A retrospective of the “Child’s Play” franchise (1988 – 2017)
One of the YGROY team has a custom-printed T-shirt called “Slasher Icons”. Alongside the shadowy profiles of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers - in the words of “Sesame Street” - one of these things is not like the others. A tousled-hair freckle-faced little scamp brandishes a huge knife and sinister smile. So how did the freaky love-child of a Cabbage Patch Kid and Carrot Top manage to become the star of a franchise that refused to die, and has steadily evolved into an inventive and bloody series of films?
In keeping with our annual December retrospectives of popular genre franchises, we’re looking back at all the Chucky films. We’ll cover the plots and backgrounds of each movie; from the original “Child’s Play” right up to the very recent “Cult of Chucky”, and what the future may hold. As per previous retrospectives, these are the personal opinions and reflections of this writer, and some of the needless controversy that was directed at some entries. You are more than welcome to disagree or agree with any views therein. Certain sections will contain *SPOILERS* of the plots and certain twists in the storylines, so please skip the sections of any films that you intend to see and want to keep the surprises fresh for. With all that in mind, let’s go down to the local toy store and get ourselves a “Good Guy” doll for those kids who have been naughty – and not nice – in 2017.
Child’s Play (1988)
“Hi, I'm Chucky, and I'm your friend till the end. Hidey-ho!”
The late 80’s were something of a boom-time for the horror franchises. “Elm Street” sequels were in full swing, following the receptive audience for “Part 3: Dream Warriors”. “Friday the 13th” had just resurrected Jason in “Part 6: Jason Lives”. And Michael Myers was just about to wake from a seven year coma in “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers”. Just like shared movie universes are now seen as a lucrative cash-cows for franchises – although some aren’t (*Cough*Dark Universe*Cough*) – successful horror films (and their inevitable sequels) were sought after properties by the studios. Even so, when a killer doll wobbled onto the scene, its impact to the genre came as something of a surprise.
“Child’s Play” was released on November 9, 1988, and had a markedly different tone to the later entries. The promos even hid the fact that the antagonist is a diminutive child-sized toy. The original theatrical poster just shows lightning striking an apartment block, with a nameless victim hurtling from a window whilst evil-looking eyes glare from the sky. Nonetheless, the film is a neat variation on the killer doll theme, something that has been an effective creepy subgenre that had been utilised in horror films like “Trilogy of Terror” in 1975 (the Zuni fetish doll) and “Magic” in 1978 (“Fats”, the ventriloquist doll). Of course it remains just as popular today, with the “Annabelle” movies also making good use of wrong-looking figurines.
It was directed and co-written by Tom Holland from a story by Don Mancini. Holland was, and continues to be, an important figure in the genre, having written and directed the original “Fright Night” in 1985 and producing the screenplay for “Psycho II” in 1983. Mancini would of course become the “face” of Chucky and has stuck with the franchise through all of its incarnations. He also later became a writer/producer on much-admired “Hannibal” series. At this time though, Mancini was originally inspired to write the story by the aforementioned “Trilogy of Terror” and an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Talky Tina”, as he thought the concept had not yet been done full justice. He was also amused by the recent mania that had circulated around the ugly-but-insanely-profitable Cabbage Patch Kids (remember those little freaks?). He wanted it be a kind of dark satire on how marketing could affect children… and have a creepy killer doll of course. The working title for the film was "Batteries Not Included" before the schmaltzy Amblin film of the same name was announced. It was then changed to "Blood Buddy" before settling on "Child's Play".
“Child’s Play” would go on to be the only film in the series to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with United Artists as the production company. It had a pretty strong cast for the time. Catherine Hicks was the female lead, who was well-known from TV soaps, her Emmy Award-nominated performance as Marilyn Monroe in Marilyn: The Untold Story (1980), and Dr. Gillian Taylor in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Chris Sarandon, Jerry Dandridge himself from “Fright Night”, returned to work with Holland again and be the dashing cop hero. And perhaps most importantly, there was the inimitable Brad Dourif, the incredibly prolific actor with far too many genre performances to mention. He would physically play serial killer Charles Lee Ray, before becoming the iconic voice of Chucky… for now and ever more… as his origin was kicked off with this plot to the film.
It’s early November in 1988 and Charles Lee “Chucky” Ray (Dourif), aka the infamous “Lakeshore Strangler”, is on run through the streets of Chicago in the early hours. He seeks refuge from the cops in a toy store, but is fatally shot by pursuing Detective Mike Norris (Sarandon). With his last breath he casts a voodoo spell (as you do) on a nearby “Good Guy” doll, the best-selling child-sized toy. A bolt of lightning mysteriously causes an explosion with leaves Norris stunned and the lifeless corpse of Ray in the aftermath. A day later, hard-working single Mom Karen Barclay (Hicks) is desperately looking for a “Good Guy” as a late birthday present for her six-year old son Andy (Alex Vincent). At the last moment, a homeless dude sells one to her in a back alley. What could possibly go wrong? Andy immediately bonds with toy that names itself “Chucky” seemingly from pre-recorded speech. But almost immediately things start to smell of dead fish. His babysitter is hit with a blunt object and falls to her death from the apartment window, and Andy says that Chucky is telling him strange things. In a neat little “The Bad Seed”/Killer Kid vibe, the cops suspect Andy of being a pre-puberty psycho, but Mom is having none of it. Although when Chucky kills again, Andy