From slasher villain to LGBTQ icon, 'Child's Play's' Chucky changes with the times
The mythology of horror franchises tends to unfold like a game of "telephone," where the story starts in a simple place -- say, man in mask slashes horny teenagers -- and ends up somewhere ridiculous, the result of filmmakers and actors ducking in and out of the series, villains killed and miraculously resurrected, and the various trends that alter the market.
This is how Jason Voorhees ends up in space in the 10th "Friday the 13th" movie. Or how Freddy Krueger traps a victim in a video game and kills him off with a Nintendo Power Glove in the sixth "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie. Or how Michael Myers disappears altogether from "Halloween III: Season of the Witch," which instead concerns itself with a toymaker implanting Halloween masks with the mesmeric power of Stonehenge.
The first "Child's Play" movie arrived in 1988, as the slasher cycle that had dominated the '80s was finally starting to taper off. "Halloween" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" were on their fourth iterations, "Friday the 13th" was on its seventh, and creative fatigue had settled in. "Child's Play" was a twist on the Cabbage Patch Kids craze that had seized the country a few years before: What if, instead of consumers fighting each other for a children's doll, the doll itself would be a menace to anyone who purchased it? It could still be a slasher film, with the requisite stabbings and dismemberment, but underscored by a sense of the absurd.
Yet there's an even more crucial difference between "Child's Play" and other slasher franchises of its ilk: Over seven films and nearly three decades, including, most recently, the 2017 straight-to-video entry "Cult of Chucky," the series has been under the care and supervision of its creator, Don Mancini, who scripted all seven and directed three. The new "Child's Play" reboot, which opened last weekend, was produced without Mancini's participation or approval, and without the long-standing contributions of Brad Dourif, the voice of its evil doll Chucky, and Jennifer Tilly, who's played Chucky's partner-in-crime (and occasional lover ... it's complicated) since the fourth film. (Mancini is working on a Chucky TV series for Syfy, which may be the first time a reboot has debuted in parallel with its still-active inspiration.)
From the beginning, "Child's Play" has faced an uphill battle for respectability. On top of slasher-movie fatigue, which has created a hostile market for horror cash-ins, the prospect of a killer doll never seemed all that scary. Chucky could get kicked or thrown or yanked apart like any other plastic toy, right? He's no more than 10 pounds soaking wet, with tiny hands and stubby feet, and even the serial killer who possesses him, Charles Lee Ray (aka "The Lakeshore Strangler"), constantly gripes about his soul being stuck in such a limited frame. But there's a metaphor here about Chucky's resilience that could apply to the whole series: He's got a nasty bite, he's nearly impossible to kill, and he has the versatility to thrive in all sorts of different situations. He's a toy built to last.
Under Mancini's guiding hand, "Child's Play" has gone through three distinct phases, each shrewdly adapted for its era. The first three, produced in a rush from 1988 to 1991, were a typical case of a studio seizing on a novelty hit, though the series was always a shade quirkier than its grimly relentless counterparts. The original is a relatively straightforward horror-thriller, but little touches give it distinction: the relationship between a cash-poor single mother and her sweet-natured son, the gritty Chicago locations, the conception of Chucky as more of a foul-tongued lowlife than a garden-variety psychopath. The two quickie sequels offered diminishing returns, but even they have their merits, such as performances by cult favorites Grace Zabriskie and Beth Grant in the second or the joke of Chucky somehow shipping himself to a military academy in the third.
The second and most compelling phase found "Child's Play" adapting to a post-"Scream" era of self-awareness and in-jokes by transforming itself into lurid camp comedy, flush with references to horror classics and a distinctly progressive appeal to the LGBT community. Though made six years apart, in 1998 and 2004, "Bride of Chucky" and "Seed of Chucky" are companion pieces, the first a wildly stylized black comedy directed by Hong Kong action specialist Ronny Yu ("A Chinese Ghost Story") and the second Mancini's debut behind the camera.
By adding Tilly to the mix as Tiffany, a baby-voiced sexpot inspired by her character in the lesbian thriller "Bound," the series opened itself up to kinky gamesmanship and clever nods to "Bride of Frankenstein," "Bonnie and Clyde," and the Ed Wood laugher "Glen or Glenda." On the latter front, "Seed of Chucky" brings a gender nonconforming child into the mix, assigned Glen at birth but finding an inner Glenda along the way. For transgender horror fans, the film has become a touchstone.
The two most recent sequels, "Curse of Chucky"and "Cult of Chucky," were quietly slipped into the video-on-demand market, where a lot of genre films can find their audience on the cheap. Both retreat to the meat-and-potatoes shocks of the original films, but Mancini shows off an increased brio as a filmmaker, turning single locations -- an old house in one, a mental institution in the other -- into atmospheric spaces for Chucky to create chaos. They also bring Dourif's daughter Fiona into the fold as Nica, Chucky's paraplegic foil, and continues "Child's Play" as a family affair, built around a close-knit team of recurring producers and performers.
The new "Child's Play" updates the series to peel off fans of Annabelle, the latest in killer-doll sensations, and modernize it with the technophobia of the popular Netflix anthology "Black Mirror." Chucky is no longer a serial killer confined to an animatronic plastic shell, but a self-learning "smart toy" that links to the cloud and marshals the demonic force of interconnected devices. It's a glibly satirical conceit, preying on the common fear that the technology we rely on will eventually turn on us.
But the one component this Chucky doll conspicuously lacks? A soul.