CHILD’S PLAY (1988) dir. Tom Holland

Director: Tom Holland
Producer: David Kirschner
Writers: Tom Holland, Don Mancini, John Lafia
Stars: Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, Brad Dourif

CHILD’S PLAY (1988)

Chucky gets a bad rap—he’s the lowbrow equivalent of eighties slasher superstars like Michael and Jason. He’s more akin to Freddy—albeit with a fraction of his popularity—garish, silly-looking, and yet unsettling nonetheless. Truthfully, though, Chucky deserves props in his own right—he’s foul-mouthed, ugly as hell, and downright nasty. That would be more than enough for me—are you kidding? I was sold halfway through reading the synopsis on the back cover of the DVD—but for more discerning critics, the influence of the gothic and even the underlying social implications will supply a surprising amount of intellectual fodder.

When little Andy’s (Alex Vincent) sixth birthday rolls around, he wants nothing more than a Good Guy. It’s not a metaphor—the hottest toy in America is an overalled, ruddy-faced doll actually called “a Good Guy.” Unfortunately, Andy’s mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks) is supporting the family alone following Andy’s father’s death and cannot afford the grossly overpriced toy. When a homeless man approaches the back alley of the department store where she works peddling a beat-up doll at a discounted price, it seems like bona fide serendipity. What she could never have imagined is the spirit that lies within, and his thirst for revenge.

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Karen (Catherine Hicks) and Andy (Alex Vincent) discussing the alleged reality/unreality of Chucky as a sentient being. If you can’t tell, Mom is winning. (Image courtesy of Tom Holland and Bill Butler.)

Some background (because it’s interesting and because I’m a nerd for this kind of thing): The CHILD’S PLAY franchise has done some interesting generic shifting over the past thirty-ish years. The first three films (CHILD’S PLAY [1988], CHILD’S PLAY 2 [1990], CHILD’S PLAY 3 [1991]) are horror, the latter two purely slashers and the first a sort of occult-slasher hybrid with supernatural elements. Although they all contain comic elements—given the absurdity of the premise—it isn’t until the fourth film, BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998), featuring Chucky’s beloved, Tiffany, that the series turns entirely to horror comedy and the CHILD’S PLAY franchise becomes what is known now as simply the CHUCKY franchise. SEED OF CHUCKY (2004), featuring Chucky and Tiffany’s young son—yep, it seems that in the CHUCKY universe, dolls can procreate effectively—Glen, continues in this tradition, as does 2013’s CURSE OF CHUCKY; however, the bluntly titled CHUCKY 7, slated to hit theaters in 2017, will be a return to the franchise’s origins as an occult-slasher horror flick. The series has ebbed and flowed flexibly, following the filmmakers’ whims with refreshing abandon, yet the spirit of the franchise always remains: playful, irreverent, and campy.

Today, we eschew camp for the ironic, the tirelessly cynical. We dismiss silliness as blasé. We laud relentlessly dark television—BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK—yes, even OITNB—and skip past sitcoms and sketch comedy. Even in our culture’s fetishistic dedication to nostalgia, we prefer bygone days repackaged in modern terms—we clamor for the glossy subtlety of STRANGER THINGS’ eighties references, for example, but who watches eighties television anymore? (I do. I watch FAMILY TIES. AND SO SHOULD YOU.) In CHILD’S PLAY, subtlety is refreshingly absent. The eighties are so palpable that the era is practically its own character.

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Unbeknownst to his “Aunt Maggie” (Dinah Manoff), Andy leans over to hear Chucky better. Is that a whisper we hear? (Image courtesy of Tom Holland and Bill Butler.)

In the spirit of the capitalist melee that followed Reagan-era prosperity, the Chicago of CHLID’S PLAY is a glitzy eighties wonderland—at least in the confines of Playland Toys, Chucky’s original home, and in Andy’s closet, and on the family’s television set. The presence of the Good Guys trend is everywhere—from the film’s first shot of him until the bitter end, Andy sports an identical striped tee and pair of overalls to match the Good Guys; on the television, a children’s cartoon starring the Good Guys plays; Andy pours a bowl of cereal from a box emblazoned with the Good Guys logo. Not only does this specific brand of aggressive, saturated commercialism practically transport me back to my childhood—Care Bears, anyone?—the borderline-absurd level of merchandising evokes thought-provoking questions about consumerism.

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You can’t tell, but this is Andy staring, for a prolonged amount of time, at the Good Guys programming playing on TV. Disguised advertising at its best! (Image courtesy of Tom Holland and Bill Butler.)

The events of CHILD’S PLAY are often fueled by capitalist greed. First, there’s Andy’s consumerist desire for the Good Guy doll, his lack of satisfaction with just the Good Guys tool set that his mother gifts him: “I want a Good Guy,” he tells her glumly and, perhaps bending to the guilt that companies breathlessly hope that a parent can experience when she isn’t able to provide her child with the latest top-of-the-line trend, Karen faces the prospect of finding one within her budget, a nearly impossible task. The odds are against her: Her tyrannical boss at the department store will not allow her to run downstairs from the jewelry counter where she works to check if there are still Good Guys available, much less take time off for Andy’s birthday and, even if there was one, the price is simply too high. It is purely luck—so it seems—when the homeless man shows up behind the store with Chucky in hand. In this way, capitalism offers a framework through which horror occurs, a vehicle that is a macrocosm of what the Good Guy doll is to the spirit of “Chucky” (serial killer Charles Lee Ray [Brad Dourif plays Ray and voices Chucky]) within.

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Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), clutching the vessel that will soon become him. (Image courtesy of Tom Holland and Bill Butler.)

But don’t be fooled: beyond the eighties neon of CHILD’S PLAY’s stores and television commercials is a Chicago brimming with crime and dismaying poverty. The homeless man who pawns Chucky off to Karen is only the beginning—Charles Lee Ray himself was a toothless criminal, controlled by an evil temper and the forces of corruption he navigated on the streets. Even the man who taught Charles Lee Ray the “voodoo magic”—yes, this is when we remember why we’re glad that it isn’t the eighties anymore—necessary to implant his spirit in the doll is a poor Haitian immigrant living in a cramped apartment in the inner city. CHILD’S PLAY, largely considered a tacky, throwaway B-flick, interrogates both the cost of capitalist greed and the consequences of a lack of economic mobility (which traps Karen with a monstrous toy and traps Charles Lee Ray and others like him in cycles of violence and crime which beget the dark, twisted Chicago depicted—reminiscent of the Detroit crawling with evil in THE CROW [1994] and even the gritty, pre-Giuliani New York of GHOSTBUSTERS [1984]).

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Karen investigates Charles Lee Ray’s old home and discovers this message painted into an elaborate mural on the wall. We can assume that the filmmakers meant “Damballah,” the Haitian Vodou ioa who is the creator of all life. (Image courtesy of Tom Holland and Bill Butler.)

With Chucky as an eerie physical double to Andy (they’re practically the same size, wear the same “Good Guys” uniform—almost causing Andy to take the fall for one of Chucky’s murders—and look not unlike each other) and behaving unnervingly like a human being (clear-eyed, full-haired, blinking, and fleshy), the uncanny is alive and well here. Traditionally gothic even as it subverts, satirizes, and surprises, CHILD’S PLAY deserves its place in the canon of eighties slashers for sheer ingenuity, if not a sly peek at the sins of late-twentieth-century America.

Gore: ★★★★

Horror: ★★★★

Suspense: ★★★

Terror: ★★★

Quality: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

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