “CUTE.”) However, it’s Dourif as Chucky that makes this film so entertaining. The puppetry, and the makeup effects on the little person who plays Chucky in the few scenes that were a bit too difficult to do with a puppet, are top notch. And, now that we’re three decades in, it’s surprising to see how well realized Chucky is, even in this early film. He really doesn’t change much as the franchise moves along (although the tone of the later films definitely becomes more kitschy and tongue-in-cheek. They even get JOHN WATERS to play a character in Seed of Chucky, and you can’t get much kitschier than THAT!)
Overall, the movie still holds up, if you ask me. My daughter, Ellie, likes the Chucky movies so much that she’s going to dress as Tiffany (from Bride of Chucky and after) for Halloween this year. The legacy of Child’s Play is still with us and going strong, and it all started right here with this film. BUT, although the kids seem to love Chucky, I think it’s important to remind folks that this film is rated “R,” and for good reason: Chucky is foul mouthed and misogynistic, and he doesn’t mind getting a little blood on his hands (or the walls.) Final word: Child’s Play isn’t the scariest, the goriest, or the most clever “scary monster” movie out there, but it’s still fun, especially if you have a ghoulish sense of humor and like your serial killers to do more than just walk slowly and silently towards their victims and stab ‘em.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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