Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mini-Monsterthon: Child's Play

Chucky is an anomaly among movie slashers, and not just because he's battery operated. The killer doll with a foul mouth came in at the tail end of the 80s slasher craze, and the original Child's Play doesn't follow most of the familiar clich├ęs of the genre. Instead of taking a small group of gullible people, throwing them in an enclosed space and killing them one at a time, Child's Play actually tells a fairly ambitious story mixing the supernatural and psychological, and putting a lot of effort and effects money towards selling the illusion of an evil My Buddy toy. It's fairly restrained and reasonably slick, and if it backs away from exploring the satiric possibilities of its premise, it manages to spin a good yarn anyway.

Little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) wants nothing more for his birthday than a Good Guy doll that moves and talks and happens to cost around $100. His mom Karen (Catherine Hicks) is widowed and working hard to support her kid and can't quite scrape together the cash, but a friend of hers tips her off to a shady street dealer with one for sale at a discount.  Andy is happy and things are going well until Karen works a late shift one night and comes home to find the babysitter pushed out the window of their high rise city apartment. The authorities suspect someone very short and wearing something like Andy's shoes, but the kid's not the problem. It turns out the doll, named "Chucky" is possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), the recently deceased Lakeshore Strangler who is out to take his revenge on all the people responsible for his death, and anyone else who pisses him off. Now Karen just has to convince the police that their murderer at large is made of plastic.

The film doesn't exactly make much of a secret about what's happening- if nothing else, the opening shoot-out and supernatural pyrotechnics in a toy store are indicators that the doll has an unusual pedigree- but the reveal is a gradual one. We're teased with the doll occasionally moving when it shouldn't, shots of something blurry in the distance, point of view shots, etc. Even now, knowing in retrospect that this is an entire franchise about a psychotic toy, the film's slow buildup is to its benefit, actually making Chucky somewhat of a credible menace before we see him moving around in all his animatronic glory.

Even after Chucky reveals himself to Karen, though, the film doesn't degenerate into typical slasher fare. Instead it keeps a few balls in the air, from the voodoo practitioner who let Charles in on the spell that allowed him to live after death, to Chucky settling his debts, to Karen trying to persuade people that neither she nor her son are insane. The story continues to develop in interesting ways up until the climactic scenes, ensuring that things never drag. The effects for Chucky, even in this earliest outing, are pretty convincing- it helps that he's supposed to be a little stiff and doll-like, being an actual doll, and this covers up some of the weaknesses of this style of puppeteering.

In early scenes, the film manages some clever satire of the Saturday morning toy commercial cartoon craze of the Eighties, with young Andy wearing his Good Guy jammies, pouring Good Guy cereal, and being just on time to see a commercial for the new Good Guy dolls. (The Good Guys themselves are a spoof on the My Buddy toys of the time.) But of course Chucky's problems are all his own, and the film drops this thread pretty quickly, which is disappointing. Still, the art team on this movie must have had quite a good time creating an entire gaudy multicolored franchise as a backdrop for a horror movie.

Child's Play
is another example of the horror genre in transition, too early for the Gothic horror revival but showing a slickness and level of restraint in reaction to the crude killfests that kicked off the decade. It's a solid story backed up by good effects and some terrific voicework by Dourif, and if it doesn't quite live up to all of its potential, it still sits comfortably ahead of the curve. It's easy for us to separate icons of cinematic horror from the actual movies they were in, but Chucky's first outing is an effective one.

Story by Don Mancini
Screenplay by Don Mancini, John Lafia, and Tom Holland
Directed by Tom Holland

Grade: B+

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