Two Cents Makes a New Best Friend with CHILD’S PLAY

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

Of all the long-running franchises to emerge from the slasher-glut of the post-Friday the 13th ’80s landscape, the Child’s Play series, starring Chucky the killer doll, may be the unlikeliest. Not only because “doll possessed by a serial killer” would seem to be a fairly limited premise, but because Child’s Play exists as a reaction to a very specific, very ’80s moment in pop culture.

The original script by Don Mancini was a fairly grim number, a jet-black satire of the growing corner of the toy industry including things like Cabbage Patch Kids, Teddy Ruxpin, and My Buddys, toys that blinked and moved and spoke. These toys weren’t designed to just be…you know…toys, but to act as friends, playmates, custodians, even surrogate parents, provided dear old mom and dad also spent the cash on all the auxiliary products that went with the dolls. Mancini’s script envisioned a doll built so realistically that it included fake blood. When young Andy Barclay mixes his own blood with the doll’s, it comes to life and begins to target and kill those people who have earned the child’s wrath.

The finished Child’s Play ended up being a good deal more playful (natch) once it passed through a number of other writers and director Tom Holland. Chucky (Brad Dourif) is a murderous creep who gets gunned down in a toy store by no-nonsense Detective Mike Norris (Chris “Humperdinck” Sarandon. Before he dies, Chucky uses a voodoo ritual to transfer his soul into a nearby doll, one of a popular line of ‘Good Guy’ toys. The doll ends up in the possession of hard-working single mother Karen Barclay, (Catherine Hicks) desperate for a gift for her 6-year old son Andy (Alex Vincent). No sooner has Chucky been let out of the box then he starts wreaking murderous havoc in Andy and Karen’s life.

Over 30 years later, the havoc hasn’t stopped. The Child’s Play films have continued, always with Mancini as a guiding hand as either writer, co-writer, and more recently director as well. The sequels pivoted to a more comedic bent before committing to being out-and-out absurdist comedies, climaxing (ha) in Seed of Chucky, in which Chucky spawns a gender non-conforming child, jerks off into a turkey baster, and kills both Britney Spears (played by an impersonator) and John Waters (played by John Waters). The franchise then pivoted back to horror, with Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky serving as stripped-down returns to the creepy, lo-fi aesthetics of the original. Despite this bizarre journey to absurdism and back, the Chucky films have maintained a single continuity for their duration, with Mancini as grand architect and Dourif’s maniacal voice work as the twin constants.

Due to a rights snafu, MGM retained creative control over the original Child’s Play (but not the Chucky sequels) and decided to launch a remake, despite the original series continuing in popularity. The remake, released last week, aged up Andy to a young teenager and swapped out the voodoo mythology in favor of making Chucky an AI unit run amok, replacing Dourif with Mark Hamill (the dude from The Guyver).

Some folks liked it, some folks didn’t, but regardless, Mancini, Dourif, and their creative partners are still moving forward with a TV continuation of their original series, with classic Chucky set to stalk SyFy channel sometime next year.

Here’s to 30 more years of Child’s Play.

Next Week’s Pick:

We don’t know if you know this, but there’s an international holiday called “Independence Day” next Thursday? No longer remembered as an American holiday, it was globally canonized in 1996. Anyway, we’re taking a break so you have two weeks to send us your thoughts on the amazing, the spectacular, the sensational, the ultimately Academy Award winning, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, now available to stream on Netflix!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday, July 11!

Our Guests

Chris Chipman:

It’s easy to forget that the original Child’s Play is actually played pretty serious. Charles Lee Ray (played by Grima Wormtongue himself, Brad Dourif), who voodoo-maguffins himself into a Good Guy doll, is depicted as a crass, nasty, dangerous criminal and he continues in that vein as Chucky (also voiced by Dourif). The setup and pacing of the film are tight and the deaths and puppetry on Chucky still hold up. Not having seen this film since I was very young, I was also surprised at how much it still unnerved me.

Like clowns, the idea of a kid’s doll talking on its own or being possessed by some malevolent spirit is a common fear that seems to resonate well in horror films, particularly now with films like Annabelle and the Child’s Play reboot. I saw this film when I was very young, I would say between 6–8 years old, similar to the age of Andy in the first film. There was just a way about the score, cinematography and tone of this film that REALLY got to me as a kid. The fact that this doll was supposed to be Andy’s friend and not only betrayed him but tried to kill him really spoke to me and made me take a second look at my own toys. Also, that creepy voodoo knife with the weird zig-zag on it still creeps me out today.

As an adult with a child with an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis and seeing the way children who are seen as “different” are treated now and also thinking back to the way my own brother had been treated for being autistic and nonconforming in our early private school education, the scenes with Andy just being taken away from his mother and locked up in a creepy psychiatric hospital instead of being listened to really shook me. I thought back to my brother, being treated as if he was “bad” for being different and thought of Andy, who is both being betrayed by his “friend” Chucky and left for dead by the adults who should be protecting him. I then thought about my daughter, who is being treated with such empathy and affection by doctors, specialists, school and society today.

Because of both of these experiences, I am able to look Child’s Play as both a great example (that truly holds up) of this particular brand of horror movie and also a document of the archaic way mental health, especially in children used to be handled. Great to see that in my life-time things have gotten much better. Anyway… Child’s Play… it gets WAY sillier after the second one. (@TheChippa)

Trey Lawson:

Child’s Play is one of those movies that terrified me long before I was old enough to actually see it. Just the premise, combined with VHS art, was enough to overstimulate my young imagination. Looking back, the Chucky/Child’s Play franchise is easily one of the most consistently good slasher series of all time — and with this first film it hit the ground running. The animatronics aren’t as polished as they would become in later sequels, but the ‘less is more’ approach (a la Jaws or Alien) is very effective. Of course Brad Dourif is perfect as Chucky, and Chris Sarandon is a lot of fun as the no-nonsense detective. But what really makes it work is Alex Vincent as Andy — his youth heightens virtually every bit of horror and suspense. I also love the way the film diverts into a weird voodoo revenge subplot, with Chucky hunting down the people who have wronged him. Child’s Play isn’t always my first choice when picking an old school slasher, but it definitely holds up. (The remake is surprisingly good too, albeit in some very different ways — but that is another story!). (@T_Lawson)

Today is Trey’s birthday so we want to give him a special shout!

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

I dunno if this qualifies as a Hot Take or not, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that original Child’s Play is a better version of itself than the original Friday The 13th.

At least in how it creates a truly iconic horror personality and uses all the tricks in its tool chest to utmost effect. Don Mancini and Tom “Fright Night” Holland know exactly just how breezily to play the premise of “dead serial killer uses voodoo to possess a kid’s doll and then do more murders” while also crafting genuinely effective set pieces that play with the fun gimmicks afforded to “small scary thing in familiar settings.” There’s also the commendable way the cast play to the film’s strengths, and the focus on the precocious kid and harried mom being terrorized by Brad Dourif (who, predictably, owns) allows the filmmakers to dispense just enough information for the audience to understand the basics without overloading on lore or exposition.

I really can’t say enough good about how pacey and economical this thing is. Child’s Play spends exactly enough time on “Cabbage Patch Rear Window” before people other than the kid start to catch on, at which point Holland and Mancini load up every gag they can think of to put the cast through the wringer (poor Chris Sarandon damn near gets the Bruce Campbell treatment) and then just empty the clip to make sure that damn near every “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” moment gets a spotlight. Holland’s visual sensibilities are both adept at mitigating some dodgy Chucky doubles while also ratcheting up tension by holding shots with him in the background of the frame or accentuate his stillness so that final act can really go off.

Child’s Play leaves everything on the table, executing a “so crazy it just might work” premise with gusto and then literally burning through it, and however many times Chucky returns, his first outing still holds up as something special. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

There are a couple elements that really make Child’s Play sing, above and beyond the standards of an agreeable ’80s creature feature. Number one is the design of Chucky himself. It’s nothing less than masterpiece, sitting perfectly at the intersection between ‘cute’ and ‘creepy’ so you understand why kids would desperately want the thing, while also ably building menace as it sits and watches hapless humans wandering around unawares of the danger that might spring out at any second. When Chucky comes to full life, the combination of puppetry, animatronics, and performers in costume, working with Dourif’s pre-recorded voice work, create a living, dangerous creature. The seams are visible, particularly whenever they just toss a kid or a dwarf in the costume and have them run around, but Holland is crafty enough in how he shoots and stages the Chucky scenes that it’s never a deal breaker.

But the real magic comes from Hicks and Vincent. The script does an exceptional job at illustrating their dynamic quickly and efficiently (none of Andy’s clothes really ‘fit’, a beautiful, uncommented on touch that highlights the economic straits the family is under) and both are among the most sympathetic victims in any horror film. Vincent, in particular, is almost too good, as the terror and trauma he expresses when Chucky turns is so convincing that Child’s Play, for the first and last time in this series, is at times genuinely upsetting. (@theTrueBrendanF)

Justin Harlan:

Despite being a big horror fan who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’ve never been one to hold the big franchises of that era as sacred cows. While I love most things A Nightmare on Elm Street, others like Halloween and Friday the 13 never meant much to me. Sadly, Child’s Play is included in this category. While I’ve always appreciated the original, I’ve never seen the sequels that I can recall and my appreciation of the original is mostly a shrug and a simple “I dig it.”

Rewatching the original film for the first time in roughly a decade or more, I feel more of the same. It’s a clever premise and a compelling story. Its brand of kindertrauma doesn’t scare as an adult the way it did as a kid, but it’s still very entertaining. While the latter films are mostly played for laughs, as far as I can tell, this film takes the premise rather seriously. And, despite enjoying a good horror-comedy, I appreciate this choice and think this film has aged quite well.(@thepaintedman)

Austin Vashaw:

As a kid, I had a vivid dream in which I thought I had seen my frog hand puppet (a real toy I owned) moving in my peripheral vision, so to expose him I abruptly acted as if I was going to bite his head, and he suddenly wiggled alive in my hand. When I awoke I told my sister about my dream and it distressed her so much that she didn’t want her own puppet anymore.

Similarly, I heard a playground urban legend about a Teddy Ruxpin that came to life in a child’s room at night — a quick Google search shows this telling was not an isolated phenomenon. Incidents like these are definite and irrefutable proof to me that Mancini, Holland, and company definitely tapped into something primal in children’s psyches when they created the Child’s Play concept.

Like Trey, this franchise was introduced to me at the video rental, many years before I actually viewed it. I loved perusing horror covers of movies I wasn’t allowed to watch. The first couple Child’s Play tapes were some of the most memorable images to an impressionable young mind (Chucky decapitating a Jack-O-Lantern!), and I picked up on the name “Chucky” before I knew Freddy or Jason.

As it happens, I didn’t watch Child’s Play until I was an adult, but even so it has some really effective moments of horror, in particular the moment where Catherine Hicks realizes something may actually be wrong with her child’s doll and puts it to the test by threatening violence — a scene which absolutely and immediately recalled when I did the same with my frog puppet.

As I was editing this article my 4-year-old caught a glimpse of Chucky and expressed her opinion that he looks creeeeeepy. Yes, friends, this will be a horror classic forever. (Austin Vashaw)

Next-next week’s pick:

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