Now, at last, we come to perhaps the key moment in this entire Ronny Yu retrospective. After years in the trenches of the Hong Kong film industry, having gained acclaim worldwide for painterly, operatic martial arts fantasies, and having made his American debut earnestly combining that style with a goofy children’s movie, Yu got a high profile Hollywood gig that seemed to many at the time like it was completely random. How the fuck does the director of THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR end up helming part 4 in an American slasher series, reviving it after seven dormant years, and taking it on an intentionally eyebrow-raising tonal swerve into oddball comedy? Did they just think of him because the word “Bride” was in the title?
As the entry that first turned the CHILD’S PLAY series into more of a comedy, BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998) is a cult favorite in its own right, and therefore became arguably Yu’s most widely known film in the West, even if many don’t necessarily know or remember that he directed it. But I’m here to argue that even though this isn’t Yu’s most representative film it does have his stamp on it, and very much fits into his filmography.
BRIDE OF CHUCKY opens with a lightning storm and rain pouring on an American flag. (Welcome back, Mr. Yu. Even though this was filmed in Toronto.) The flag hangs in front of the Lockport Police Department Evidence Depository which for some reason contains, basically, the archives of modern American horror cinema: a goalie mask, a bladed glove, a… you know, re-creation of a William Shatner mask painted white with the eyes widened and sideburns removed. And, of course, unsolved Case #22408, the burnt Good Guys doll, snatched by a corrupt police officer (Vince Corazza, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER III: UNFINISHED BUSINESS) to sell to deceased serial killer Charles Lee Ray’s girlfriend Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly, THE GETAWAY), who we first see as a pair of stiletto heels from under the cop car, then as a latex-clad babe filing her nails on a switchblade and sucking blood off her middle finger, after she slits the cop’s throat.
Back at the trailer park, where Tiffany lives in an Airstream trailer with her doll collection, some black goldfish and a tarantula named Charlotte, Tiffany stitches and staples Chucky’s burnt parts back together. The montage is set to “Living Dead Girl,” which is in the opening credits as “Opening Title Song Performed by ROB ZOMBIE,” though it was not an original composition, as it had already appeared on his first solo album Hellbilly Deluxe. (It would soon return in Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake and then remixed in THE CROW: SALVATION.)
The next step is a ritual involving a pentagram, candles, and the same chant that transferred Chucky’s soul from his dying human body to a doll in CHILD’S PLAY, which Tiffany reads from the book Voodoo For Dummies. As happens in these things, it doesn’t seem to work, but then it does work, and she’s reunited with her old love (voice of Brad Dourif, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION), now in the form of a mangled and stitched-up doll.
One thing that kicks this movie off on a good foot is that Tilly’s acting with the puppet is absolutely great – she looks at him adoringly, and seems a little nervous to see him again, like she’s worried she’ll mess it up. Tiffany really likes that asshole. She even made him Swedish meatballs because it’s his favorite. Also she brought him a doofus S&M goth wannabe serial killer dude named Damian (Alexis Arquette, CHILDREN OF THE CORN V: FIELDS OF TERROR) to murder.
But the lovers get in a fight over their relationship (she was under the impression he was planning to propose to her at the time of his death, and is hurt when he laughs off the idea) so she locks him in a cage and talks to him like he’s a baby (pretty funny), then gives him a wedding-themed female doll to be his new lady (even funnier) but he gets loose and electrocutes her. It would be hard to find a more basic horror movie to reference/homage than BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and yet it’s very clever that the life-giving electricity for the Bride of Chucky is the TV she’s watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN on being tossed into her bath tub to kill her and bring her back in the aforementioned bride doll.
Two lifestyle notes:
- Tiffany’s trailer is amazing – it has a bathroom bigger than my bedroom!
2. Even her shower curtain is cool!
And a weather note: there’s a lightning storm for the first 24 minutes of the movie.
Tiffany cares more about her looks than Chucky does, so it’s important to her to customize her doll to express herself. She makes a new outfit including a leather jacket and little Doc Martens, and she bleaches her hair and puts on nail polish and lipstick.
She’s kind of stuck with Chucky now, but he has a plan: they have to go to his grave in Hackensack, New Jersey to get The Heart of Damballa, a large amulet he was buried wearing that was never mentioned before but is visible on his neck in a newspaper photo taken from a shot in the first movie.
Needing a ride, Tiffany calls her neighbor Jesse Miller (Nick Stabile, who had only been on the soap opera Sunset Beach), a young blandly hunky guy who she likes to act sexy around to get him to help her move heavy objects (like, for example, a trunk with a dead body in it). She convinces Jesse she’ll pay him to deliver some dolls to New Jersey, and he uses this strange job as an excuse to run away with his girlfriend Jade Kincaid (Katherine Heigl, three years after UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY, nine years before KNOCKED UP). Jade’s uncle Warren (John Ritter, two years after SLING BLADE) disapproves of Jesse – perhaps because he’s a dude who drives around in a van with wings painted on the side – and abuses his position as the town’s police chief to have him harassed all the time.
In fact, they don’t realize it, but Uncle Warren follows them and tries to plant a bag of pot in Jesse’s van (as police do), but the dolls they’re transporting that they don’t realize are possessed by serial killers murder him by exploding nails into his face and then cram the body in the back of the van. Similarly, when they get pulled over by another officer (Michael Louis Johnson, one episode of Highlander: The Raven) Chucky sneaks out and blows up the police car with the officer inside.
So sort of the drama or joke of it is that Jesse and Jade keep thinking each other are murderers. This would be a good reason to not stop in Niagara Falls to elope, and another good reason would be that they’re on the news as suspected cop killers. But people don’t always make the best decisions, so they want to get married, then deliver the dolls, then turn themselves in. There are parallels between the two couples as they have disagreements and make up.
In a way the movie peaks at the sleazy honeymoon hotel, because that’s where we get the most spectacular kill as well as the most outrageous comedic sequence. Another couple staying at the hotel try to steal Jesse and Jade’s money, so Tiffany sneaks up on them while they’re having sex, and throws a bottle of champagne into the mirrored ceiling, causing shards to shower down, chop up the couple and explode the waterbed. Chucky is so impressed he immediately proposes, struggling to yank the ring off the dead bride’s severed finger to give to Tiffany.
This causes Tiffany to cry real tears, which makes her wonder “if all the plumbing works.” So then we get a comically disgusting romantic doll makeout session and silhouetted humping. As the tagline said, “Chucky gets lucky.” (Yu says on his DVD commentary that it was an unscripted scene added after he heard Dourif and Tilly improvise moaning in their dialogue recording session and felt “this scene would be hilarious for audiences.”)
After eloping, Jesse and Jade meet up with their supportive friend David (Gordon Michael Woolvett, brother of Jaimz Woolvett, a.k.a. The Schofield Kid in UNFORGIVEN), who discovers Uncle Warren’s rotting corpse in the back (Jade mistook the smell for Jesse’s dirty socks) before suffering what I think might be the first character-abruptly-nailed-by-a-vehicle splatter scene of the digital age. (Given the homophobia of the time, it bothered me to see a gay character’s death get a shock laugh like that. But I didn’t realize that Don Mancini, screenwriter of the entire CHILD’S PLAY series, is gay himself and was just giving that character the honor of a memorable exit. BRIDE OF CHUCKY, you have been cleared of all wrongdoing!)
The climax is definitely the part of the movie that looks most like Yu’s other work. Though I believe at least some of it is filmed on location, the cemetery looks like a BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR style soundstage set, with fog and more lightning to add to the atmosphere.
There’s also a beautiful overhead shot of Charles Lee Ray’s open grave with hanging sheets of plastic blowing around in the wind.
Tiffany gets burnt up and turns into a tragic figure, taking on a mythical feeling more standard to Yu’s work, and other than a beautiful John-Woo-parodying shot of Chucky being blasted through the RV window while firing a gun…
…this is the film’s one little taste of Hong Kong style action when Chucky and Tiffany (who are on the outs at this point) have a shovel fight portrayed not by puppets but (presumably) their doubles Ed Gale (HOWARD THE DUCK, PHANTASM II, recent news articles) and Debbie Lee Carrington (THE EWOK ADVENTURE, CAPTAIN EO, GARBAGE PAIL KIDS: THE MOVIE, TOTAL RECALL).
I haven’t mentioned the veteran cop on the case, Lieutenant Preston (Lawrence Dane, ROLLING VENGEANCE, DARKMAN II: THE RETURN OF DURANT), because he’s not that important. But I like when he arrives just in time to see Chucky screaming and freaking out inside his own grave and says, “Whoah.”
* * *
Earlier in the decade, the horror genre had experienced such a decline in mainstream popularity that now-iconic horror classic SCREAM was initially advertised as a “thriller.” But its success at the box office and in the cultural consciousness brought on a new wave of horror, including this revival of the CHILD’S PLAY series (which is why its poster is a parody of the SCREAM 2 poster). In keeping with the trend, it includes some meta stuff and horror references – Chucky referring to sequels, and always coming back, a character saying “Chucky? He’s so ‘80s. He isn’t even scary,” an allusion to HELLRAISER, the references to BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Jason, Freddy, Michael and Leatherface. Non-horror pop culture references include Jerry Springer, Christian Slater, Murder She Wrote, Martha Stewart, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and The Jeffersons, and – not in the same vein, but worth mentioning – a Gang Starr poster is seen.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that Yu wasn’t very interested in most of that stuff. At the time, though many of us saw opportunity in Hong Kong directors working in Hollywood, we were disappointed that those movies rarely turned out as potent as the ones they’d made back at home; not in their style, not in their emotions, not in their overall entertainment value. They just weren’t the same thing, they didn’t feel like the same type of movies that made us love those directors. Ironically, that seems to have been the exact reason Yu came to Hollywood. He told Matthew Kiernan of Fangoria at the time that in Hollywood “it’s difficult for them to give you that kind of freedom” and “you have to follow certain rules,” but he felt that Hong Kong producers didn’t “have the guts to pursue new subject matter. Everybody just copies everybody.” He said that “People go to the theaters and say, ‘Same old thing.’ They only want to see Hollywood films, where there are more choices, more variety.”
There was no way to take BRIDE OF CHUCKY as a watered-down version of a Hong Kong movie – this was something different. “When you look at the work I’ve done, you’ll see I want to try everything,” Yu explained. “I like to go into unknowns and take risks with my career. I like to try different genres, different stories.”
So he went into the unknown and caused many of the people savvy enough to know the name Ronny Yu to ask that question this review started with: “How the hell did the director of THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR end up doing this?” But I hope if you’ve been reading this series you’re thinking, ”I can see how the hell the director of THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR would end up doing this!” It seems crazy on the surface, but it makes plenty of sense if you look closely enough.
So let’s do that. We know, of course, that this was a time when many Hong Kong directors were being recruited to make English language/Hollywood movies (including Yu’s own WARRIORS OF VIRTUE). Having grown up speaking English and having attended an American college, Yu may have had an easier transition than some.
We also know that he’d directed horror comedies as far back as 1983. He admits that he wasn’t familiar with Chucky when he was offered the movie, but I’ll note that BLESS THIS HOUSE, the movie he released in the same year as CHILD’S PLAY, is a ghost comedy that prominently displays an EVIL DEAD 2 poster. So he was not only up on some of the American horror movies of the era, but specifically one that itself has a Freddy glove in it as an in-joke, as BRIDE OF CHUCKY does.
On his commentary track, Yu explains that he was attracted by the script’s “element of humor” and “tragic love story.” Though generally less absurd than this passion between murderous living dolls, tragic love stories are an element of THE TRAIL, THE OCCUPANT, BLESS THIS HOUSE, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and THE PHANTOM LOVER.
Mancini reportedly wanted Yu on the basis of THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR – because he liked the movie, not because the title was similar – but it can’t have hurt that Yu also had recent experience with groundbreaking animatronic puppetry on WARRIORS OF VIRTUE. A director who figured out how to shoot guys doing kung fu in heavy kangaroo suits with accurate mechanical lip movements is better suited than most to do a movie where two of the main characters are sophisticated puppets requiring special sets built to hide multiple operators and cables under the floors. (Coincidentally, WARRIORS OF VIRTUE animatronics genius Tony Gardner took over the Chucky FX starting with the next film, SEED OF CHUCKY.)
On the commentary Yu says it was important to him to make the dolls seem more alive, particularly by giving them more realistic eyes, which he says were moistened with eyedrops before every scene.
According to the aforementioned Fangoria article, Yu had also been offered “a Wesley Snipes cops-and-robbers action movie” at the time, and wasn’t sure which to take, but when he asked the opinion of his 300-student action filmmaking master class in Sydney they gave “a tremendous response” to the idea of him doing BRIDE OF CHUCKY. We owe those Aussies big time not just for this movie, but because that was the year Snipes did BLADE!
Part of Yu’s deal was that he got to bring along some of his regular team, which is how the great Peter Pau, two years before winning the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, ended up shooting the most beautiful Chucky footage to date. After the RV explodes there’s a pretty, slow motion shot of glass shards splashing in water with fire reflected on it. Even Kathy Najimy’s cameo as a hotel maid who finds dead bodies and screams has beautiful lighting as she enters.
I mean, if I showed you that shot above, or this one right here:
…and I told you it was from a Ronny Yu/Peter Pau movie, would your mind go right to BRIDE OF CHUCKY, or would you think of THE PHANTOM LOVER and the other Hong Kong ones first?
There are some flashy angles, like the POV shots from inside a garbage bag, or an oven full of cookies, or (my favorite), this inside-Chucky’s-lifeless-head POV wisely chosen as the background for Pau’s credit:
Throughout this review I tried to choose some shots that would be less associated with the Chucky intellectual property saga to really make you consider the Ronny Yu-ness and Peter Pau-ness on hand, but I also want to mention how much I love these split diopter shots with one character (whether puppet or human) up close to the camera in the foreground while another character is also in focus in the background:
Or even just a character in the foreground and some nice lightbeams in the background. This might be my favorite shot in the movie:
They printed on Kodak Vision Premiere stock for high contrast and, as in THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and WARRIORS OF VIRTUE, used step printing for a dreamy slo-mo effect on a few shots.
Yu also had his long time editor (and BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR II director) David Wu as editor and second unit director.
Of course, I’m not going to argue that BRIDE OF CHUCKY is Ronny Yu’s vision. I think the most important elements to its success are Mancini’s goofy script, the performances of Dourif and Tilly, and the redesign and improved puppet technology provided by Kevin Yagher and the rest of the FX team. But Yu came in, filming only six months before the release date, and got all this to work, with plenty of visuals that go above and beyond what is expected of the genre. Most crucially, he pushed for the casting of Tilly and for making Tiffany into more of a tragic character at the end, which I think is key to the success and enduring appeal of the movie. Though their reported second choice of Gina Gershon is also a cool actress, I think the movie really needs that contradictory wickedness and girlish innocence that’s specific to Tilly. (More recently both actresses got to appear on Mancini’s Chucky TV series, which pushes the Chucky and Tiffany saga to dizzying new heights of joyous ludicrousness.)
BRIDE OF CHUCKY was another for-hire gig for Yu, but he was one of the best hires they could’ve made. He gave it a unique style and feel that no other director could have, and was instrumental in molding the indelible character of Tiffany. What I’m trying to say is that by having Ronny Yu as director, Chucky got lucky.
BRIDE OF CHUCKY was part of the first wave of horror movies produced in response to the popularity of SCREAM (1996), SCREAM 2 (1996) and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997).
1998 horror-ish movies, in release order:
PHANTOMS, DEEP RISING, SPECIES II, NIGHTWATCH, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER, BLADE, CUBE, URBAN LEGEND, STRANGELAND, (BRIDE OF CHUCKY), VAMPIRES, I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, PSYCHO, THE FACULTY.
As for Hong Kong to Hollywood transplants, John Woo had already made HARD TARGET, BROKEN ARROW and FACE/OFF by this point. Tsui Hark’s DOUBLE TEAM (also shot by Pau) came out the year before this, and KNOCK OFF the month before. Earlier in the year we’d seen the releases of Chow Yun Fat’s Hollywood debut THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS, Kirk Wong’s THE BIG HIT. The following March we’d get the Yuen Woo Ping choreographed THE MATRIX.
Heigl went on to become a major TV and movie star for a while, while Stabile remained fairly obscure, but they were reunited five years later on DESCENDANT, based on The Fall of the House of Usher.
Tomorrow: Ronny Yu meets Samuel L. Jackson
April 24th, 2023 at 7:57 am
I’ve really enjoyed this excursion into The Yu Zone immensely. Another excellent review series to add as a notch to your belt there Vern. I’m in the camp that loved this movie when it dropped because it was such a fresh spin on the concept but has now kinda grown to resent it.
Only because of what it has led the franchise to become. I’m a member of this outlawvern.com community so you know I’m all about allowing insane creativity to flow on like the water in the nile. I love that it opened a lane for the CHILD’S PLAY series to not stay boxed in and allowed Mancini to tell personal and idiosyncratic stories we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. By the same token I also feel he learned a lot of bad lessons from BRIDE’s success. With that said though; bring on Chucky season 3!