Child’s Play (1988)

10“A single mother gives her son a much sought-after doll for his birthday, only to discover that it is possessed by the soul of a serial killer.” — IMDb

Inspired partly by the hysteria that surrounded the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls (the resemblance between them and Chucky is no coincidence), Don Mancini — the main mind behind Child’s Play — wanted to create a feature length film around the “killer doll” trope. It may not have been the first of its kind, but it might be the most popular in the mainstream, having spawned six sequels (the last of which was released as recently as 2017). It’s one of those movies that managed to be successful on its release (it grossed over $44 million against its $9 million budget) AND gained a cult following in the years to follow. Chucky is arguably one of the most recognizable main characters in horror.

The film opens with serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) being pursued on foot by homicide detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). When Ray is trapped in a toy store with a fatal gunshot wound, he transfers his soulvia a Haitian Vodou spell into the closest toy — a “Good Guy” doll — and vows revenge on both Norris and his escaped accomplice, Eddie Caputo (Neil Giuntoli). When Karen (Catherine Hicks) purchases the very same doll from a street peddler as a birthday gift for her son, Andy (Alex Vincent), things start to go awry, but who will believe that a doll could be capable of such evil?

** SPOILERS! **

This is one of those movies that I have actively avoided for YEARS. I remember seeing Chucky all over the place when I was a kid, and into my teenage years, and then into my adult years, and I just never had any interest. If anything, I actively avoided it. I was under the impression that this movie was meant to be dead serious — and intended to be terrifying — and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around how a killer doll could be scary. But then I realized that not only is it directed by Tom Holland (director of my beloved Fright Night), but it also stars Chris Sarandon, and… well, I had to give it a shot.

I still don’t totally get it. It helped, for sure, that the movie has some of Holland’s signature humor in it. I think if they had gone more in Mancini’s original direction — keeping more suspense and mystery around whether Chucky or Andy were committing the murders — it would have done more for me. But as it stood it was fairly predictable (something I’m sure is due in part to the fact that I have been very vaguely aware over the years of the storyline in general).

Chris Sarandon is still looking fly as hell with his perfectly coiffed hair and stylish sweaters, but his acting leaves much to be desired (not that he’s meant to be the most dramatic character, but he doesn’t pull off Chicago detective very well, even in jest). On the flip side, Catherine Hicks is perfect as the concerned mother, and Alex Vincent gives an amazingly strong performance, especially considering he was only 7 at the time. Brad Dourif, who I’ve loved since he played Luther Lee Boggs in The X-Files, is also pretty fantastic.

I will say that the effects they pulled off to make Chucky as real as possible were impressive as hell. They used a combination of remote controlled animatronics and either little people or child actors, and there are definitely scenes where you’re convinced he’s a living, breathing doll — particularly the few where you can see his full body standing or running. His facial expressions in particular were frighteningly real at times, most likely because of a rig they used to capture actual facial movements and transmit them to the animatronic doll via remote control. Insane.

I guess ultimately I thought the earlier scenes, where we’re suspecting that Chucky is moving and talking on his own but not seeing it yet, were more frightening than the later ones where he’s just this crass, violent criminal running around in the body of a kid’s doll and exacting revenge. I had never known the full storyline of Child’s Play — I had no idea WHY the doll was alive, just that it was — and while I think it’s unique and interesting, it just doesn’t do a ton for me in the way of either fear or excitement. But I was definitely entertained enough to still be on board for at least a couple of the sequels…

Rating: 5/10 | Director: Tom Holland | Writer: Don Mancini, John Lafia, Tom Holland | Music: Joe Renzetti | Cinematography: Bill Butler | Starring: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif, Dinah Manoff

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