Has it really been almost three whole decades since the Child’s Play franchise began? Writer/director/creator Don Mancini’s career-defining concept has grown from a one joke premise (“What if one of those obnoxious ‘must-have’ fad toys was actually a killer monster?”) to one of the horror genre’s most sustainable brands, to a self-aware satire and back again – improbably outliving the careers of onetime contemporaries like the (currently moribund) Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series. In an irony worthy of the series itself, “Chucky” is at this point a more enduring pop-icon in his own right than the Cabbage Patch Kids and My Buddy doll lines that inspired him – not bad for a character whose entire persona was originally intended to be a surprise-reveal at the end of a very different kind of film.
But then, maybe it’s not so surprising in retrospect. Surely, a big part of Chucky’s ability to endure is that the facts of his existence make him one of the easiest movie-monsters to keep reviving. He’s meant to be a living toy, so looking like a puppet onscreen isn’t a concern requiring millions in CGI to correct. He doesn’t age. He’s not “just a mask” like Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers, so he can carry a movie even when the supporting cast aren’t up to snuff (see: Child’s Play 2 & 3), but without putting nearly as much physical strain on his voice-actor (Brad Dourif) as Freddy Krueger eventually put on Robert Englund.
Bottom line: There are bigger recurring gaps between sequels in this franchise (seven whole years between Part 3 and Bride of Chucky, six more between that and Seed of Chucky, about a decade more to Curse of Chucky); but every time Chucky returns it’s as though he never left. The biggest surprise about last week’s announcement that horror’s favorite killer doll would be back yet again in the ominous-sounding Cult of Chucky is that this time it “only” took a little over 3 years.
One thing that kind of longevity does bring to the table? Perspective. Child’s Play landed at the peak of the 1980s slasher boom, embodying every lesson that had been learned by Freddy, Jason and every other brand-name killer to emerge since Halloween. The first two sequels neatly followed the arc of the genre as a whole: Flashier kills, catchier one-liners and poorer reviews (but bigger box office) for Part 2; malaise and going out on a whimper for Part 3. Bride was a quintessential hyper-stylized, “goth”-inflected product of the late-90s – right down to being directed by a freshly-emigrated Hong Kong auteur. Seed is a time-capsule of jaded 2004 meta-snark, chasing the South Park sensibility with B-list celebrities playing themselves and a jokey running subplot about gender identity. Curse, hitting direct-to-video in 2013, walks right up to the line of “gritty reboot.”
In other words, by following the evolution of Chucky through the continuity of the series, one can effectively chart the development of the horror genre across three decades. That’s an impressive distinction for any series, even more so given that even fewer manage that level of endurance without breaking internal continuity (Godzilla and James Bond have both rebooted multiple times over) – in terms of the horror genre, only the Phantasm saga and George Romero’s (extremely loose, but still connected) Dead series can touch Chucky’s staying power.
So, given the recent announcement of another sequel, Cult of Chucky, let’s look back on how we got here.
CHILD’S PLAY (1988)
Initially, Child’s Play was going to be a much different kind of horror film. Writer Don Mancini had originally conceived a psychological-horror mystery satirizing the heavily-commercialized children’s entertainment of the ’80s, in which a six year-old boy is suspected of a series of murders, but insists that the killings are actually being carried out by his favorite doll. The film would have kept audience’s guessing as to the true killer’s identity (helped by the doll and boy being roughly the same dimensions) before revealing the possessed plaything as the villain for the finale.
Not a bad pitch, certainly. But given that by 1988 the horror genre had become dominated by marketable “name” bad guys like Freddy, Jason, Pinhead and so forth who served as the nominal focus of their respective series, it makes a certain amount of sense that what eventually came to pass was a kind of monster-movie where the boy (and audiences) knew what was going on from the start, and the tension came largely from the refusal of adult characters to believe it.
The setup: Fugitive serial-killer and amateur voodoo practitioner Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) is gunned down by cops in a Chicago toy store, but summons the last of his strength to utter a voodoo incantation that transfers his spirit into a Good Guy doll – which just so happens to be the most popular and sought-after kid’s toy fad of the moment. Said Good Guy doll is subsequently purchased as a gift for six year-old Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) by his mother, “comes to life” for Andy when no adults are present, and enlists the boy in transporting him around to commit revenge-murders of his former associates – murders for which Andy is soon blamed.
Complicating matters is the fact that the longer “Chucky” remains in his doll form, the more human (and thus vulnerable) he becomes, and the more permanently he could be trapped there. The only way out is to transfer his soul again into the body of the first person he revealed his true identity to – Andy, thus setting in motion the remainder of the film and the driving plot of the next two films in the series.
Easily the best of the original trilogy, Child’s Play still holds up nicely today even as its eventual third act metamorphosis into a replay of Terminator remains ever-apparent. A lot of that has to do with horror veteran Tom Holland’s direction and the impressive variety of practical effects used to bring Chucky to life; but in terms of why the character caught on big enough to generate 30 years worth of further exploits probably comes down to Dourif’s iconic vocal performance, which starts out sounding like a Jack Nicholson impression with a slight drawl and quickly becomes its own unforgettable thing.
CHILD’S PLAY 2 (1990)
Chucky was pretty thoroughly destroyed by the end of the original film (set on fire, partially-dismembered, and shot through the heart), but Child’s Play 2 manages a fairly logical solution for reviving him. The Good Guys toy company rebuilds him as a publicity stunt aimed at “proving” once and for all that Andy Barclay’s brand-damaging story about a killer doll was baseless – that this somehow hurt Good Guy sales rather than turning them into incredibly popular collectibles being probably the most unbelievable thing that occurs in this series about dolls possessed via voodoo by dead serial killers.
Plotwise, Andy (once again played by Alex Vincent) is now in the foster care system now that his mother has been institutionalized on account of the whole “believing her kid’s story about a possessed toy” thing. Naturally, Chucky turns back up to finish what he started in the first film, which mainly means a repeat of the “nobody-believes-Andy” storyline but this time relocated to a bucolic suburb rather than the original’s urban Chicago setting.
It’s a case of diminishing returns, certainly, particularly in that it doesn’t end up adding much to the franchise in turns of either Andy or Chucky’s characters, but there are decent kills and a memorably over-the-top finale featuring Chucky chasing Andy and a new companion around an absurdly unsafe doll factory assembly line. The film was bounced between studios before it went into production (the new owners of its original studio weren’t interested in horror movies) but once it found a home it was set into motion with a follow-up already in the offing.
CHILD’S PLAY 3 (1991)
About the most notable aspect of Child’s Play 3 is that at the time of release, it was set in the future. In order to have Chucky menace a new child character and battle a now-grown Andy (Justin Whalin), the film takes place in 1997 – albeit one where technology, fashion etc are effectively identical to 1991. However, since they didn’t actually end up making another one until 1998, all subsequent installments have still taken place in their own respective “present” without damaging the internal timeline of the franchise’s continuity.
It also starts out with a potentially interesting setting, with Andy now enrolled in a military academy and the circumstances of resurrection giving Chucky the chance to try and execute his soul-transfer plan with a new prospective host. Sadly, the human characters are mainly forgettable and the film is more interested in giving Chucky one-liner quips than imagining memorable kills for them to accompany. A finale set on an elaborate amusement park ride attempts to recreate the still-famous climax from Part 2, but without much success.
The film wasn’t nearly as successful as its predecessors, and in the UK became best known for its association (in the press) with a the shocking murder of three year old James Bulger committed by a pair of 10 year-old boys in 1993. Elements of the brutal torture and killing were said to have resembled a sequence from the film and at one point the perpetrators were erroneously believed to have watched it prior to their actions, which led to restrictions on film and video distribution in UK territories increasing for several years (though whatever “link” was said to exist between the film and the murder subsequently proved dubious at best.)
BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998)
There’s a substantial school of thought that holds Bride of Chucky as the best film in the series, and while most devout fans for the property still hold up the original Child’s Play as the ideal, you can definitely see where Bride’s fans are coming from. It’s a slick, enthusiastically ridiculous affair that cheerfully takes the franchise in an entirely fresh direction – dropping the slasher/stealth aspect of Chucky’s routine in favor of a Bonnie & Clyde/Natural Born Killers riff that puts the villains at the center of the story and prioritizes gory setpieces over suspense and outright scares.
Produced seven years after Part 3 but (thanks to the arbitrary time-jump) set mere months later, the storyline finds Chucky’s remains stolen, reassembled and revived by Charles Lee Ray’s equally-homicidal ex-girlfriend Tiffany, played by Jennifer Tilly. But when she learns that she’d been mistaken in her belief that Ray was planning to marry her prior to his death and refuses to help him become human again as punishment, Chucky turns her into a doll as well to force the issue. The ultimate goal: Sneak along on a road trip with a fugitive teenage couple, exhume Chucky’s human body and retrieve a (hitherto unmentioned) voodoo amulet that will allow them to soul-swap into any bodies they please.
Casting cult-fave Tilly (about a decade out from her second-wind fame as a professional poker circuit mainstay) as Tiffany is a masterstroke, as her distinctive voice and old-fashioned jaded glamour-gal persona are perfectly suited to playing a female counterpart to Chucky. Director Ronny Yu, a Hong Kong veteran previously best known for the Bride With White Hair films, gives everything a suitably stylish edge (supposedly Chucky’s new stitched-together “Franken-Chucky” look was partly his design) and plays the premise about as gory and over-the-top as one might expect from a film that carried the tagline “Chucky Gets Lucky” and was hyped with (among other things) Chucky getting involved in a professional wrestling storyline in Ted Turner’s now-defunct WCW promotion.
The film (which also featured a young Katherine Heigl as one half of the teen couple Chucky and Tiffany scheme to borrow bodies from) ends with a suitably chaotic birth scene teasing the logical follow-up, but despite being the most financially-successful film in the series to date it wound up taking six years for the story to pick back up.
SEED OF CHUCKY (2004)
Don Mancini will likely be best known for creating Chucky, but he also has the distinction of one of the few openly gay filmmakers working in the horror genre in the ’80s and ’90s. While his sexuality wasn’t a secret in his professional life, LGBTQ themes were never particularly prominent in his work… until Seed of Chucky: a high-camp showbiz meta-spoof complete with a gender-fluid protagonist (albeit not the most flattering incarnation thereof), a running gag referencing Ed Wood movies, and a prominent supporting role for no less than fellow cult-icon John Waters.
The plot? Chucky and Tiffany’s child, Glenn (voice of Billy “Pippin” Boyd) has been raised as a sideshow attraction, but breaks free and heads for Hollywood after that learning Chucky and Tiffany are (somehow) there and sussing them out to be his parents. As it turns out, what he finds instead are a pair of animatronic look-alikes being used in a feature film based on the “true life” events of Bride of Chucky starring Jennifer Tilly (don’t think too hard about it), but the voodoo amulet imbues them with the spirits of the originals – whom Glenn was not previously aware were serial killers.
The crux of the plot involves Chucky and Tiffany’s convoluted scheme to capture Tilly, impregnate her with Chucky’s DNA and ultimately transfer the new “family’s” souls into the actress, the resulting child and a male compatriot to be named later respectively, but things soon descend into further madness thanks to Glenn’s own complications. As his doll body has no genitalia (he also believes himself to be Japanese because of his “Made in Japan” stamp) he’s unsure of his gender, with Chucky and Tiffany having wildly differing opinions on how he should handle this, and their push/pull interference ultimately causing a split-personality – pacifist male Glenn and murderous female Glenda.
It’s all quite silly, though it’s interesting to see – 16 years later – what Mancini does with full writing and directing control of his characters. It plays a bit dated today, what with a major subplot involving Tilly attempting to win the role of The Virgin Mary in a Passion of The Christ knockoff being directed by hip-hop star Redman (and, it must be said, Glenn/Glenda probably doesn’t have a slot reserved in the queer-representation hall of fame), but there’s fun to be had with such a consistently bonkers feature.
It ends with the implication of a potentially even more meta follow-up, but instead things went in a much different direction…
CURSE OF CHUCKY (2013)
It had been a long time since anyone thought of bringing back Chucky when Don Mancini and series producer David Kirschner decided to do just that about a decade after Seed. By this point, most folks were expecting a remake (or at least a reboot) rather than a continuation of the franchise; and when the filmmakers announced that they’d be returning to “straight horror” rather than horror-comedy that’s what most expected: If not an outright do-over (since Dourif was back as Chucky) then a “soft reboot” that would ignore Bride and Seed.
Instead, Mancini pulled one of recent horror’s more well-executed fanservice gags. While Curse is indeed a “back to basics” for the franchise, with Chucky looking like his original-model Good Guy self and back in “did that doll just move?” stealth-mode, tormenting the family of a wheelchair-bound girl with connections to Charles Lee Ray’s past, the film pulls off a killer reveal en-route to the finish. A curious soon-to-be victim starts picking at the loose plastic on the doll’s face, uncovering the scars and stitches from Bride of Chucky and confirming that we are, in fact, still in-continuity with the original series!
It’s a fun payoff for longtime fans (additional scenes confirm that Tiffany lives on in the body of Jennifer Tilly and set up Alex Vincent’s return as a now-adult Andy Barclay for future sequels), the film really does make good on its aim of making Chucky scary again – or, at least, as scary as he can be while still nominally towing the baggage of the previous five films with him.
Exactly what’s meant to come next (or what the “cult” in Cult of Chucky refers to) remains to be seen. But if horror fans have learned one thing over the last three decades, it’s to never count this particular series out.