From the title and poster art alone, you might be able to guess that this 1988 film from director/co-writer Tom Holland and his writing partners Don Mancini and John Lafia has a sinister bite to it. Your guess would be right, but you really have to see Child's Play to fully appreciate the spooky atmosphere and humming suspense it achieves with the same basic concept that many other films since have bungled so terribly. To Tom Holland's eternal credit, he resisted the easy and cheap urge to make Child's Play a so-bad-it's-good cheesefest. Instead, he and his co-writers took the more difficult path and crafted an actual horror film about a young boy's doll that comes to life and starts killing everyone around him.
Naturally, there had to be more to it than that if the film was going to draw viewers in, make them fear a pint-sized toy, and make them care about the people he's after. Why, exactly, has this particular doll come to life? Why would he be evil? Why don't Chucky's victims just knock him over and jump up and down on him until he's a broken heap? Or just disassemble him? Or, hell, why don't they lock him in a room, sue the toy company that made him, and then live out the rest of their days draped in luxury? (Almost) all of those questions are satisfactorily addressed.
Chucky wasn't always a sentient doll. At the beginning of the film, he's still just a flesh-and-blood dude whose given name is Charles Lee Ray (played by Brad Dourif, who voices the character in doll-form as well). However, to say he's just an average flesh-and-blood dude would be pushing it. In addition to being the criminal known as The Lakeshore Strangler, Chucky clearly packs some pretty strong magical mojo as well. It's this capacity that allows him, in his desperation, to transfer his soul into the form of a still-boxed "Good Guy" doll after he is mortally wounded by police officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) and breaks into a toy store in an attempt to hide.
As for how Chucky actually gets at his victims, all of whom are relative giants compared to him with their average human statures, the answer to that one soon becomes obvious. After all, what rational adult is going to think they have anything to fear from a child's doll? He looks normal enough to widowed mother Karen Barclay (a feisty and tenacious Catherine Hicks) when she buys the doll from a homeless peddler as a gift for her young son, Andy (cute-as-a-button Alex Vincent). Karen's friend and co-worker Maggie (Dinah Manoff) gets some inkling that she should maybe be afraid of Chucky, but she soon brushes it off, giving Chucky a chance to do her in. And that is the true secret to Chucky's success as a murderer, even (or especially) when trapped inside a toy. He uses the fact that most everyone thinks he's just an object to his utmost advantage, waiting to strike until someone's back is turned, or until they are hunched over cleaning up a mess he made when they weren't looking. He apparently reveals himself to Andy pretty early on, but this happens off camera, and seems to be just another sign of Chucky's cunning. He knows no one will believe the boy, even if he screams from the rooftops that his doll is alive, and it would be hard for Chucky to demand the things he wants from Andy if he never deviated from the handful of phrases a Good Guy doll is supposed to be able to utter.
When it was released, Child's Play also had a canny timeliness going for it. It's no coincidence that Chucky ends up in a body that looks so much like the My Buddy doll from Hasbro, a mega popular children's toy in the '80s. The fact that this movie doubtlessly made a whole generation of tots (and probably at least a few of their parents) feel a bit uncomfortable around their own toys is just one more mark of its success, and another indication of the wicked sensibility Mr. Holland brought to the project.
The cast responds well to the gravitas their director insisted upon. Child's Play is effective as a horror movie because the characters and their reactions are believable. The adult characters behave as adults, even when Andy desperately needs them to discard their mature, logical ways of thinking and consider the possibility of magic. This conflict between the mindset of a child and that of an adult is a constant theme of the movie, and it nearly gets poor Andy killed more than once. It's easier for Karen and Detective Norris to believe that Andy has developed a sudden and severe form of schizophrenia than it is for them to put any stock in his claims that Chucky is committing violent crimes, and Andy soon finds himself under lock and key in a mental institution. There, he represents convenient prey for Chucky, especially since his new doctor (Jack Colvin) seems very quick to try and sedate him.
The film really began to crackle for me when Karen first started giving into her instincts, and trusting her son. After Andy is taken to the mental institution, Karen is left alone at their apartment with Chucky. She regards the doll appraisingly, picks him up, shakes him and soon starts demanding "Talk, damn you!" Chucky ignores the demand at first, except for one of his canned replies. Karen laughs at herself in exasperation and goes into the kitchen, where she happens upon the box Chucky came in. This is when she discovers the batteries which are still in their package. For the first time, Karen has a tangible sign that something isn't right with Andy's doll, and even her adult mind can't find a way to simply discard that. She approaches Chucky even more cautiously than before and confirms that there are no batteries inside him, meaning that he shouldn't have even been able to deliver the scripted line she just heard him use. She threatens to throw him in the fireplace if he doesn't speak to her, and what follows is one of my favorite scenes in horror. Chucky's first, foul-mouthed manifestation to Karen is cool, well-crafted and provides genuine jolts. And when Chucky is able to escape the apartment, it leaves Karen with a new problem. Obviously, she believes Andy's story now, but without a shred of proof, she has a hard road ahead of her when it comes to convincing Detective Norris that insanity doesn't simply run in her family. Watching Karen and the detective's growing exasperation with one another is one of the unexpected delights of the film, and as actors, it gives Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon some material that they can (and do) really sink their teeth into.
Strong performances go a long way towards increasing the appeal of any film, but in this case, a lot also rested on the special effects team. No matter who was cast in the leading roles, Child's Play would be pretty much dead on arrival if they were acting alongside a lump of plastic that wasn't credible as a living entity. Luckily, this fact was not lost on the special effects team, who gave us a sadistic little murder doll that both looks and sounds real (Brad Dourif's gruff, intimidating voice also helps with the latter part). This accomplishment would be somewhat impressive even today, but when you consider that Child's Play hit theaters in 1988, it becomes flat out astounding. The effects in this movie still hold up to scrutiny much better than those in a lot of more recent films.
The character of Chucky also benefits from having a deeper motivation than just wanting to kill. Sure, he was a serial killer even before he was a doll, and he shows no signs of wanting to give up that occupation. However, his motive for continuing to stalk Andy even after the two of them are separated does not involve murdering the child. It turns out that Chucky is becoming more and more human the longer he stays inside the doll. Meaning he is becoming more and more vulnerable, and starting to be able to feel human pain. By the time he finds this out, his heart has already become almost entirely organic. As far as Chucky is concerned, if he can feel human pain and be killed like a human, he might as well be human. When he discovers that he can only possess the body of the first person he revealed himself to, Chucky becomes bemused at the prospect of being 6 years old again, and sets out to transfer his spirit into Andy's form. in my opinion, the desire to displace someone's spirit, essentially murdering or enslaving their soul, is a bit scarier than simply wanting to destroy their physical body. There is a definite end point to physical suffering. At least it can only hurt until you die. But being possessed by the soul of a serial killer is a form of suffering that seems like it might go on and on, with no end in sight. Chucky's need to possess Andy makes Child's Play a better and more versatile film. The possession subplot adds depth to the story without ever diminishing or distracting from its success as a slasher movie about a killer doll.
Even when I watched Child's Play as a youngster, I remember being surprised at how fully cooked it was. I didn't expect this type of movie to have well-developed characters, a strongly established atmosphere, or to be helmed with such confidence by a director who was truly engaged in what they were doing. Every time I watch it as an adult, I come away impressed by how entertaining and effective it is. It doesn't make me believe in living, evil dolls, but it does remind me that if Chucky was real, he would use my disbelief to strike while I was unaware there was anything to be afraid of. I consider Child's Play 2 to be a perfectly respectable sequel, but it makes me sad to note that none of the other, campier installments in the franchise after that one have even come close to doing the original justice. In fact, they have done an awful lot to make people forget just how good the first movie in the series is. Which is why it gives me a special sense of joy to include Child's Play on my countdown of favorites. The people in charge of where Chucky goes from here need to re-watch this film and get back in touch with the roots of this franchise. I hope that my fellow Bidites will join me in demanding that they do so. Because I want this Chucky back - the one who is not a total joke and is actually capable of inspiring fear.
Stay tuned for my next installment!