MGM celebrates that homicidal little bastard Chucky's birthday with Child's Play - Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition, an extras-filled DVD re-release that sports a new cleaned-up anamorphic widescreen transfer of the 1988 cult horror hit. Fans of the Chuckster who recently purchased that nice Universal boxed set of the sequels will no doubt find this inexpensive up-grade the perfect bracer for the upcoming Halloween season.
Umpteenth cable showings and video rentals (not to mention the four self-cannibalizing sequels) probably make a synopsis of Child's Play superfluous, but here goes. Lonely little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), mourning the loss of his father, wants nothing more for his sixth birthday than for his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) to buy him a large-sized, talking "Good Guy" doll. But widowed working mom Karen didn't have enough advanced notice of Andy's birthday wish to save the 100 bucks needed for a new store-bought doll. So, tipped off by her best friend, the wisecracking Maggie (Dianh Manoff), to a bum out behind Karen's department store who's selling a used "Good Guy" doll, Karen delivers on Andy's wish - and sets in motion a firestorm of demonic violence and horror.
That's because, you see, Andy's little "Chucky" doll isn't really just a doll: he's the transferred spirit of serial "Lake Shore Strangler" Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), who, after being mortally wounded by Chicago police Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) in a toy store, utilizes his voodoo training to transfer his soul into the nearest form available: a large "Good Guy" doll. Home with Andy now, Chucky/Charles Lee immediately makes his mark by killing babysitting Maggie (as Andy relates to his mother, Chucky told him afterwards that Maggie, "was a real bitch and got what she deserved."). The crime scene evidence points to Andy's involvement in the crime - at least that's what Detective Norris believes - but it takes another murder (this time, Charles Lee's former accomplice-in-crime upon whom Charles swore vengeance) before Andy is taken from Karen and locked-up for psychiatric evaluation. With Andy out of the way, Chucky is now free to roam about, murdering his foes, until he learns that he needs Andy far more than he originally realized.
I distinctly remember seeing Child's Play in the theatres back in '88...and being somewhat non-plused by it. I had been a huge fan of director Tom Holland's previous collaboration with actor Chris Sarandon in the genuine classic, Fright Night (still hands-down one of the scariest, funniest vampire movies out there). And while I thought it was technically fine, Child's Play struck me then as too familiar, too reminiscent of other "killer doll" films (such as the excellent Richard Attenborough-directed Magic, which Child's Play screenwriter Don Mancini admits was a big influence on this project), married to the then-ubiquitous "supernatural killer/monster who can not die" horror icons like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. But I was anxious to give it another try (I don't think I watched it again all these years), particularly since I had such a good time catching some of the humorous sequels (where comedy was stressed over the thrills - and where Chucky was the front-and-center star).
So I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed re-visiting Child's Play all these years later. It's much more nimble that I remembered - as well as being quite funny - and it has a big-budget sheen to it that compares more-than-favorably with most of the slasher flicks that came out during that period of film history. While many of Child's Play's elements are thoroughly familiar (the last segment of director Dan Curtis' superior little shocker, Trilogy of Terror, is essentially recreated here in the film's third act), the smart, funny screenplay by Mancini, John Lafia, and director Holland has a nice undertone of being a very sick joke on the unhealthy omnipresence of toy marketing and tie-ins that continues to this day. With Chucky the doll's animatronic talking and walking grounded in the rather remarkable (for its time) appearance of such now-primitive "interactive" toys like Teddy Ruxpin back in the mid-80s, it wasn't difficult to take the next step and extrapolate Chucky's murderous exploits from the horrendous true-life stories of parents actually rioting trying to purchase 1980s Cabbage Patch dolls (I believe there were even a few isolated trampling deaths).
Having this kind of subtext immediately elevates Child's Play above 90% of the slasher films out at that time (indeed, having any kind of subtext back then, underpinning the assorted beheadings and disembowelments, was a rarity in that genre), while director Tom Holland's slick, assured direction gives Child's Play a glossy veneer that's missing, also, from most '80s horror films. While certainly not a big-budgeted film, Holland is extremely clever in building Child's Play first as a conventional thriller rooted in solid character motivation, that then moves smoothly into Grade-A horror - all while winking at the audience and keeping things remarkable light and funny. Child's Play moves. Sure, there are lapses in continuity (necessitated, according to the several commentaries on the disc, from post-production marketing research), but Child's Play's speed is its ace in the hole, with Holland (and editor Edward Warschilka) serving up a series of suspenseful set pieces that deliver the goods. And Holland isn't content with just throwing out "red meat" to genre fans, bludgeoning them with crude gore and shock effects (Child's Play is surprisingly tame in its on-screen violence); his thrill scenes are always layered and thematically well thought-out (when Andy takes Chucky to the abandoned house, the tension comes as much from our fear for little Andy in that environment, as from Chucky's next murder; when Detective Norris is attacked by Chucky in his car - a terrific scene - we're on the edge of our seats not just because Chucky tries to strangle him, but also stab him repeatedly in the back and crotch, while we fear Norris is going to crack up the car).
There are rocky spots in Child's Play. The entire sequence where Karen tries to find the bum who sold her Chucky is logically suspect, coming off as an awkward transition manufactured to get Norris over to her side. And for some inexplicable reason, there's no concrete "revelation" scene where Norris up-front admits Karen was right, acknowledging Chucky is alive (and having Karen see and believe that Norris now believes Andy is innocent), the absence of which leaves the final confrontation less grounded and more arbitrary. And after seeing how terrific Sarandon was in Holland's Fright Night, it's disappointing to see him essentially wasted here in an thankless supporting role (he doesn't look too thrilled, either, for that matter). Hicks, in a change from most of these types of films, is visually light and soft and pretty (in contrast to the usually crudely sexual female objects that make up slasher film body counts), and she's quite good interacting with the charmingly real child actor Alex Vincent - their chemistry helping quite a bit in getting over the final, frankly ridiculous (but quite funny) confrontation with Chucky. Hilariously over-the-top, it's hard to imagine anyone involved with the production of this film took this final sequence as anything other than broad parody of the Freddy/Michael/Jason school of slasher flicks - and if they didn't, they should now. It's expertly done, with terrific action and framing, and a tightly structured editing scheme, but it's a goof, through and through - and terrifically funny (even Hicks and her husband, Kevin Yagher, who designed and supervised the construction and operation of the Chucky doll, are cracking up during this scene on their commentary track).
But you can't deny that once Chucky "comes alive," and unleashes a filthy torrent of vulgarities at Karen, his face suddenly transformed into a hideous, grotesque mask, that a new movie star is born. The puppetry work is excellent (please; let's get away from ephemeral CGI effects and get back to more "grounded" model work), but I can't imagine the film working as well as it does without the voice work of Brad Dourif. Growling in a demonic wail of hatred, Dourif pulls off the neat trick of making Chucky both scary and extremely funny in his line readings (whenever a buddy of mine and I would catch a Chucky sequel, we immediately concluded that Chucky once again had delivered the best performance in a film that year). Perhaps it's the shock of Dourif's screaming vulgarities, coming out of a doll that seems so small and non-threatening, that makes the effect so incongruous (and hilarious). Whatever the reason, Dourif gets big laughs with his insults and threats, and single-handedly transforms Chucky from a well-executed but familiar "killer doll," to a bona fide horror movie icon.
There are a handful of featurettes included on the Child's Play - Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition disc, as well. Evil Comes in Small Packages, running a total of 25:22, features three separate interview segments (The Birth of Chucky, Creating the Horror, and Unleashed) with cast and crew of the film, that cover the production and release of Child's Play. Chucky: Building a Nightmare, running 9:52, gives a detailed look at the construction of the Chucky animatronics. A Monster Convention, running 5:24, is a small snippet of a taping at Monster Mania 2007, where the cast reunited for questions from die-hard fans. A vintage 1988 behind-the-scenes featurette, Introducing Chucky: The Making of Child's Play, running 6:07, gives a general overview of the upcoming film. The original theatrical trailer (featuring the voice of recently deceased voiceover "King," Don LaFontaine) is included, along with a photo gallery and trailers for Mr. Brooks and Pathology.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.