Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Seed of Chucky

Seed Of Chucky (2004)
Dir. and Written by Don Mancini
Starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Redman, Hannah Spearritt

So, the last time we fucked with the Chuck was waaaay back in, holy cow, 2013! I recall promising at the time I’d do the whole series. I promise a lot of things. But for some reason I didn’t and then almost half a decade went by, and everything got way different. Worse, let’s go ahead and say. 2013 was a simpler time, when the phrase “President Donald Trump” would have made you think, “oh, did that old has-been flim-flammer buy a wig company and install himself as president? Why are people still paying attention to him, again?”

But like Trump, Chucky just won’t go away, even when it becomes obvious he probably should. One opportunity to hang up his little doll boots would have been after the original CHILD’S PLAY proved, against all odds, to actually be a solid, creepy little thriller. Another would have been after CHILD’S PLAY2 turned out to be a lazy, half-thought-through retread moderately redeemed by a cool finale, and another would have been after CHILD’S PLAY 3 was an even MORE lazy, half-thought-through retread without even the benefit of a cool climax. And an even better time would have been after the 1998 meta-comedy revival, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, was somehow, against even more all odds, also sort of semi-charming. I mean, what were the chances they were gonna pull that off again?

But, for good or ill, Chucky franchise steward Don Mancini (starting as a co-writer in CHILD’S PLAY but by SEED graduating to writer/director/executive producer) really got stuck on this concept, to such an extent that the solitary non-Chucky thing I have ever seen him do professionally since CHILD’S PLAY is... judge a Food Network Halloween-themed novelty cake-baking contest.* Granted, judging elaborately, impractically decorated cake versions of famous movie monsters is a totally different skillset from writing a CHILD’S PLAY movie, so hats off to him, his Renaissance man bonafides are now firmly established. But still, the guy’s been riding the Chucky train almost non-stop for 30 years now, since he was a spry 25-year old. That’s commitment. (In fact, mere minutes before posting this, I just saw a news alert claiming he’s in the process of creating a Chucky TV series. The man is a fucking machine).

That kind of borderline psychotic fixation was definitely a requirement for making SEED OF CHUCKY, because let’s be real, BRIDE OF CHUCKY was an order of magnitude better than you’d have any legitimate reason to hope from a 1990’s meta-comedy franchise reboot... and it was still just OK. I gave it a solidly positive review back in 2013, but you’ll notice even didn’t exactly rush out and pick up the sequel, and I’m pretty much the target demographic here. And this is a sequel six years after that, in 2004, another era which was not exactly kind to horror movies. 1998 --still basking in SCREAM’s meta-horror afterglow-- at least provided a cinematic landscape where a comedy re-imagining made sense. By 2004, though, we’d embraced gloomy, ultra-serious J-horror remakes and were poised right at the edge of the torture-porn epidemic. Other horror movies that year included Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, the American GRUDGE remake, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (which remains the single worst film I’ve ever watched all the way through in a theater), the first SAW, DEADBIRDS, M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. Fucking GODSEND, for heaven’s sake.** Not a lot of laffs there.***

So in summary, this is a way-too-late sequel to a reboot of a distinctly second-tier 80’s gimmick slasher franchise which was released at a moment when it could hardly be more out of touch with the current trends. It was, in short, a terrible idea. But some muthafucker’s always trying to ice skate uphill, and to his credit, Mancini seems to have been aware that the only way to do this is to make up in moxie what the concept lacks in judgement. I congratulated BRIDE for embracing its own ridiculousness and letting it all hang out, but SEED goes way beyond that, stubbornly pushing past its predecessors’ already lax sense of logic and good taste, and brazenly marching the series in some… I don’t know if bold is exactly the word I’m searching for, but definitely weird directions.

            See, Mancini seems to believe that if BRIDE OF CHUCKY succeeded by being a tongue-in-cheek meta take on CHILD’S PLAY, the only direction to go is deeper into wacky postmodernism, so SEED OF CHUCKY is sort of a tongue-in-cheek meta take on BRIDE OF CHUCKY, gallantly throwing caution and basic narrative structure to the wind and presenting a world wherein BRIDE OF CHUCKY actress Jennifer Tilly is playing… BRIDE OF CHUCKY actress Jennifer Tilly, but somehow also the events of BRIDE OF CHUCKY also more or less happened in real life. There’s a cameo from red-hot ripped-from-the-headlines actor Jason Flemyng (“Lobby Goon,” KICK-ASS), who is starring in a movie-within-a-movie Christmas-themed CHUCKY sequel which would probably have been a better idea than this movie, right off the bat. Isn’t that hilarious, that in this Chucky movie, they make fun of how low-rent Chucky movies are? So it’s gonna be that kind of party.

            We’ll get back to Jennifer Tilly in a bit, but first, the movie actually begins with something you’d think (and the poster implies) would happen only at the end, if at all. It seems the eyebrow-raising doll-on-doll sex scene from BRIDE OF CHUCKY took, because we begin with what can only have been the result of that unholy union: an unfortunate young doll named Glen (voiced by Billy Boyd, just a scant two years after his tenure in the Best-picture winning RETURN OF THE KING). Glen is an ambiguously gendered, sweet-natured doll with a tendency to pee himself at the first sign of conflict, which the movie seems to think is the most hilarious thing that has ever happened and well worth returning to for what feel like about five dozen callbacks. So you can guess how well things go for him when he unwisely uses voodoo to revive his parents, who he’s never met but identifies from a TV making-of featurette that finds Jennifer Tilly talking about the CHUCKY series. The logic of how all this fits into the continuity is a little hazy, but dude, we’re in a movie with a sentient, anatomically neutral doll that somehow manages to pee itself. If that’s gonna be the thing you can’t get past, this is going to go very badly for you.

            Anyway, a revived Chucky and Tiffany (both still in doll form) don’t seem especially curious about the how’s and why’s of this either. Chucky is cheered by the idea of having a son to assist him and carry on his murderous work, but Tiffany, feeling some maternal responsibility, decides she wants to raise him in a slightly less homicidal manner, regardless of her own murderous inclination. Besides, while Chucky has now apparently found peace with the idea of being a killer doll, Tiffany would like a human body… and she sets her sights on beloved Hollywood superstar and World Series of Poker winner Jennifer Tilly. So, much of the movie is about Tiffany stalking Tilly, while the unwitting actress in busy trying to seduce big-time Hollywood director and Wu-block affiliate**** Redman (HOW HIGH) into casting her as Mary H. Christ in his upcoming Bible epic. Also Tiffany wants to take Glen’s soul and put it in the body of a human baby, but since she wants to be in Jennifer Tilly’s body, that means she has to get her pregnant with Chucky’s child without arousing the actress’s suspicions. And there’s a sleazy tabloid paparazzo (John Waters[!?]) who’s beginning to pick up on something being amiss at Miss Tilly’s classic Hollywood palatial mansion. And also, the emotional strain of being pulled in two directions by Chucky and Tiffany is causing Glen’s latent maniacal tendencies (and gender confusion*****) to reach something of a boiling point.

            Got all that? No? That’s OK, I don’t think Mancini really does either, and the result is a movie which is narratively kind of a shapeless heap of ideas that tend to compete with each other for prominence instead of building to a cohesive whole. It wants to do everything, and consequently succeeds at doing not very much at all. It’s a silly, amiable extension of the somewhat silly, amiable BRIDE OF CHUCKY, but it definitely proves that you can have too much of a good thing. Which is not to say it’s a complete wash, by any means. It’s likeable enough to draw some consistent chuckles, and very occasionally clever in its postmodern meta high-wire act (Tilly, anyway, is obviously having a lot of fun playing the shallow, SUNSET BOULEVARD version of herself and the star-struck killer doll stalking her, even if it’s probably more amusing in concept than in execution.)

But I can’t help but notice it continues to neglect the real genre goods. BRIDE was already drifting away from any pretense of suspense, or even “good kills,” but SEED is even more enamoured with the idea of itself as a cheeky sendup, rarely even makes a gesture towards any clearly identifiable horror, even the schlocky, gorey stuff you would reasonably expect from a killer doll movie. I’m not looking for THE SHINING here, but come on, this is way too much plot to offer such mild payoffs. In particular, Chucky himself is really sidelined by Tiffany and Glen. Three’s a crowd, and with a plot this scatterbrained they end up kinda competing with each other for your attention. Mancini, who obviously took the precaution of travelling forward in time to read the suggestion in my BRIDE OF CHUCKY review that they ditch the boring “A” plot with Katherine Heigl and focus on the Chuck, does exactly that in SEED: the dolls are the main characters and the stars of the film, without any real competition. But it turns out not to work much better. Oops, sorry about that, Don. My bad.

 For the story to function, Chucky needs to have conflict, but turning the antagonists of the previous films into a bickering family sitcom straitjackets the movie’s anarchic impulses and reduces the Chuck to a supporting character in his own movie. When you come right down to it, Tiff is actually the more interesting character anyway; Chucky’s needs and wants are fairly straightforward, so bringing Tiffany to the forefront gives the movie a pathos and structure it probably needed. But come on man, who’s name is on the marquee here? Setting Chucky as the main character isn’t going to work, but shifting him to a back burner is losing focus on what we came to do here in the first place. So fuck it. A movie that spends this much time and energy trying to contain Chucky’s homicidal glee is a movie which has postmodern’d itself right out of its own reason for existing.

Openly lacking much interest in horror, Mancini instead seems to be shooting for camp, which is usually a bad bet. You can’t force camp. Camp comes unbidden. Camp just happens. Putting John Waters in your movie is certainly a good thing to do, and I urge future filmmakers to do it more, but it’s not quite the same thing. SEED OF CHUCKY is… tasteless, sure (especially looking back from a more enlightened day and age, when the idea of surreptitiously impregnating actress Jennifer Tilly without her knowledge or consent, or forcing her to have sex with a sleazy Hollywood director in exchange for a good role, doesn’t quite scan with the ‘ain’t I a stinker!’ charm the movie suggests it ought). But true camp alludes it. It references camp; it’s adjacent to camp. But such is the bitter irony of camp: if you’re self-aware enough to try for camp, it will always elude you.

So it doesn’t quite cut it as camp, it's too plotty for empty-headed schlock, it's too mild-mannered to coast on shock (its most subversive idea is a masturbating doll, and even that only in the Unrated version), it’s got zero interest in being scary, and doesn’t even offer a whole lot of gore (there are only two or three “good kills” anywhere in sight, and none of them are real showstoppers). Since that doesn't really leave you with a lot to hang on to, there's a good bit of down time to notice two surprising things SEED reveals about Mancini in his directorial debut: he has an unexpectedly excellent eye for image, and a relatively weak sense for comic editing. I’ll lead with the more positive of those two observations. While any horror that occurs here is practically incidental, Mancini and cinematographer Vernon Layton (THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN) turn out to have a real fetish for the icons of classic Hollywood gothic horror, and a solid aptitude for visually recapturing them (or at least paying tribute to them). Consequently, for no narrative reason, they cram in plenty of spooky attics and spider webs and so forth, as well as beautifully framed eerie mansions which always seem to be slightly off-kilter, and even a nice-looking visual reference to PSYCHO (which, as an added bonus, turns out to make narrative sense)! Of course, if the Chucky series is anything, it’s a gimmick slasher, and consequently dumping a bunch of slasher tropes on top of its aspirations towards an old-school gothic aesthetic just creates yet another awkward mish-mash of tones and aspirations. But at least it looks nice.

On the other hand, who can stay mad at a movie which brought these two together?

That’s a pleasant surprise, but it’s weighed down by some very awkward timing. For this deficiency we probably ought to assign some blame to, haha, Academy-Award winning editor Chris Dickens (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), except that his deft work on SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ (and hopefully the upcoming SOLO: AN UNASKED FOR STAR WARS STORY) aptly demonstrates his excellent sense of comic timing and deft hand at grappling competing tones. So I think it must be Mancini himself who is responsible for the draggy feel which persists intermittently throughout the film, never grinding things entirely to a halt, but also ensuring that this frothy nothing of a plot never feels quite as energetic and light on its feet as it needs to.

 Part of the problem may be purely practical; I have a suspicion that the dolls have to talk kind of slow for their mouths to work right. That was never a problem when Chucky was still a villain, as it meant Brad Dourif (hey, I just realized he and Boyd are both LotR alums!) could drag out his loungy Nicholson-eque menace. But with most of the malicious threat replaced by a family sitcom about killer dolls, any flagging in the energy really drains the bite from the semi-comedic bickering which the movie is banking on. Comic banter is a tough thing to get right in any scenario, and tends to rely on punchy liveliness (especially since the writing ain’t exactly Oscar Wilde). A bit of manic exuberance might have papered that over enough to get by, but somebody -- either the director, the actors, or the puppeteers -- can’t seem to conjure it, and the result is never as funny as it needs to be.

Worse still, Mancini lets scenes play out waaay longer than he needs to get the goods from them -- the worst offender being the final coda, which stretches what ought to have been a 30-second sting into a languid five-minute grind (actually it looks like this is only in the “extended edition” but still). He also has a habit of wasting time with needless, unentertaining characters like Tilly's bland limo driver (Steve West, Not Porn [TV movie]******) who does not need 20 minutes of introduction in order to be unmemorable body count, and a soon-to-be-Halloran’d personal assistant  (Hannah Spearritt, the most undeservedly brutalized personal assistant til that poor young woman from JURASSIC WORLD) who ends up with a positively scandalous amount of screen time considering how little she ends up having to do with anything. This dead weight lards up the film and makes it stretch your goodwill more than it really has the goods to get away with. Other things, like Waters’ abbreviated arc as a sleazy poperatzo (he’s a delight), or the suggestion of a doll-on-doll karate fight (because... Japan?) actually cry out for more time to develop, but seem oddly truncated before they can build momentum.

All that adds up to a movie which is hard to justify recommending, except as an odd novelty. But for all that, I also find it hard to entirely condemn something so silly and eager to please. I mean, it’s annoying that Redman playing himself as a sleazy Hollywood director of a Biblical epic doesn’t end up being funnier than this, but on the other hand, the idea is funny enough to go a long way on its own. And come on, what other movie is going to try it? That pretty much sums up up the whole experience. There’s a lot to like in concept, but not so much in execution. But still, a fun concept is a fun concept, and I’ll take those where I can get ‘em. I’d prefer a better version of all of this, but a world with a not-quite-successful movie this weird is certainly better than a world with none at all.

The Chucky's Play Series:
  3. CHILD’S PLAY 3 

*That isn’t entirely fair, it seems; he also wrote an episode of Tales From The Crypt and recently worked as a producer and writer on the TV series Hannibal and Channel Zero. And he wrote CELLAR DWELLER, but that was under a pseudonym and also before CHILD’S PLAY. He also appeared on something called “SexTV,” as “himself,” in an otherwise unspecified capacity, according to wikipedia.

** Also, somehow both GINGER SNAPS: 2 and GINGER SNAPS BACK. Asian horror was still riding high, with SHUTTER, PREMONITION, 3 EXTREMES and MAREBITO released that year, but America was only barely aware of that.


**** Or apparently he’s a full-fledged member? He said so in 2010, anyway. I sure don’t see him turn up on their albums very much. Oh, OK, looks like RZA walked that back a bit later.

***** My apologies if that term is considered tantamount to genocide by the time you read this in 2049. I’m trying to be sensitive here but this movie doesn’t exactly give me a lot of room for empathetic nuance about constrictive gender norms. Would it help if I told you Don Mancini is openly gay?

****** Methinks it doth protest too much.

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

They unwisely wasted “Chucky Gets Lucky” on the last sequel, but they still got a few good ones: Deliver Us Some Evil, Time To Raise Some Hell, Fear The Second Coming (?).
Yes, #5 of, good lord, 7 movies.
Killer doll, horror-comedy, meta-comedy, psychological horror
Jennifer Tilly? John Waters? Jason Flemyng??
Chucky! And also this is as good a time as any to mention that Pino Donaggio did the score.
Yes, at least in the “Extended edition” there’s a shower scene stuck at the opening. There’s also doll boobs, so you fans of HOWARD THE DUCK, prick up your ears.
They play it lightly, but there’s definitely a (doll) woman-on-woman forced impregnation, and the bits with Redman being a cad and pushing Tilly’s head into his lap and such seem decidedly cringy and unfunny today (it doesn’t help that they’re just kinda awkward and unfunny even absent the ethical unpleasantness). Boy, how far we’ve come even since the early 2000’s!
None, though Voodoo is again mentioned
Well, that’s pretty much the whole thing
No, although I notice the new sequel, which I haven’t seen yet, is called CULT OF CHUCKY
Oh yeah
(spoiler) Glen to Glenda!
Starts with a long first-person kill sequence
Never meta the meta, dude! It’s like crossing the streams.

No comments:

Post a Comment