Child’s Play (1988)
Dir. Tom Holland
Written by Don Mancini, John Ladia, Tom Holland (because one writer just isn’t enough for your murderous doll epic)
Starring Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif
As you know, I’m something of a sucker for completeness, especially where horror movies are concerned. I love nothing more than to watch a beloved classic, and then follow it through the entire length of it’s journey through shitty sequels, DTV knockoffs, and made-for-TV reimaginings. Two years back, I waded into the quicksand of the four PUMPKINHEAD movies, and then last year (and into this year) I went down the rabbit hole with Pinhead and the gang in all 9 HELLRAISER movies, even that shitty final one which doesn’t even have Doug Bradley, Jesus*.
My plan this year was to do the ill-advised PSYCHO sequels, but then out of the blue, Chucky arrived. That’s his MO, he springs out of the dark at you when you least expect it, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when CURSE OF CHUCKY was suddenly on DVD with absolutely no prior notice whatsoever, but I took it as an omen that it was finally time for me to find out why you never fuck with the Chuck.
See, Chucky fuckin haunted my childhood ever since I saw maybe two minutes of CHILD’S PLAY over my cousin’s shoulder before bolting out of the room while I was in first grade. Subsequently, Chuck’s malevolent visage would continue to haunt me from his roost on the VHS box of the sequels throughout my childhood, at one point causing me to fastidiously avoid ever walking down the horror aisle at the video store, just for fear I might catch a glimpse of that evil little bastard wielding his giant hunting knife or (in the case of CHILD’S PLAY 2) hedge clippers.
But you know, what the heck, he and I have been fighting more more than 20 years now, so in order to set a good example for the Israelis and Palestinians I decided to put aside my apprehension and embrace the things we had in common, for example the fact that we both enjoy it when evils dolls murder people in funny ways.
The Evil Doll in question isn’t really a doll, he’s actually Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, only on-screen for the first scene), the famed “Lakeshore Strangler” of the Chicago area, who uses voodoo to transfer his soul to the body of a doll just before his own death. When a working-class single mom (Catherine Hicks) buys the doll off a hobo for her adorable son Andy (Alex Vincent) strange things start to happen around the home. Especially the murders, that would be the most strange.
One thing I hadn’t really expected is that this is actually a pretty good horror movie, with a decent cast and a crew of solid filmmakers, starting with director Tom Holland. Holland is known for directing the awesome FRIGHT NIGHT, and writing a couple other fun horror things (PSYCHO II, for example, so I guess I was gonna run into Holland either way. Also, THE BEAST WITHIN and CLASS OF 1984) before becoming known for only making terrible, painful garbage like THINNER and THE LANGOLIERS. Here, though, he takes the killer doll premise and classes it up a little with some good actors and nice local texture.
Like CANDYMAN and WOLFEN, this is a rare urban horror film from the 80s, setting the tale in the dystopian urban decay of working-class Chicago neighborhoods and marrying the isolation, economic and class anxieties of big city life with, you know, our innate fears of possessed cabbage patch kids. The location shooting gives the film some rich real-world grit, and makes Chucky’s carnage feel more grounded and meaningful. It’s actually kind of a dark movie, in some ways. Chucky isn’t just a murderous doll, he’s also a manipulative psychopath who exploits young Andy’s innocence and frames the boy for his murders. It’s normal in these movies for our heroes to be faced by disbelief about the danger by jaded authority figures. But how many movies would put the kid in a mental hospital? Holland treads lightly around these aspects of the plot to keep things from turning too depressing, but the cumulative effect gives the movie a little more substance than it strictly needs to have and makes Chucky feel like a genuine villain, not just a kitschy novelty killer.
He’s not quite as world-endingly horrifying as I remember him from my impressionable youth, obviously, but still, at least in this first film he’s a real creepy SOB. The way he unnaturally skitters around on his tiny legs, the creepy malicious expression on his doll’s face, his soulless ginger mop-top, and most of all, that voice. Brad Dourif (who has had a busy career exclusively playing sleazeballs and killers) doesn’t have his usual creepy face to emote with here, so he makes up for it by dialing his vocals to levels well beyond 11. Chucky’s little, so when he attacks he has to make up for it in intensity, and Dourif’s inhuman scream is so fuckin overboard that you completely forget that his little thrashing body looks like Miss Piggy freaking out (apparently he nearly passed out while recording the part where Chucky’s on fire). Never fear, he’s got some snarky one-liners too, but Dourif really makes certain you never forget that inside the comical doll body, there is the mind of a debauched psycho serial killer. You’d think it would be funny to hear a doll start screaming that Andy’s mom is a slut, but actually it’s pretty unnerving just because of how far Dourif goes with it. OK it’s still pretty funny, but with an unexpected layer of actual horror which makes it a more well-rounded experience. I mean, I love CRITTERS and GREMLINS and so forth, but they’re pretty open about the idea that you’re not really gonna be scared of their antagonists. Here, Chucky’s funny, but also a genuinely scary asshole, and in fact the best one-liner of the film is what Andy says to him before torching the little bastard.
I enjoy the funny, tongue-in-cheek Chucky of the later movies too (in fact, I think he made the transition much more gracefully than fellow one-liner laden gimmick killer Freddy Krueger) but it’s nice that at least for this first one, they’re trying to make a genuine horror movie which also happens to have a darkly funny streak. Chucky may have haunted my childhood, but as an adult I gotta respect what he’s doing here; this one is scary and fun without ever retreating into postmodern ironic chuckles, and deserves it’s place along with the better horror movies from its era.
*I felt bad that there weren’t any more HELLRAISER adventures to be had this Chainsawnukah season, that’s why Pinhead is helping me rate the movies this year.