Bride of Chucky (1998)
Dir. Ronny Yu
Written by Don Mancini
Starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Katherine Heigel, Nick Stabile
Boy, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the doll shop… Bam. Chucky’s back. It’s been seven years since we’ve seen the little bastard, and a lot of things have changed since then. For one thing, horror films got real shitty, that would be the most notable thing. SCREAM convinced studios that instead of actual horror movies, what people wanted were disposable, PG-13 postmodern bloodless slasher whodunits with a bunch of blandly pretty white WB actors screaming and saying quippy things. Let’s look at some other horror movies from 1998: Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO. PHANTASM IV. I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. THE FACULTY. HALLOWEEN H20. A remake of CARNIVAL OF SOULS starring Dennis Larry Miller. URBAN LEGEND. CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR (how did they resist “field of screams?!). SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK… FOR MORE. A rouge’s gallery of unworthy sequels, retreads, ill-conceived remakes, and blandly disposable zero-imagination formula hokum.
Actually that doesn’t sound much worse than today, but trust me man. Everything started to look cheap and crappy, people began to substitute irony for imagination, think that every killer needed some kind of cheesy catchphrase. They came for Freddy, for Jason, for Michael Meyers, for Pinhead (Chucky puppeteer Kevin Yagher had killed the franchise off for four years with his compromised Part IV), and then for the lesser-knowns, CHILDREN OF THE CORN V, THE PROPHECY II, THE DENTIST PART 2(?). And they brought them to their knees, one by one.* It’s not that shitty sequels were an invention of the 90s (they’d been making embarrassing horror sequels for quite some time) but the 90’s managed to do what the 80’s could not, and make horror sequels not just shitty and ridiculous, but also boring and forgettable. Bland TV actors, chinzy 90’s lighting, unimaginative and bloodless kills, “self aware” postmodern “laffs.”
|Fuck yoooooouuuuu 90's horror!|
But the tagline here is “Chucky gets lucky,” and that’s true because somehow that slippery little fuck managed to handily dodge the pitfalls of this era and emerge stronger than ever. I guess part of that is because despite the surprisingly strong horror value of CHILD’S PLAY and the surprisingly not-completely-embarrassing-ness of the two sequels, the Chuck was always an inherently funnier gimmick than Freddy or Jason, and even from the start he was kind of a caustically funny asshole. So it’s not quite such a betrayal of the character to push him over the line into the land of deliberate dark comedy. In fact, it turns out that it liberates his character a little, allowing the most enjoyable aspects of his nature to take center stage without having to try to think of yet another scenario where he’s gotta convince some other hapless kid to sit still while he tries to voodoo their soul out.
So right from the start here, you get some deliberate jokes; a sleazy policeman breaks into the evidence vault to steal a mysterious box, but we have a pretty good idea what’s in there because we also get to see a couple other bit of evidence in this locker: A hockey mask/machete combo, for example, or a Shatner mask/steak knife, for another. Man, this town has had a rough history. No wonder the cops here are a little tightly wound.
I know, I know, how is that any different from any of the other smarmy self-referential slashers from this period? Well, the difference is that this one is actually funny. It’s not trying to make any kind of smug blanket statement about genre, just poking a little fun at it’s traditions and excesses. And crucially, itself. CHILD’S PLAY has always been bordering on the comic, and here it finds that a gentle push puts it pleasingly over the edge. I think that’s the ultimate thing that sets this one apart and makes it a success. So many movies from this period seemed to go meta as a response to SCREAM in an apologetic, ha-ha-we’re-in-on-the-joke-don’t-worry-we’re-cool kind of way. BRIDE does not. It never apologizes for it’s excesses, instead it just embraces them and lets it all hang out. And that actually allows it to improve it’s game, no longer held back by a futile effort to present this ridiculous concept seriously. It’s funny because it’s naturally funny, not because they’re afraid you’ll laugh at them if they don’t do it first.
|I love Chucky's middle-age receding hairline. He's looking more and more like Brad Dourif all the time.|
So here’s the story: turns out that Charles Lee Ray had a gal pal all those years ago, one Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly, TIDELAND and World Series of Poker Winner 2005), who hasn’t really been able to let go. In fact, she acquires Chucky’s tattered carcass (making this a direct sequel to part 3 in continuity, if not tone), stitches him back together, and voodoo’s him back to life. But of course, Chucky’s not one to be undyingly grateful for a mere reanimation (ask poor Mr. Sullivan from part III how well that turned out). Hell, it’s already happened to him at least twice that we know of and by now it’s probably kind of a drag. Oh man, this again? So Tiffany and Chuck engage in an escalating battle of violent one-upsmanship, one thing leads to another, and before long there are two bickering psycho killers in dolls bodies. They realize that they need some kind of voodoo artifact that was buried with Charles Lee Ray’s original body (a missed opportunity for a in-the-flesh Brad Dourif cameo) to re-humanize themselves. Funny he didn’t think of that back in the early 90s, but oh well, as we’re well aware by now, Chucky isn’t really a planner.
Regrettably, that leads us to our supposed protagonists, two predictably bland human WB stars (Nick Stabile, Katherine “Seagal’s niece in UNDER SIEGE 2” Heigel) who plan on running away from Heigel’s controlling foster parent John Ritter (don’t worry, he’s not her biological parent so we don’t have to be sad when he dies horribly). Alas, hunky soap opera star Stabile lives next door to Tiffany (he’s so generic that I didn’t even realize he was the same character for most of the movie) and she tricks him into taking the two dolls along with the couple on their road trip to liberation and New Jersey. Neither Chucky nor Tiffany can go very long without murdering someone, though, so it’s not long before the two lovebird kids find their trip is complicated via becoming suspects in a series of over-the-top murders.
|To look upon them is to forget them.|
Stabile and Heigel are the very definition of forgettable generic white people, but I have to admit that the setup is actually pretty good. They don’t know the two evil-looking dolls in their backseat are alive, so they have no idea what could possibly explain the murders that keep happening every time they stop the van, and gradually begin to suspect each other. And things are further complicated because Tiffay --a cold-blooded killer but also a born romantic-- begins to feel a little protective of the adorable couple, trying to surreptitiously help their relationship and punish people who stand in their way. Kind of an evil, murderous little guardian angel.
As much as I love the Chuck, Tiffany is the star of the show here, and the movie’s biggest asset. Not only does Jennifer Tilly fearlessly vamp it up for the role, but she also crafts a funny, unique, and even sort of oddly complex character, a mix of cold blooded crazy and feminine vulnerability. And she’s more than a match for Chuck’s churlishness, able to give tit for tat without batting an eye. As weird as it is, the relationship is oddly sweet, or at the very least oddly engrossing, for the simple fact that wow, these two really are made for each other. They’re way stronger characters than our two leads, and the movie tacitly acknowledges this by essentially making them the main characters.** Their relationship and Tiffany’s mothering of the two kids constitutes the real dramatic crux here, and the film cuts to Stabile and Heigel only reluctantly, out of necessity. Or to shoehorn in scenes of their wacky gay friend (Gordon Michael Woolvett). Incidentally, it turns out being the gay best friend can be a dangerous line of work. I guess it was a little progressive for 1998, though, I shouldn’t complain.
|Fact, this is where Tarantino got the idea for TRUE ROMANCE.|
BRIDE is not a perfect movie, obviously. It has some questionable late 90’s metal on the soundtrack, for example (although you also get some Motörhead and Judas Priest and even Blondie in there) and predictably 90’s aggressively anti-atmospheric lighting and production. But it also has a genuine wit and imagination to it, a great team-up in Chucky and Tiffany, and even some decent kills (in fact, Tiffany zings Chucky over his long history of unimaginative murders, before demonstrating her own more elaborate methods). If it gets a little meta at times (“why does that look so familiar?” Chucky muses after one victim ends up with a Pinhead-esque face full of nails) well, it also takes its central conceit seriously enough to do a good job with it. Series writer Don Mancini clearly has a certain affection for these characters he’s devoted more than a decade of his life to, and it shows in his obvious desire to give them something good to work with. It’s consistently involving, funny, and inventive, and it gives ol’ Chucky a worthy return to form. Even in ‘98, there was nothin’ ironic about that.
*I know, HALLOWEEN H20 is well-remembered for it’s legit final 20 minutes, but let’s be real, a lot of that one is a mess, too.
**In fact, I’d say a good chunk --maybe even a third-- of the runtime is puppets-only, which is just as well because they’re waaaay more expressive and engaging actors than the humans are.