Friday, October 6, 2017

The Child's Play series (1988-2017) [31 Days of Gore]


I've been looking forward to a Child's Play marathon for a while now, so I'm pleased the seventh entry released just in time for 31 Days of Gore. I think it's interesting that the creators of most horror icons saw the originals as mere stepping stones to bigger and better things, but Don Mancini hasn't just been with the series since the beginning, he's become the go-to director.

Child's Play (1988)



I remember the first time I saw Child's Play like it was yesterday. What I didn't remember was how good it is. The moment the single mother (Catherine Hicks, who's wholly believable here) realizes her son's doll never had its batteries installed is the kind of horror I live for. From the moment the batteries fall out of the box, to the moment she has to confirm what she already knows (but doesn't want to believe)... that long, drawn-out moment in the middle? That's horror.

It doesn't matter how many times I see this movie, there's always going to be that thought in the back of my head: "What's Chucky gonna do when she discovers his secret?" Logically, I know it's going to be the same thing that happened the last time I saw it, but great movies don't always play by logic. (And yes, I just called Child's Play a great movie.)

At that point the heroine's best friend has been murdered and the only suspect is her 6 year old son. What she doesn't know is the most dangerous man she'll ever cross paths with is living inside the doll she tucks in with her son every night. A sinister detail: Chucky likes to whisper to the little boy when no one else is around; he tells him his dead father sent him from heaven to look after him.

That's astoundingly fucked up.

What makes Chucky work better than so many of his contemporaries is the same thing that made Freddy Kruger so memorable: casting so good it hurts. Chucky's a mean little shit. But goddamn, it sure is fun watching him take satisfaction in the terrible things he does. That voice just can't be topped—Brad Dourif is every bit as good as Robert Englund.

The pacing of the movie is perfect, too. We've seen the skeptical homicide detective a million times, but even though this one (Chris Sarandon) doesn't really believe Hicks, he doesn't go out of his way not to believe her, which keeps the plot from getting bogged down by time-wasting bullshit. In retrospect, it's surprising Chucky's kill-count is so small in his initial outing because the movie never bores you in between its bits of action. The entire reason it's so good is because of the bits between the action.

I'm just in awe of how well it holds up today. I legitimately love this movie.


Child's Play 2 (1990)



Even though there are only two years between them, Child's Play looks very much like an 80s movie and Child's Play 2 looks very much like a 90s movie. I like the way part 2 looks even though it's almost entirely devoid of shadows in so many of its scenes. It's like they lit it for TV but shot it on film and you get this surreal look unlike anything of today. Come to think of it, Robocop 2, Naked Gun 2 1/2, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II shared this undeniably 90s look—strange that they should all be sequels made around the same time as this one. And you know what? There's something fitting about making a movie with a killer doll look so colorful and fun.

What I enjoy most about Child's Play 2 is the fact it knows it ain't gonna be as good as the first. It took Freddy and Jason sequels years to stop kidding themselves; this sequel accepts what it is immediately. I appreciate a movie that lets us know, early on, that it's going to be silly right out of the gate: less than five minutes in, a man installing plastic eyeballs into the freshly restored Chucky doll is inexplicably electrocuted (by, like, magic or something), back-flips, and smashes a window. And by then a couple of lines have already explained what happened to Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon since the end of the last one. It's better that the movie doesn't dwell on the leads' absence because we all know it's code for: "They declined to be in the sequel."

So quality assurance at the Good Guys factory has painstakingly reassembled the Chucky doll for testing purposes. That's it. No more exposition, no complicated mumbo jumbo—Chucky's back and he wants the same thing he wanted in the final act of the previous film: to possess Andy's body.

The same kid who played Andy is back, and although he wasn't very good the first time around it's nice they didn't change actors. He's less annoying and he's marginally better at acting. His new foster parents are played by two people I love to see in movies like this: Jenny Agutter and Greg Germann. You may not believe these two people would ever meet and marry in real life, but Agutter is the closest thing we get to Hicks's performance while Germann is playing the kind of asshole you can't wait to see get killed.

Andy's foster sibling, a cigarette-smoking teenager who's apparently had a dozen different foster parents, isn't particularly interesting, but she isn't uninteresting if only because she's a necessary evil to keep the movie from wandering. The actress isn't bad, either, so I have no complaints.

Though only two years have passed, the animatronic work on Chucky has improved tremendously and Brad Dourif seems to have really eased into the role. I don't think anything he says in this one is quite as shocking as the moment he reveals himself to Andy's mother, but there are a lot of great laughs to be had.

As far as horror sequels, this is one of the best.


Child's Play 3 (1991)



There's a new actor playing Andy: the masturbator from Serial Mom. This is because the series has jumped into the future. Why is there a time-jump? I would assume because the producers got sick of working with children, but then there's a prominent child actor in this one, too, so who knows. I'll be honest: I didn't really care for this movie the first time I saw it. It's probably the reason that, until now, I never bothered with the sequels which came after it.

Once again, we're quickly brought up to speed: the Good Guy factory is going back into production after an eight-year hiatus. During cleanup, the blood of Chucky's disfigured corpse accidentally drips into the molten plastic for the first line of new dolls. (Never mind the fact that successful toy companies in the real world probably don't abandon factories for years at a time without converting the space to something else... I'm willing to roll with it.) Soon after, the freshly resurrected Chucky murders the CEO of the company and uses his office computer to discover where Andy's at today.

It turns out Andy is a troubled teen who hasn't been able to fit in at anywhere his foster program has placed him. Now he's been sent to a military boarding school where he doesn't fit in, either. It's kind of disappointing the majority of the film is, for the most part, set in a single location after Chucky was so mobile in the previous films. The school simply isn't an interesting setting, particularly when so many of the military characters are straight up ripping off dialogue from war movies—sometimes verbatim. Worse, Child's Play 3 felt especially tired the year it came out because there was already another movie set in a boarding school that came out the same year (Toy Soldiers with Sean Astin and Lou Gossett Jr.)

Anyway, Chucky has himself shipped to the school (tell me, exactly, how he could have possibly gift-wrapped and dropped himself in the mail) so that he can kill Andy, but a little black boy who's staying at the school intercepts the package first. Chucky's pissed the boy screwed up his plan until he realizes the kid will make a suitable vessel for his spirit. "Just think," the doll marvels. "Chucky's gonna be a bro!"

What's especially disappointing about all the boring military stuff is the fact that Chucky is pretty much as good as he's ever been—it's everything else that stinks. The kills aren't quite as fun and the animatronics are perhaps a little less expressive, but as far as third films go, the quality of the villain is surprisingly consistent. I did manage to enjoy the movie more than I did the first time I saw it, but I've learned what to expect from third films. Jason and Freddy's third outings were better than Chucky's, but I got a kick out of it anyway.


Bride of Chucky (1998)



Until now, I've never seen this movie. I've seen parts of it channel surfing, but it came at a time when I was much more interested in girls than horror movies. This is surprising to me because I was a big fan of Jennifer Tilly—ever since the Getaway remake and Bound—and she's perfectly cast here. It's not often name-brand actresses are game for flicks like this, and I can't think of anyone better suited for the role than Tilly.

Although this one was made nearly eight years after Child's Play 3, there was an eight-year jump between 2 and 3. So this one takes place right after the last one, putting the story back in modern times. I don't know why, but that time-jump bugged me more than it should have. I just think if you're going to take Chucky to the future, you might as well put him on a space ship or something, not have him running around military schools and carnivals.

We open on a nervous policeman smuggling a bag of evidence out of his station's lockup. The contents are what's left of Chucky's body after he took a tumble into a giant fan at the end of the last film. The remains end up in the possession of Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly) who heads back home to her trailer park and painstakingly stitches the doll back together to resurrect Chucky. It turns out that Tiffany and Chucky were a hot item before he lost his human body in the first film, and it's taken her ten years to track his remains down and bring him back to life. Unsurprisingly, the two of them immediately get into a lover's quarrel which ends with Chucky shoving a television into Tiffany's bathtub and bringing her spirit back in a doll of her own.

Against all odds, this stuff is pretty fantastic. I didn't think the shift to all-out humor was going to work (and maybe it doesn't), but I laughed my ass off quite a bit. In fact, nothing about this movie should work, but it does, and that's what makes it special. I hate to say it, but I can't think of a single Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers sequel that tickled me as much as this movie did. It's just so ornery and fun.

What's great about Bride is the same thing that's wrong with so many other horror sequels: the villain is now the protagonist. And how many horror sequels have successfully added a second killer to the mix? Bringing in Tilly's character feels a bit like lightning striking twice in the sense she's every bit as entertaining as Chucky.

This is the best one since the original. It features John Ritter and, oddly enough, Katherine Heigl.


Seed of Chucky (2003)



I was all on board for Chucky having a bride, but a kid? Seems like we're pushing it at this point. Like I said about the previous film: none of that wacky stuff should've worked and it's a miracle that it did. What are the chances it'll work again—why even attempt it? I know the kid was established in the previous film, but we could have just looked the other way and pretended it never happened. As is, it feels like a throwaway joke becoming an entire movie.

Seed just doesn't have the energy the previous film had. Every sequel up until now made it a point to bring us up to speed as quickly as possible. This one dwells for twenty minutes or so and, worse, postpones the inevitable entrance of the killer dolls we paid money to see. Chucky is still funny at times, but Tiffany has been crippled by her desire to become a recovering serial murder. The domestic disputes she and Chucky get into could have been funny (and they were the last time around), but now they only elicit a chuckle.

Speaking of things that aren't very funny: movie stars playing themselves. Jennifer Tilly, who played Chucky's human girlfriend in the last movie, is now playing herself as a weight-obsessed starlet who sleeps with movie directors in order to get parts. Great character in the last movie, boring this time around, especially when Tiffany makes wink-wink jokes at Tilly's expense. There's a scene in which Redman, also playing himself, is being stalked by Tiffany at the dinner table and I was much more interested in what he was eating than the imminent kill.

The only aspect that made me laugh with any kind of reliability was John Waters' character, a perverted paparazzi who has a great line I won't spoil here. It was mildly amusing that Chucky's son would have gender dysphoria and choose to go by Glen or Glenda. I feel like the director of the previous film would have made the jokes work a little better, which is especially strange considering this one's the first one that's directed by the guy who invented Chucky in the first place.

I wish I could give this one a recommendation, I really do, but the pacing is all wrong and the gore, while plentiful, just isn't all that satisfying to me.


Curse of Chucky (2013)



At this point in the series, I didn't know what to expect. Worse, I didn't know if I wanted to keep going. (If not for 31 Days of Gore, I probably wouldn't have continued the marathon for at least a few months.) I was vaguely aware the series "returned to horror," but after the slouch that was part 3, I wasn't sure I wanted it to.

Thankfully, Curse of Chucky isn't half bad. It's not great, but it's certainly not as bad as the third film and Seed. It's just a middle-of-the-road Chucky movie with a few dull (no pun intended) moments, and that's okay considering it's been ten years since the last one. Perhaps they're warming up to something spectacular.

A paraplegic and her mother receive an unmarked package in the mail at their creepy old home in the middle of nowhere. The contents of the package, of course, is a Good Guys doll, which doesn't quite look like the Chucky we know and love, but it turns out there's a good reason for it. That night the mother dies, apparently by suicide, and the heroine's sister comes to stay with her, bringing along a husband, a daughter, and an attractive nanny (none of these characters are interesting in the least). Naturally, the daughter takes a liking to the doll who whispers to her when no one else is around.

The problem with the franchise returning to horror is it's nowhere near as competent as it was the first time and it could have used some more humor to at least give us entertainment value. Its loss of effectiveness has to do with attractive yet uninteresting talent, the kind of talent that usually fills out SyFy's movie-of-the-weeks and television commercials. (The priest character could quite possibly be the dullest priest I have ever seen in a movie, which is a remarkable feat.) The one exception is Fiona Dourif, the real life daughter of Brad Dourif, which is especially surprising considering her involvement initially reeked of nepotism and fan service. To be sure, it is fan service, but it's not at all the insulting kind. She's easily the best part of the movie, save for Chucky himself.

The movie spends so much time distancing itself from the comedy of the prior two entries, it's a bit of a head-scratcher that it undoes this new direction at the end. Either way, I'm actually kind of excited to see where it's all going again. I hope it finds a better balance between its two genres.


Cult of Chucky (2017)


Andy Barclay's back and he's all grown up now, living in a cabin in the woods. It turns out that sometime since the last movie, Chucky came back to finish what he started in the first three films, but Andy was prepared: he shot part of the doll's head off with a shotgun and keeps the remains locked up in a safe so that Chucky can never, ever get resurrected. That might work if it happened at the end of a movie, but not at the beginning.

Nica, the paraplegic who was institutionalized at the end of the previous film, has just been transferred to a medium security mental institution. (Chucky will at one point make a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a film his voice actor appeared in.) Even though Chucky's head is believed to be in Andy's safe, bad things begin to happen in and around the building. I wouldn't expect any less, but the problem is: how does Don Mancini make any of this fresh?

The answer: by making the movie wonderfully stupid. Or, maybe "gleefully absurd" is a fairer way to put it. Either way, this is one of the best straight-to-video sequels I've seen in my life. It's so purposely convoluted, you'll have no idea what's going to happen next. Even the title's creative use of "cult" is a bit of a red herring.

Here's the deal: the series aimed for humor once and overshot the target by a country mile. Cult of Chucky makes Curse seem like a better movie in retrospect; now it makes sense why Mancini would reset the tone of the series. We needed a buffer between the over-the-top absurdity of Seed and the morbid absurdity of Cult. 

This one's probably my third favorite of the franchise. It's not great, but it is a great surprise. Don't let anyone ruin any of it for you before you get a chance to see it. 

1 comment:

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