The Child’s Play franchise will forever sadly be associated with one of the most shocking crimes that Britain has ever seen, an association that persists despite the relatively slim evidence that links Child’s Play 3 to the killing of Jamie Bulger and the even slimmer evidence that violent movies represent a sufficient cause to drive someone to murder. I’ve sat through all of the Child’s Play movies back to back to write this article and the only thing in danger of death so far is my liver. Obviously someone being completely obsessed with violent movies is bad but then being obsessed with anything can be bad. Being obsessed with Jodie Foster caused John Hinckley Jr. to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan in the hope of winning her heart. Perhaps if he’d known that Foster was a lesbian and the whole thing was doomed he might have rethought the whole thing. After all, putting a bullet in Reagan’s shoulder just gave him another excuse to be a dick.
A less cynical industry than the movie business might have quietly retired the franchise after all the bad publicity. A less creatively bankrupt industry than the movie business might have thought that after three increasingly shoddy films they might as well try and come up with something new, rather than try to kick the last few bits of change loose from the mouldering body of the franchise. Instead they just waited for the fuss to die down and cranked out two more sequels taking the current tally to 5 films. There’s the real darkness of horror franchises for you, a constant parade of sequels and remakes being spewed out right into the faces of sad obsessive nerds like me. Forever.
With all the negative publicity surrounding the franchise it might surprise people to learn that Child’s Play is actually very good. Its the simple tale of voodoo killer, Charles Lee Ray who, being pursued by the police, decides to use his voodoo powers to swap bodies. It all goes wrong and he winds up transported into the body of a good guy doll, a popular kid’s toy with a ginger mullet and a pair of dungarees. He then gets given to a young boy called Andy, the progeny of a single mum, and a child who looks like the kid who came last in a Macaulay Culkin lookalike competition. As Chucky tries to get Andy to help settle a few old scores and get out of his plastic prison, Andy tries desperately to convince his mother that the sequence of bizarre and horrible events surrounding him are more than the product of an overactive and troubled imagination.
The film is held together by some very decent performances from the central cast, especially the demented voice over work from Brad Dourif as Chucky. Dourif is one of those actors who has never quite achieved breakaway stardom despite turning in consistently good, if broad performances. He’s a kind of thinking man’s Nicolas Cage, excellent at the over the top stuff but without the extensive collection of humorous wigs. The special effects in Child’s Play are also excellent throughout, particularly in the climactic final sequences and particularly if, like me, you like your special effects physical and not computer-generated. Child’s Play has a neat central premise, the classic horror idea of investing something which is already a little unsettling with real evil and then running with it. It’s surprisingly easy to buy the idea of a possessed doll because they already sit squarely in that uncanny valley of the not quite human populated by ventriloquist’s dummies, store mannequins and Pete Burns. Had Child’s Play never seen a sequel it would probably be remembered as one the best horror movies of the 80s. The climactic sequences are amazing, a whirlwind of inventiveness that showcases the full range of the special effects available to the team and layering grotesque imagery on top of grotesque imagery with the good guy doll inhabited by Charles Lee Ray looking increasingly human (and hence horrible) as the climax approaches.
Child’s Play 2
Of course there was always going to be a sequel and it was always going to be significantly worse than the original. Fear is a delicate thing and a hard thing to sustain, especially once you’ve shown that your villain can be beaten. Torture porn franchises often fare better in the long haul because the mood they aim to evoke is despair more than fear and the grinding repetition of careless and meaningless brutality is a fairly reliable means to that end. Child’s Play though was a classic horror, built around the collision between the outré and the familiar, and a sequel was always going to struggle to evoke the same sense of menace. Child’s Play 2 essentially consists of two solid gold segments with a tediously forgettable movie sandwiched between the two. It opens with a fantastic sequence depicting the re-animation of Chucky and finishes with a surreal and disorienting confrontation in a factory filled with good guy dolls. In between we’re treated to a re-run of the first film as Andy, now placed in foster care, tries to get adults to believe him whilst Chucky leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
If there’s one slightly odd running theme of the Child’s Play sequels it’s the idea that everyone who has anything to do with children in a professional capacity secretly hates them. In the first film Andy has a solitary ally in his mother whilst every police officer seems to believe a nine year old to be a plausible suspect in an increasingly bloody murder spree. In Child’s Play 2 we get toy executives who seem to regard making children happy as a distressing side effect of their job, we get foster parents who openly question whether their children are more trouble than they’re worth and a teacher who seems to relish the notion of locking a child in a classroom. It’s slightly weird, especially since we live in a culture where the every tiny doing of small equally banal children is apparently worthy of approving and extensive documentation. That’s certainly the impression I generally get from logging onto Facebook since I turned thirty. The special effects and acting skills on display in Child’s Play 2 are still a cut above average and whilst the film seems somewhat hackneyed, it still manages to be entertaining enough for what it is.
Child’s Play 3
Child’s Play 3 replaces the angelic child Andy of the first two films with a bratty teenage Andy. Teen Andy is mostly notable for achieving the astonishing feat of having the mullet he starts the film with replaced by a shorter haircut that makes him look even more like a dick. No small feat. Some time has passed and Andy, fresh out of therapy, has been sent to a military school because that’s the most moronic thing the scriptwriter could think of to do with the character. We’re treated to a full chorus line of cliches, the asshole instructors, the geeky kid who isn’t going to make it and a sassy, anti-authoritarian girl who would be providing the love interest if the thought of her and teen Andy having sex wasn’t the cinematic equivalent of dosing your tea with bromide salts. Much like Child’s Play 2, all the adults seem to hate anyone under the age of twenty with a ferocious passion, which might be easy to empathise with but makes their particular career choices somewhat difficult to fathom.
As always Chucky has been returned to life and is looking for a human body to inhabit as well as looking for revenge on Andy. Chucky works his way through the supporting cast with a less-than-winning mixture of sassy one-liners and casual racism. Meanwhile the rest of the cast try and mug their way through an awful script that robs the film of any trace of plausibility, delivering the sort of performances that evokes sitcoms of the seventies more than a world of abject horror. Scenes include a tortuously set up wargame gone wrong (Chucky has substituted the paint rounds with live ammo and apparently basic gun safety is the one course this military school doesn’t bother with) and a final confrontation in an amusement park ghost train. Its all desperately underwhelming and lacks anything approaching an interesting idea. About the only laudable thing you can say about the film is that Brad Dourif turns in another fine vocal performance as Chucky. It’d be nice to think this would have been enough to kill the franchise for a while even without the dead child associations but whilst blood may be thicker than water money is thicker still.
Bride of Chucky
Seven years after Child’s Play 3 the series writer took a change of tack to resurrect the franchise. Chucky gets a new look as he is sewn together from scrap fragments by his pre-doll possession girlfriend Tiffany, a trailer trash girl with a grisly obsession with murder. She brings the Chucky doll back to life and, owing to a complicated mix-up, gets herself put into the body of a doll as well. Chucky and Tiffany set out to get themselves re-incarnated as humans by forcing a young couple to drive them across the state to find the voodoo amulet that Charles Lee Ray’s human remains were buried with.
Surprisingly, Bride of Chucky is actually pretty good, so long as you can deal with the franchise morphing more into a horror-comedy than straight horror. Tiffany is superbly played by Jennifer Tilly, a sadly-underrated actress who manages to infuse both the human and doll versions of her character with more than enough charisma to keep pace with Brad Dourif’s typically manic vocal performance. There are plenty of blackly human laughs to be had along their road-trip all helped by a cast with a decent sense of comic timing and a script which, whilst not stellar, has enough ideas to keep things interesting. The human cast are more sympathetic than they have been for a long time, probably because writer Dan Mancini has taken the trouble to flesh out a back story for them which goes beyond ‘guy who hates long hair’ level characterizations of the third movie.
Bride of Chucky realises that it’s hard to keep horror going for the long haul and horror and comedy have always been close bedfellows. Indeed some of the horror of the first Child’s Play movie devolves from a ridiculous premise that feels as though it ought to have been played for laughs but wasn’t.
Seed of Chucky
Do you remember how good New Nightmare was? Don Mancini certainly does, so much so that, in 2004, he more or less attempted to rewrite it as a broad comedy. Seed of Chucky is an ungodly mess and sadly the best things about it have absolutely nothing to do with the franchise and nothing to do with horror at all. There’s three stories happening at once, one of them quite poor, one extremely bad and the other genuinely terrible. In one strand the characters are trying to make a new Chucky movie and we get treated to Jennifer Tilly playing an over-the-top version of herself as she tries to reignite her stalling career by getting the part of the mother of God in rapper Redman’s new version of the Jesus story. This is quite bad but, believe it or not, this is actually the best part of the film. In the second strand, Chucky and Tiffany have been brought back to life and are busy killing people and sometimes trying not to kill people in a strained extended gag about how killing people is an addiction. This is extremely poor. In the third strand, Chucky and Tiffany’s child doll is trying to find its parents and escape a life of exploitation. The doll looks like one of Tim Burton’s off day creations and is in the throes of a gender identity crisis. Chucky wants the child to be a boy and Tiffany wants the child to be a girl. It’s like Boys Don’t Cry except played for laughs. Also Glen (or Glenda) kills people sometimes. This is just fucking hideous.
There are some surprisingly talented actors attached to this cowpat of a movie. Billy Boyd (best known as the most punchable hobbit from Lord of the Rings) provides the voice of Glen/Glenda, Jennifer Tilly is a capable and extremely likeable actress and John Waters (of all people) turns in a reliably sleazy performance as a paparazzi and Redman manages to make the most of his role as the egotistical rapper with the vanity film project. The sad thing is that there’s quite a decent satire of the movie business lurking somewhere in this ungodly mess. Had Don Mancini stuck to the idea of basing the story around an attempt to make another Child’s Play movie and avoided the spaghetti junction of clashing plots and poorly-conceived horror references this might have been an engaging little film. There’s certainly plenty of bitterness about Hollywood on display and the idea of making a horror sequel that doesn’t actually feature the main characters would have been original. As it is we get the franchise closing out on a messy, incoherent mass of competing ideas that’s nowhere near as funny or clever as it thinks it is.
So there we have it. Child’s Play. Two good movies out of five is actually better than most horror franchises and at least two more than Critters managed. Of course, the world being what it is and horror fans being loyal to the point where even hardcore Star Wars fans consider them to have poor quality control, there’s a remake in production. Scheduled for release in 2014 it promises a return to the core qualities of the franchise but darker and grittier. They tried that with Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th and we all saw how that turned out. Sadly the one core quality that won’t be on display in any proposed remake will be originality.