You all know the story of the 1988 horror classic CHILD’S PLAY: a single mother buys her son the talking doll he wants for his sixth birthday, she brushes it off as imagination when he claims the doll is telling him weird things, a babysitter gets killed and because of the tiny footprints at the scene the police suspect the kid did it. We only see glimpses of what the doll is up to, but we know that a cornered serial killer named Charles Lee Ray performed a voodoo ritual and his spirit is hiding out in there. And the mom goes from worrying about what’s wrong with her son, to worrying she’s losing her mind for starting to wonder if he’s right, to the total shock of seeing the doll walk around and talk to her and stuff. And now she has to stop this supernatural threat that no one will believe her about before the killer transfers his soul into the body of her son.
This new movie called CHILD’S PLAY that is officially considered a remake is not that story. You still got a single mother (Aubrey Plaza, INGRID GOES WEST) trying to make ends meet working at a store, and she still has a son named Andy (Gabriel Bateman [ANNABELLE]), who she buys a doll named Chucky. But Andy is 13 years old (huge difference) and the doll is an A.I. infused walking and talking robot (also huge difference) and he is not possessed by Charles Lee Ray or anyone else (hugest difference). So there’s no secret, everybody knows it walks around and talks to you and stuff, and the kid is not young enough to be confused by it. Instead of dealing with the classic “no one believes me” theme (until it’s implausibly shoe-horned in near the end) the tension comes from the kids (he has friends in this) making the poor decision to try to hide things from the adults, even though Andy is friends with a nice cop who could help him (the great Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta, WIDOWS, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE).
If you’re going to enjoy this movie – and I did – you have to be able to let most of that go. The original (still ongoing in an upcoming TV show) Chucky series overseen by creator Don Mancini is a miracle of tonal left turns, going neck deep into glorious absurdity (BRIDE OF CHUCKY, SEED OF CHUCKY) and back (CURSE OF CHUCKY). But that first film holds up as an actually scary movie with great atmosphere and production value, and it treats everything, especially Catherine Hicks’ mother character’s dedication to her son, with absolute seriousness. The remake is closer to the tongue-in-cheek slasher tradition of things like JACK FROST and the LEPRECHAUN sequels, a style that rose in the late ’80s and was prominent in the ’90s but has been somewhat neglected during the J-horror remake period, the HOSTEL period, the Platinum Dunes period, the found footage period and the A24 period. It kinda makes sense that a character in the movie has a KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE poster on his wall. This is less silly than that, but it’s fun, gory horror that got some big laughs in my sparsely attended screening and has a few stretches of gruesome delight.
(Quote from an older lady talking to my friends and I afterwards: “Great movie, right? But why was everybody laughing? I thought it was creepy!”)
In this version, Chucky is from a line called Buddi, advertised as sort of a cross between Siri and a robot butler. It can connect to the internet or your devices, order you food or a self-driven ride share type car or bring you your slippers or whatever. It’s artificially intelligent, synced to everything on your phone, and more powerful than you’d think (I laughed when Andy had to pin him down and yelled “Why is he so strong!?”), so it’s obviously a product that presents many dangers, but this particular one had its “behavior inhibitors” turned off by a disgruntled factory worker in Vietnam.
It still seems weird that a 13 year old would want this doll, especially when you see that its main function is to talk about being your best friend and sing a song about it, but the mom buys it for him as kind of a misunderstanding. He just laughed at a meme about a Buddi doll humping. But he reluctantly tries it out and it gives him someone to talk to. I like the strange sight of the two just hanging out in the neighborhood talking like two people.
When they announced that Mark Hamill (THE GUYVER) was voicing Chucky it seemed on one hand like the best movie star they could’ve used, because he’s such an expert voice actor, but on the other hand a little too similar of a voice to Dourif’s. But that’s not really a problem because it’s not the same character at all. Dourif was the true, evil voice of Charles Lee Ray, but when he was pretending to be a doll it was a child’s voice. Hamill is always the doll and doesn’t understand that he’s being creepy. One section of the movie I loved is when he just creeps Andy out by being overly clingy, staring at him while he’s asleep and wanting to sing to him about friendship all the time.
He gets dangerous as he watches the humans around him and picks up on things like how to use a knife and who upsets Andy. In the tradition of your more lowbrow slasher movies, there’s a “can’t wait to see this guy get killed” character in mom’s shitty boyfriend Shane (David Lewis, AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION). I’m not always a fan of that technique, and Catherine Hicks never would’ve let a prick like that into the apartment, but it works for me here. There are some good laughs at the gradual reveals of how much he sucks, at the ways Andy and his friends train Chucky to bother him, and then in his inevitable murder scene, by far the movie’s greatest achievement. I’m gonna not spoil it but it’s an elaborate set piece with some good gimmicks and gags and it ends with a weird and inspired punchline that actually caused me to applaud and not be able to stop laughing into the next scene. And then the aftermath of that event takes the movie into another level of “I can’t believe they did that,” followed by some “I’m not sure about this” contrivances, but at least it’s not something I’ve seen a million times.
From the trailers and stills I didn’t think I liked how the new Chucky looked, but in the movie I really did. Yeah, he’s basically a bootleg of the original, but I like his cartoonish proportions, his light-up eyes, his poses, and he looks cool walking around like Teddy in A.I. They definitely use plenty of animatronic puppetry, and the shots where I was conscious of it being animation it was never because it looked bad, only because he was doing things I didn’t think a puppet could pull off.
So this is a pretty good movie. I liked it. But it’s not as good of an argument for remaking everything as it is for not remaking everything. The basic look of Chucky and the logo are the only important elements it uses from the original, and its main weaknesses wouldn’t apply if it was presented to us as an original killer robot story.
I’m sure they started with the CHILD’S PLAY rights and said “how do we update it to have to do with the modern world?” And it’s a smart idea to add in today’s opt-in surveillance state. Chucky can spy on people through devices connected to the Cloud, he uses sound and video recordings against people and can beam them onto TVs and stuff. But director Lars Klevberg (whose one other feature, POLAROID, was scheduled to be released by Dimension in 2017, but was shelved when Harvey Weinstein received criticism for being a serial rapist) and writer Tyler Burton Smith (a writer of video games and upcoming KUNG FURY 2) are also taking a swipe at adults obsessing over new iPhone models. A worthy target, but I wish they could create a slick looking product and packaging that might actually be popular instead of being wedded to a thing from a 31 year old movie that was inspired by but not exactly satirizing toys that had been popular with children a few years before that.
Frankly I don’t believe very many people would want this product. It’s designed and packaged for children, advertised to adults, and mostly has features that are supposed to be useful to adults, but then talks to you like you’re a baby. Would people be as addicted to their iPhones if they looked like clunky Play Skool knock off junk and Siri always wanted to tell you you’re her friend and sing you a lullaby? The new model Buddis look like characters from GARBAGE PAIL KIDS: THE MOVIE, sometimes with carpet glued to their faces, and are sold at a store called “Zed-Mart” that looks like a K-Mart they forgot to close down in the ’80s and has a logo that would be rejected by a dollar store.
In some ways this remake is a slicker, bigger budget version of low budget ’80s movies, but some of this shit seems straight up PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS. I’m more picky than most about this type of stuff but while I’m at it let me call bullshit on this trope of the “giant corporation named after old man (Tim Matheson, MAGNUM FORCE) who serves as his own pitchman in very successful advertisements.” I know that’s how they did it in shitty old movies (I exclude GREMLINS 2 from this description) but I feel like we can push for today’s movies to seem more like they’re made by humans familiar with the world of humans.
Speaking of the world of humans, I commend them for trying to put in a reference to the near-slavery conditions of Chinese iPhone factories and stuff like that, but budget limitations make it seem like maybe 10 people are exploited at this factory, and the plot blames one of the victims of this exploitation – a coding expert forced to work a grueling factory job and be yelled at for losing his concentration – for the deaths in this movie!
Well, I suppose to be fair there is plenty of blame to go around. We can also point a finger at Tobe Hooper, whose TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 inspires one of Chucky’s more fucked up activities. I was happy to see that great movie shown so much love in this (thought that subplot’s probly gonna play weird in England, where from what I’ve been told the CHILD’S PLAY series is still strongly associated with a murder case that tabloids blamed on part 3.)
P.S. I still wish there was a twist where they worry that the doll is being controlled by some pervert, and then they triangulate where the signal is coming from and discover the real Brad Dourif voiced Chucky cackling and holding a remote control.
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.