A retrospective of the “Child’s Play” franchise (1988 – 2017)


“Wanna play?”

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 earns a stint in the psych ward. In a brilliant sequence Karen discovers that Chucky has never had any batteries inserted, and has indeed been alive from the very start. This discovery causes the little bastard to go ape-shit on her and nearly kill Norris, who is working the case. Chucky escapes and tracks down his voodoo mentor, who informs him that he is slowly turning more human and will soon be trapped in the doll’s body forever. To escape this fate, he must enact a ritual on the first person he revealed his true self to, and transfer his soul into their body. Andy is now in Chucky’s cross-hairs for possession and is chased from the hospital by the little git. He returns to his home where he’s knocked unconscious by the doll and at his mercy. But as he starts to recite the voodoo chant, Karen and Norris interrupt and a full-on skirmish ensues. Chucky is badly burnt in the fireplace but scrabbles through the vents until Norris finally shoots him directly in his (now) human heart. The film ends with mother and son safe, and Chucky’s burnt body remains lifeless…

Of course it wouldn’t end there as we now know. Although some of the FX look particularly dated now, they were pretty cool for the time. No doubt if the original was filmed today, Chucky would be realised as a grimacing uncanny-valley CGI creation. But here (apart from small-stature stand-ins) it’s all remote-controlled animatronics. There were multiple models showing the doll’s gradual transformation to a more human look, and for all his different actions: a walking Chucky, a stationary Chucky, and a going-bat-shit crazy Chucky. The early scenes with the “undercover” doll are pretty creepy as he sneakily glances to the side, which contrasts nicely with the later scenes where he openly attacks his victims and becomes the cocky little sadist that we recognise today. It goes without saying that Dourif’s lively vocal performance adds a hell of a lot to the character and it was immediately obvious why nobody would ever succeed him as the voice of Chucky.

Sarandon and Hicks, being well-known faces at the time, are solid as the initially disbelieving adults, and Vincent manages that essential child-actor trick of being sympathetic without being mawkish or brat-ish. The film actually opened at #1 in the US box office on its opening week, and got respectful reviews from mainstream critics. However in a slight foreshadowing of future events, protesters appeared at the MGM studios proclaiming it would incite violence in children. The possible controversy never caught fire, but it was something that would unfairly haunt the franchise at a later stage. In the meantime following the November release it ended up grossing more than $44 million against a production budget of $9 million, which is impressive for an 80’s genre film, even a studio produced one. Obviously the character of Chucky had hit a nerve with the intended audience and became something of a cult. A sequel was a no-brainer, but how to bring back a character that has been burnt to a crisp and had his heart obliterated?

Toy Scary (Best Bit): No contest. It has to be the brilliant moment Chucky finally shows his true colours and attacks Karen. Realising that the doll has no batteries in it, but still taunts her with “Wanna Play?” messages; she goes to throw him into the burning fireplace. This causes Chucky to break character, screw his face up in anger, and launch into this foul-mouth tirade: “You stupid bitch! You filthy slut! I’ll teach you to fuck with me!!”… This is wonderfully wrong coming from the mouth of a kid’s toy that has only uttered inane chatter so far. To cap it off, he bites a chunk out of her arm and goes on a rampage. A legend is born.

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

“I'm not gonna spend the rest of my life as a plastic freak!”

A sequel to the profitable first film was inevitable, but the villain of the piece had been toasted and shot to heck. What to do? Well, if your boogeyman is a mass-manufactured toy… commercialism will find a way. Although it was profitable and a second film had been greenlit pretty quickly, production on the film was halted during a studio acquisition with a clamp-down on horror movies (BOO!!). After it bounced around studios for a while, it found a home with Universal Pictures distributing and independent production. So the stage was set for the terrible toy to return to cinemas.

The sequel was written by a returning Don Mancini, and was directed by John Lafia, one of the co-writers in the first film. It was decided that the plot would be a straightforward sequel with Chucky somehow returning in pursuit of Andy Barclay, with the aim of transferring his soul into the young boy’s body. To that end, the only cast members that returned from the first film were Alex Vincent and Brad Dourif (voice only obviously). New members of the cast included award-winning Brit actress Jenny Agutter (forever fated to be known as Alex the nurse from “An American Werewolf in London”), and Gerrit Graham (from “Phantom of the Paradise” and “CHUD II: Bud the Chud”). Christine Elise also appears as an adoptive sister to Andy (remember that name…). Chris Sarandon was originally going to appear again as Det. Mike Norris, but his scenes were eventually cut. And whilst Catherine Hicks isn’t in the movie itself, she was constantly on set for filming as her husband Kevin Yagher (they met whilst he was doing the SFX on the first film), was operating the animatronic dolls.

In comparison to “Child’s Play”, the cat was out of the bag as regards the main antagonist. Audiences knew what Chucky was all about (unlike most of the clueless victims in the films), and the did-the-kid-do-it? angle could no longer be exploited. To that end, Chucky was front and centre in all the advertising. Instead of the ambiguous eyes-in-the-sky image from the original’s art-work, here we had a grinning Chucky about to decapitate a terrified Jack-in-the-box with a giant pair of scissors. The strapline read; “Sorry Jack… Chucky’s Back!” It wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer, but the publicists knew what the audience was expecting. The only thing remaining was to concoct a way to bring the terrible toy back to life…

It’s been two years since Chucky was stopped in his tracks by the Barclay family. Since then, although the events are shrouded in disbelief and uncertainty, the link to the murders has unsurprisingly dented sales of the “Good Guy” dolls. In an (exceedingly dumb) attempt to rectify this, the CEO of “Playpals” Co. (which sounds like something completely different to kids toys) has ordered the remains of the “Chucky” doll to be repaired and rebuilt for… reasons. Cue a supernatural electricity surge, one dead worker, and Mr CEO has an instant change of mind telling his doomed lackey to get rid of it. Meanwhile, poor old Andy (Vincent) is stuck in an orphanage, due to the fact that his Mom wouldn’t shut up about killer dolls and has been locked up in an asylum. (NB: Seriously, this kid has the worse luck of any character in any horror franchise. See later entries for more details). His streak of shitty luck continues as he gets adopted by The Simpsons. No, not Homer and Marge, but Phil and Joanne (Graham and Agutter). Mind you, their house is as chintzy and colour-mad as the cartoon family’s home. By this time, Chucky has obviously come back to life, killed again, and found out (waaayy too easily) where Andy is now. He legs it to the house and takes the place of the resident “Good Guy” doll that the Simpsons already owned, burying it in the garden in a macabre touch. Fun Fact: The doll Chucky replaces is called “Tommy” in honour of Tom Holland. As Chucky secretly drops Andy in the shit multiple times, we’re in the similar position of the boy crying wolf… err, killer doll, and nobody believing him. Through various machinations, Chucky ends up offing Andy’s new parents but his adopted sister Kyle (Elise) comes to believe in his tales whe