Puppet Master, Dolls, Dolly Dearest, Demonic Toys, Trilogy of Terror… There’s no shortage of “killer toy” movies out there, but of all the films in this most-ridiculed of horror subgenres, Child’s Play stands first and foremost at the front of the crowd.
So what is it about the Child’s Play franchise that seems to imbue it with such remarkable lasting power? What makes Chucky so much better than all the other killer dolls and slashers out there? Is it the one-liners? The red hair? Brad Dourif? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because the original Child’s Play actually has a pretty strong story?
Child’s Play (MGM)
It’s Andy Barclay’s (Alex Vincent) sixth birthday and all he wants is one of those cool new Good Guy dolls. His mom (Catherine Hicks), sadly, is a little strapped for cash. While all this is going on, the notorious Lakeshore Strangler, Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), is on the run from the law. He takes cover in a nearby toy store, only to be gunned down by Officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). Seconds away from death, he grabs a Good Guy doll and blurts out a voodoo chant. By happenstance, Ms. Barclay buys a Good Guy doll from a bum in an alley and guess where he got it? Andy becomes very attached to “Chucky” and claims the doll is talking to him. Mysterious deaths soon follow.
I’ll admit it: when I was a kid, Chucky scared the living crap outta me. Of course, now n’ days, with the Child’s Play franchise having spiraled into obnoxious self-parody, I’m kinda puzzled as to what the hell it was I was actually afraid of. Chucky is one of those horror icons that’s a lot more frightening to children since they’re on the same size scale, I suppose. I mean, any adult could just dropkick that little fucker, right?
Anyway, when I mention “strength of story”, I do mean it. Child’s Play has a great story with some very engaging characters. Maybe not so much of a “mystery” (author Don Mancini-himself has said that he initially intended for the question of whether Chucky was alive or if Andy was just crazy to have lingered a bit longer), but the movie is paced very well, Chucky’s origin and motivation is creative and Director Tom Holland gives everything some very dark and gritty polish.
One of the things that separates Child’s Play from most slasher franchises of its ilk is that it pays amazing attention to continuity. With every installment in the series having been written by the same man, Don Mancini, the entire series flows together very well (story-wise, if not so much atmosphere-wise). I guess this is a discussion for another review, but I do consider it one of the series’ strongest points.
As for this first Child’s Play, it really is an amazing technical achievement for its day. The robotic puppetry effects are remarkably ahead of their time, actually making Chucky feel genuinely “alive”. Holland opts for midgets in costumes for only a handful of scenes, leaving almost all of Chucky’s appearances up to puppeteers. This makes for some really impressive moments from a technical standpoint, as Chucky walks across a room, climbs on top of a bed and pulls back the covers; all in one shot and all with a puppet. What’s odd is that ten years later, Bride of Chucky actually had worse puppetry effects.
Brad Dourif provides the signature role of his career as he plays both Charles Lee Ray and voices Chucky. Dourif may have proven he has plenty of class with roles like Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the man will always be recognized as “that killer doll”. The rest of the cast is quite solid, though I think some special kudos should definitely be showered on Alex Vincent. For a kid, he delivers a really fantastic performance (save for perhaps “This is the end, friend”).
Despite being an impressively violent movie, the kills aren’t too hot. Chucky murders people in some of the most ridiculous ways, and by “ridiculous” I mean “really stupid”. Expect to see people being killed with voodoo dolls and shock therapy headgear. On the bright side, the damage inflicted on Chucky is wonderfully gruesome. The big climax, with Chucky all burnt to a crisp, getting dismembered by a handgun as he marches down a hallway, is fantastic.
As much as I adore the original Child’s Play, the sequel actually outdoes it. But I’ll save that for the Child’s Play 2 review. This original Child’s Play, though, is a great horror flick in its own right, with some damn good special effects and story. Too bad it gets less scary with age.