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How CHILD’S PLAY Survived The Slasher Curse

How the hell has Chucky survived this long? As other horror franchises have been rebooted into the stratosphere, Child’s Play uniquely endures. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and The Ring have all suffered terrible reboots in the last decade, stalling those franchises, and yet a small, adorably evil plastic doll has endured.

Here is a children’s toy come to life, and out for blood. Toy Story with a body count. It’s strangely playful and extremely adaptable. As the franchise has aged, the films have evolved, moving from surprisingly serious to more playful and tongue-in-cheek. The films began to realize their audience was in on the joke, and that kinship to fans has helped the franchise’s mileage.

For nearly 30 years, Chucky, the foul-mouthed killer doll at the center of the Child’s Play franchise, has been hacking and slashing his way into horror’s hallowed halls. Another clue to his unlikely success: while other horror creators jump ship on their projects after one or two entries, Don Mancini, the creator and captain, has remained firmly at the helm since inception.

“Partly it just comes down to the fact that I’m tenacious and proprietary,” Mancini says. “I don’t want anyone else to play with my toys.”

Mancini was a student at UCLA when he wrote the script that would eventually become Child’s Play. It was a psychological thriller that brought a young boy’s rage and id to life via doll. Mancini’s father worked in advertising, and the original script drew from his father’s profession to double as a dark satire of how marketing targeted children.

College students don’t usually have screenplays blossom into ever-lasting film franchises, but Mancini was lucky enough to find a killer collective of filmmakers. He found a friend in producer David Kirschner, who had recently produced An American Tail for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And Tom Holland, the director of the 1985 vampire film Fright Night, was hired to direct Child’s Play.

“I don’t want anyone else to play with my toys.” – Don Mancini, Child’s Play Creator

Holland would also work on rewriting Mancini’s script along with John Lafia. Lafia was the one who came up with the name “Chucky” (the doll was named Buddy in Mancini’s script), and Holland introduced a crucial element to explain a living, killing doll: voodoo. Perhaps it was this same magic that has kept Child’s Play alive for so long.

The director also made another essential contribution to the franchise: he cast Brad Dourif in the soon-to-be-iconic role of Chucky. Dourif, a character actor with a killer voice, had previously appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wise Blood, Blue Velvet, and had previously worked with Holland on the 1987 Whoopi Goldberg comedy Fatal Beauty.

“Chucky is the least worked on, in a way, performance that I’ve done, because I just made him up,” Dourif told The A.V. Club. “I gave him a bit of a Chicago accent at the beginning, and it’s evolved since then.”

Child’s Play opens with the timely demise of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Dourif). Ray is gunned down by homicide detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) in a local toy store, but before he dies, Ray works some voodoo magic and transports his soul into the body of a nearby Good Guy Doll, a red-haired, freckle-faced homunculus modeled, in part, after the famous “My Buddy” toys of the 1980s.

The doll ends up in the hands of young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), a gift from his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks), and it’s not long before Ray, now reborn as Chucky, carves a bloody path across Chicago. He kills Karen’s friends, seeks revenge on those who did him wrong in life, and inadvertently frames Andy for the crimes.

Most striking about Child’s Play now is how serious it is. The concept is played completely straight, which makes it all the more eerie and endearing. Chucky doesn’t crack many jokes; he’s simply a screaming, biting psychopath who wants to escape his current body by transplanting his soul into Andy.

“Chucky loves his job.”Brad Dourif, Chucky’s Voice

“It’s a bad idea to make Chucky too funny because you lose horror when you lose your monster,” Dourif contends in that same piece from The A.V. Club. “Your monster is somebody with which you cannot negotiate, who is going to turn a living, breathing human into a piece of meat. That’s the integrity of the part. Beyond that, Chucky loves his job. Those two seem to really be the only two things that I really know about Chucky. That, and he’s terrified of oblivion.”

Child’s Play was a hit. It even garnered positive reviews from mainstream critics, something the rest of the franchise would have trouble with. “Child’s Play is better than the average False Alarm movie because it is well made, contains effective performances, and has succeeded in creating a truly malevolent doll. Chucky is one mean SOB,” Roger Ebert wrote in 1988.

A sequel was inevitable, but Child’s Play 2 was the rare follow-up film that’s actually better than the original. However, despite the franchise appeal, getting the film financed was difficult. United Artists, the studio that released the original film, was purchased by Australian group Qintex, who promptly killed Child’s Play 2. “The new management,” Kirschner said at the time, “has decided that horror films are not the kind of films they think will be good for the image of the company.” Kirschner financed the film himself, with Universal Pictures set to distribute. Mancini penned the script solo with no rewrites from others, and Child’s Play co-writer John Lafia directed.

Child’s Play 2 is more adventurous than the first film, fully embracing certain killer doll elements that the original rushed. Much of Mancini’s more satirical elements on child-based marketing and consumerism were in focus, and director Lafia brought a warped vision to the film, filling it with Dutch angles and fish-eyed lens close-ups. The result is a more entertaining film, and the earliest hint that the franchise would become unstoppable. Here, Mancini and company were showing they were able to start taking Chucky out of his initial set-up and start inserting him into bigger, stranger situations.

Andy (Vincent) is now understandably traumatized, and finds himself placed in a foster home. PlayPals, the company that manufactures Good Guy dolls, has taken the burnt husk of Chucky and recreated it from scratch in an attempt to assure panicked stockholders that there was nothing wrong with the doll. Of course, Chucky returns from the grave, again, and seeks to implant his soul into Andy.

In November of 1990, Child’s Play 2 opened at number 1 at the box office, causing Child’s Play 3 to rush into production. The third installment hit theaters nine months later, yet was set eight years in the future, with a teenage Andy (now played by Justin Whalin) shipped off to military school. Somehow, PlayPals has managed to survive all the terrible publicity of being associated with a murderous doll, and decides to fire up production on a new line of Good Guy dolls, inadvertently bringing Chucky back to life in the process.

At this point, Chucky was blossoming into an anti-hero; a short-tempered figure who rebels against authority, and what greater authority to rebel against than that of rigid military tradition?

Mancini would again pen the film, this time enlisting Jack Bender to direct. Ultimately Mancini would be unhappy with the end result, saying the film felt rushed. Regardless, the film showcased the franchise’s increasing malleability. Already the films had evolved from a mystery-based thriller, to a gory slasher, to a military film. Despite this momentum, Chucky would end up back on the shelf for much of the ‘90s. Horror as a genre would be on a decline as the decade dragged on, unable to rekindle the trashy, blood-soaked glory of the ‘80s. And then Scream changed everything.

Wes Craven’s self-referential slasher revitalized the flagging genre and studios began scrambling to cash in. Universal, remembering they owned Child’s Play, decided to dust off the Good Guy doll for another outing. Mancini was more than game, and this time he give the series a twist: Chucky finds a mate, and the series begins to lean into its comedic elements. Director Ronny Yu helmed the film, bringing a new kinetic style to the franchise.

It’s not hard to find humor in a cussing, murderous doll, but the franchise up to this point had remained mostly serious with occasional comic flourishes. 1998’s Bride of Chucky changed all that. Now, there were just as many jokes as there were kills. Chucky is brought back to life by his old flame Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), and somewhere along the line Chucky, terrible boyfriend that he is, kills Tiffany and then transfers her soul into the doll. What follows is a road trip film with hints of Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers. Chucky and Tiffany hit the road, racking up another big body count along the way.

Bride was the silliest Child’s Play entry at that point, but audiences were thrilled to have Chucky back. It mostly works, and Tilly is a great addition to the franchise, but it’s also perhaps the most dated film in the series, firmly rooted in the late ‘90s, complete with a soundtrack that blasts songs by industrial metal band Monster Magnet. Despite this, the film would go on to become the most successful Child’s Play to date.

It’s not hard to find humor in a cussing, murderous doll

Horror remakes came back in vogue again in the early 2000s, — The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Sorority Row, The Eye — and a Child’s Play remake seemed almost guaranteed. Mancini and Kirschner even toyed with the idea and came close several times, but ultimately resisted.

“David Kirschner and I just see the value in maintaining the uniqueness of this particular franchise by not going that route,” Mancini explains. “At least not yet. I think it seems that it may be inevitable that that will happen eventually. But right now we really just see the value of maintaining a sort of individuality with this franchise by just spinning an ongoing yet coherent and cohesive mythology.”

2004 spawned Seed of Chucky, a bonkers film that didn’t take the comedic route so much as go barreling down it at 150 miles per hour. Mancini would once again write and this time step into directorial duties, creating a hyper-meta Hollywood comedy that finds Jennifer Tilly now playing herself while also playing Tiffany again. Tilly prepares to make movie based on the Chucky murders, all while the real Chucky and Tiffany sneak around offing people in the background. The killer couple are now joined by their offspring, Glenn.

Seed of Chucky is a mess. It’s over the top to the extreme and most of the humor falls flat. Yet there’s a gonzo charm to it as well. The film features a cameo from trash cinema master John Waters. Yet for all its commendable insanity, the movie was the first sign that the franchise was starting to come off the rails. But Chucky always bounces back.

Most fans seemed to reject Seed of Chucky, feeling the ever-changing franchise had perhaps changed too much and become a weird imitation of its former self. Consequently, Mancini and Kirschner grew interested in a revitalization effort. Mancini found a way around a complete remake with Curse of Chucky, a film that would both continue the franchise and softly reboot it back to its horror roots. While Bride was a road-trip film; Seed, a Hollywood satire story that doubled as a family-in-crisis saga. 2013’s Curse of Chucky borders on gothic melodrama, something like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting with a killer doll.

Set in an old, dark house, Curse follows paraplegic Nica Pierce (played by Brad Dourif’s daughter Fiona Dourif), who finds her life turned upside down when her domineering mother turns up dead shortly after a Good Guy doll is anonymously shipped to the house.

Curse, filled with shadows and mystery, is laughably subtle compared to the films that came before it.. Chucky is scarier again, angrier, more prone to sudden fits of brutal rage. It is as close to a reboot as the franchise has had, and yet it’s still established in the cinematic world. It’s almost as if Mancini is trying to make amends for straying too far from the series with Seed.

“What would Andy be dealing with after such a f*cked up childhood?” – Mancini

And now, in 2017, Chucky keeps killing. Cult of Chucky, now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms like Netflix, is bringing Chucky’s legacy to the present. Nica returns, but so does Andy Barclay, once again played by Alex Vincent. The film is yet another departure for the franchise, set primarily in the confines of a cold, antiseptic mental hospital.

“I’ve always been fascinated by what this guy be dealing with after having had such a f*cked-up childhood” Mancini says. “Where would he be in life? And so we see those storylines converge, and of course another line comes through there as Tiffany, played by Jennifer Tilly — this all becomes a very combustible brew.”

Near the end of Bride of Chucky, when the killer doll is about to meet his demise yet again, he tauntingly shouts, “I’ll be back! I always come back!” As long as Mancini is willing to keep bringing Chucky back from the dead, he will. Pop culture invariably changes, but Chucky keeps on slashing. Now, when the filmmaker talks about the future of the franchise, he knows what will keep the character alive. ”I have ideas,” he says. “ Something very, very different.”

Images: Universal, Netflix


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