Saturday, November 7, 2009

Without Any Batteries In Him

The now-legendary Chucky, the killer doll who was first introduced in CHILD’S PLAY is pretty much ingrained in pop culture now and because of that, combined with how much more overtly comical the film’s follow-ups progressively became, it’s almost hard to remember that the original really is a crackerjack, tightly paced film which sustains its tension extremely well and, maybe best of all, offers a surprising amount of actual scares. It probably says something about how I view these things that when the more recent sequels which capitalized on the character’s comic potential came out I remember calling a friend and asking, “Did I not get the memo? When did Chucky films become this camp thing?” But look, that’s just my own take on matters like this (and it’s not like I didn’t get some enjoyment out of those films). Released on November 9, 1988, the original film was pretty straight-faced about its approach, going pretty far with the child-in-jeopardy concept--I’m tempted to say if made today it wouldn’t go quite as far but this past summer’s ORPHAN involved kids in scenes that were pretty nasty so it can still happen (I can see how this sort of thing might be problematic but, like most things, it usually depends on the approach a particular film takes). I could, however, believe that any version of CHILD’S PLAY done today would not be as tightly constructed, well-directed and well-played by actors who seem to be defiantly performing all this as real as possible. I liked it at the time and now, long after I’ve become used to things from long ago not holding up so well, I’m almost more impressed by how cleverly executed much of it really is.

If you’re reading this you probably know the plot but just in case: during one final standoff with police in a toy store just before dying, Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) better known as The Lakeshore Strangler, uses a voodoo ritual that he has learned to transfer his soul into the body of a nearby Good Guy Doll, part of a craze that is currently sweeping the nation. Somehow lost in the aftermath of the ensuing explosion, the doll in question is soon sold by a street peddler (well, homeless guy) to single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) who desperately wants the doll for a son Andy’s (Alex Vincent) birthday. Andy of course loves the doll whose name is apparently “Chucky” although when a tragic accident happens soon after Andy insists that “Chucky did it” which no one believes. On the case is Police Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) who just happens to be the one who killed Charles Lee Ray and is in no mood to listen to this kind of nonsense. Of course, we know the truth just like Andy does and Chucky will stop at nothing to get his soul into a human body once again.

Forgoing a more comical or satirical take which could plausibly be pulled from the basic premise (maybe a little like GREMLINS), the path taken by director Todd Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT) in shooting the screenplay by Don Mancini and John Lafia and Tom Holland (story by Mancini) was clearly to take the straight ahead dramatic approach, gritty enough that you could call it a thriller without sounding like you’re trying to avoid calling it a horror film, but pretty much unflinching when it comes to the horror aspects. Considering how ludicrous all this could very easily come across, the careful balance CHILD’S PLAY maintains is genuinely impressive. As tightly paced as it is (87 minutes and not a dull moment), the film succeeds in doing a very nice slow burn for an extended period through an initial suspense sequence involving Karen’s best friend played by Dinah Manoff as the film cleverly drops in clues as to what exactly is going on. There’s not much of an attempt by the film in convincing us that the killer is Andy—Alex Vincent is too cute for that—but it does hold back in revealing Chucky to us in any way other than simply as a doll. This gambit finally culminates in a terrific moment where Chucky finally shows his true face to Catherine Hicks--I can vividly remember the shock of this scene when I saw the film way back then and it still plays like gangbusters now. Photographed by Bill Butler (JAWS) the film makes very good use of how much of it seems to actually be shot on city streets, making very good use of the Chicago locations it was shot in—you can almost feel how cold it is, as well as how grimy these inner city streets are--seeing Alex Vincent innocently wander through some of these places carrying Chucky is a little unnerving all by itself.

Looking at the film for the first time I several years at a recent screening at UCLA I realized that everything doesn’t have quite the punch I remembered—mostly sections of the second act where characters are scrambling around looking for each other which feel like they could have used a little more finesse in the staging. Part of this is my own familiarity with the film, part of it is a sense every now and then that things could have even more punch than they already did. But once we move back to the apartment for the climax, I freely admit that I was hugely impressed at the skill displayed in how well this held up in staging, pacing, everything (the film editors were Roy E. Peterson and Edward Warschilka). It’s a terrific sustained work of suspense and at its best it’s still pretty scary, something I was certainly reminded of listening to the reactions of the girls sitting behind me that night at UCLA (they were cute, too. Oh well). I can believe that much of the box-office success of CHILD’S PLAY was due to not just people responding to Chucky but to how well the climax works—the series of shots as Chucky stabs through the door as Catherine Hicks tries to keep it closed is a beauty and the sequence it totally delivers in what it’s supposed to do.

As much as everyone remembers Chucky (and, of course, the voice provided by Brad Dourif) it should be noted that the film has some expert work done by the actors. Chris Sarandon (also in Holland’s FRIGHT NIGHT) correctly plays the first half of the film more as annoyed than anything else, slamming files down on desks at every opportunity and seemingly having no idea that he’s playing a cop in a killer doll movie, and brings a great deal of authority to his understandable skepticism. Catherine Hicks also plays things as totally genuine and once things begin to get shockingly serious there’s really not a false or overdone note from her the whole time (compared to her work in STAR TREK IV two years earlier where, looking at it recently, she does seem to be overdoing things). Alex Vincent as Andy is almost unnervingly good, believably cute during the normal scenes then later when his reactions go from puzzled to nervous to flat-out terrified he becomes shockingly real, almost uncomfortably so during a few moments. Even Dinah Manoff, who doesn’t get to do much as best friend Maggie Peterson, has a refreshing amount of quirk and normalcy in her performance, an indication that the film was trying to set its premise in as believably played a world as possible.

The post-film discussion at UCLA included screenwriter Don Mancini, producer David Kirschner, Chucky Designer Kevin Yagher and star Catherine Hicks (a few Chucky models were on display as well). Among the subjects brought up were the origins of the script when Mancini was still a student at that school and how he got hooked up with Kirschner. Catherine Hicks (who incidentally, looks great) talked about the problems with bonding with Alex Vincent at first as well as how she first met Yagher on the film--the two have been married since 1990 and have a daughter. The extremely real performance of Alex Vincent was discussed and the issue of how director Holland was able to get such a convincing performance when Andy thinks Chucky is coming to kill him during the mental asylum sequence was only lightly alluded to…but everyone insisted that the boy’s mother and acting coach was always on set with him through all this. We were also told that Dourif wasn’t always going to automatically provide the voice of Chucky as well—at one point director of Holland decided to experiment with a masculine-sounding female voice like the demon in THE EXORCIST and brought in PLAY MISTY FOR ME’S Jessica Walter as a possibility. Clearly, the right choice was made in the end. When asked to give an idea of what he had planned for an upcoming Chucky reboot, Mancini simply answered, “No.”

The film was actually screened on a Blu-Ray DVD which was slightly unfortunate (there aren’t any 35mm prints of CHILD’S PLAY out there?) but watching it with an energetic audience, like those cute girls, was a reminder of how effective a thriller CHILD’S PLAY really is. And I say thriller as opposed to horror movie, with all due respect, because it feels like that’s what the film really is, an extremely well-done genre piece in which the horror elements only reveal themselves when they absolutely have to. We didn’t know the character at this point so Chucky was still able to scare us and in presenting him with such expert skill the best moments throughout CHILD’S PLAY are as effective as many such films wish they could be.


Don Mancini said...

Memo to Mr. Peel: No more camp; it's back to the straightforwardly scary approach for the still-in-the-planning-stages reboot.

But regarding the camp tone of the last two films in the series, it really was the result of my not wanting to make the same movie over and over again. CHILD'S PLAY 2 and 3 were near remakes of the original, with probably inevitably diminishing results: in both films, Andy is the boy who cried wolf, whom no one will believe when he says that his doll is killing people. After three movies utilizing this formula, it was getting a little dull -- for the audience, as well as for the filmmakers.

So we decided to EMBRACE the absurdity inherent in the concept of a killer two-foot doll. By adding the Bride character, it allowed me as a writer to delve into previously unexamined aspects of Chucky's personality: his attitude toward women, relationships, and marriage. Stuff you probably never expect to learn (or maybe even care to learn) about your average slasher villain. But I and the other filmmakers on the team found it amusing, and so did a good portion of the audience. And again, it was precious NEW material to work with. By the end of SEED OF CHUCKY, we'd pretty much mined the comic gold (for now), so we're going back down to Scary Town.

Such a thrill and an honor to be reviewed by you, Mr. Peel! Thanks so much. Now on to DEATH BECOMES HER...

Thomas Pluck said...

I saw the original in theaters and loved it. Can't remember the sequels at all. A reboot is unfortunate but inevitable, as long as it goes for the horror it's fine with me. The original ignored the ridiculousness of the premise and rolled with it. It was a great idea. I'd recommend not going too far into the killer's background. We've seen a lot of that lately and it doesn't help.
Make us really care and be afraid that the boy is going to die horribly, and we'll be on the edge of our seats.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


For the record, I far prefer the most recent two sequels to the first two--damn, Jennifer Tilly is awesome! I really was part of that good portion of the audience. If anything, I was also thinking about what seemed like the public perception of the character as well. But yes, you were able to get a lot out of the character in those films that you wouldn't have with a more serious approach. I hope my genuine fondness for the first film came through. Now where did I put that DEATH BECOMES HER DVD?


Glad you're a fan of it as well and I can confirm that the film still plays really well after all these years! Take another look at it!

christian said...

I'm ashamed to say I still have never seen this. And I love Holland and co. But I did have a dream about Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandrige last night...weird.

I'd like to see the original cut of DEATH BECOMES HER since Zemeckis heavily re-structured it afte test screenings, even cutting out Tracey Ullman.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I guess it's time for you to see it! I've always had mixed feelings about DEATH BECOMES HER and I've read about all the recutting that went on, but who knows? Should they have kept it the original way? I guess there's no way for us to say. I really need to pull that disc out to watch it again.