We all know Chucky, the vulgar, red-haired, Jack-Nicholson-sounding killer doll. He’s almost as famous as Freddy or Jason, characters that you don’t have to watch horror movies to be aware of. But when I first saw CHILD’S PLAY in 1988 I honestly didn’t know it was gonna be a killer doll movie. The poster/newspaper ad only showed Chucky’s evil eyes hovering in the sky over little Andy’s babysitter plummeting from the window of their Chicago apartment. A TV ad showed a quick glimpse of him attacking, but I remember thinking of what I was looking at as some kind of crazy witch lady. Maybe a killer dwarf?
An exciting moment in my recent trip to Vegas was seeing a portrait of Chucky and his bride Tiffany posted in the tiny lobby of an Elvis chapel along with Rob and Sheri Moon Zombie, Jon Bon Jovi and somebody he married, Richard Belzer just by himself. There were plenty of horror movies in 1988, but I doubt they’d hang pictures of the killers from BLACK ROSES or HIDE AND GO SHRIEK or even MANIAC COP in there (although that would’ve been a thrill too). Chucky has lasted.
Like anyone I enjoy the pop culture phenomenon of Chucky, most of his sequels and the absurd places this series has gone, but CHILD’S PLAY is something different. It puts a serial killer into the doll in the opening, then puts the doll in the arms of a child and makes us dread what will happen – what is happening when we’re not looking – until near the end. We look accusingly at the doll sitting there limply. We know you’re in there, you asshole. Why won’t you show yourself? For most of the movie his conniving happens in whispers we can’t hear, in low-to-the-floor POV shots, his little hands reaching out, or in quick glimpses, a little thing running by in our peripheral vision. When we finally do get a good look at him in his living-doll form it feels like we caught a bigfoot, or walked in on that dude in the bear costume in THE SHINING. Something we’re not supposed to be seeing.
So in a different way I treasure this more serious, suspenseful first film from director Tom Holland. Yes, the same Tom Holland who plays Spider-man now, who was 8 years old at the time, which is amazing if you think about it, for him to have such insights into not only the world of children, but also their parents. I mean obviously some of that comes from the script, but– Actually, I’m sorry, I seem to have done the math wrong, Holland was negative eight years old in 1988. You know what, that doesn’t seem quite right so let me go ahead and… yeah, I looked it up and in fact this is a different Tom Holland who directed FRIGHT NIGHT and wrote CLASS OF 1984 and PSYCHO II. So he is the #1 Tom Holland in my book even though he was a living adult at the time and it would’ve been more impressive if he did it before being born and then became Spider-man.
It is unusual, though, for any type of horror movie to largely unfold through the point-of-view of a six year old boy (Alex Vincent as Andy). This is not some precociously capable kid, either, he’s kind of a doofus. He’s introduced wearing his silly Good Guys cartoon character overalls and making a huge mess creating an inedible breakfast-in-bed as an excuse to wake his mother up at 6 am. But his youthful cluelessness helps him navigate a difficult life. It seems that his father must’ve died at some point, but he’s only seen in a photo that the camera doesn’t even linger on. Andy seems aware of his mother’s tight money situation – she couldn’t buy him the present he wanted because she didn’t find out early enough to save up for it – but doesn’t know the indignity of dealing with her broadly dickish boss at the department store in order to keep a roof over their head and food on the table (and floor because that kid really doesn’t know how to pour a bowl of cereal).
But his obliviousness does make him an easy mark for Chucky. This is one kindergartener who will let his doll talk him into bringing him to the ghetto. He doesn’t necessarily have to know it’s to murder the ex-partner who left Charles Lee Ray behind.
I love the shots of Andy in his puffy winter coat and hat riding the el train into what movies have trained us to think of as “the bad part of town,” also known as “the inner city,” “the hood,” “the ghetto” or “the projects.” He doesn’t know to be scared or to look out for Candyman (whose movie was filmed in this same part of Chicago several years later). Here’s this little kid carrying a doll almost as big as himself, walking past various street people warming themselves over burn barrels, into a vacant lot full of trash piles, and nobody gives him a second look. I think in real life there’s a good chance somebody would check to make sure he wasn’t lost, but it’s also very plausible that nobody would pay any attention to him. I appreciate that they don’t do the usual movie thing of having him hassled by street gangs. In fact the only people who are actually up to no good around here are the one white guy and his evil doll ex-partner.
By the way, what the hell kind of weird operation was Charles Lee Ray running? We know he was called “The Lakeshore Strangler,” so he must be a serial killer going around strangling people, but he also uses a gun, and he has a partner who must be his getaway driver or something, and he regularly meets with a voodoo priest to learn about surviving death. It’s not surprising to learn that the original script was just an evil doll, and Holland added that he was possessed by the soul of a serial killer. That explains why the backstory is kinda awkwardly jammed in there.
Most killer doll movies I can think of deal with antique dolls (DOLLS, PUPPET MASTER), if not ritualistic dolls from some exotic culture (TRILOGY OF TERROR). CHILD’S PLAY uses voodoo as an explanation, but is novel for using a contemporary, mass-manufactured toy. There’s a reference to, if not satire of, the type of children’s marketing juggernauts that made so much money at the time. The Good Guys seem to have started as a cartoon with other merchandise before they were these dolls, which have different names like Cabbage Patch Kids but animatronic technology like Teddy Ruxpin. It might have been tempting to treat the doll as a fad that’s desirable and inaccessible because of its high demand and low supply (see JINGLE ALL THE WAY). But that’s not necessary because for this family it’s hard to get just because it’s expensive. Having to struggle to get the luxuries they want is regular life for them, not a cultural phenomenon like when a new Tickle Me Elmo or iPhone comes along.
Holland claims to have never met Don Mancini, who wrote the original script and all of the sequels, as well as directing SEED OF CHUCKY and CURSE OF CHUCKY. The director added the Charles Lee Ray backstory to Mancini’s idea about a cursed doll killing the people who Andy gets upset at. (There were also rewrites by John Lafia [MAN’S BEST FRIEND]). It seems like there’s some kind of tension between them about who deserves the credit, and why Holland didn’t participate in any of the sequels, even as a producer. But I really like both visions of the character – this one and the one Mancini developed in the later sequels.
The Holland version of Chucky is kind of a best-of-both-worlds horror villain because he spends most of the movie pretending to be an ordinary doll, taking advantage of the creepiness of things that are meant to be cute and inanimate objects that seem slightly alive. We know he’s in there when she’s shaking the limp doll, looking into its soul-less and unmoving eyes, alone in her apartment. The other day I was writing at the computer and dropped something that brushed against my leg in such a way that I believed for a fraction of a second that a cat was nipping at my leg, even though I haven’t had pets in decades. It gave me chills all over to be alone and suddenly think I wasn’t. CHILD’S PLAY is all about that feeling.
In the early Mancini version you wouldn’t have known for a while if it was Andy doing the murders or if it really was Chucky. Holland shows us the dynamite under the table. We know Chucky is alive but we have to wait and agonize as poor Karen isn’t sure if she’s crazy or not. Of course any reasonable adult would expect Andy before Andy’s doll. Either one is gonna be a pretty big parenting challenge.
Shout out also to poor Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), a homicide cop forced to come to terms with the serial killer he caught being resurrected in the body of a doll. That can’t be good for his emotional state or for his career.
When Chucky does reveal himself it’s another great type of scary because he’s able to look monstrously angry and run at people and I’ve made fun of him for being small before, but pitbulls are small too. Chucky has demonstrated that he can fuck people up. And we’ve seen how he gleeful he was about perverting the innocent relationship between a kid and his imagination, getting a kick out of forcing Andy to have a secret relationship with a corrupting adult. He’s just a despicable asshole of a character, in addition to being a killer doll.
And the effects are fantastic. They created some then-groundbreaking animatronic puppets and didn’t keep them on screen too long, switching expressions and sometimes using a man in a costume (Ed Gale, who also played Howard the Duck), an effective illusion to bring a very strange horror icon to life.
CHILD’S PLAY is a classic. If you haven’t seen it in a while, try it out. It holds up.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.