The following article is, technically, the ninth in what I have decided to call The Series Project. The Series Project is an experimental series of essays wherein I look at an entire run of films, and, rather than critically judging them as individuals, evaluate them as a whole unit. How does, of instance, the drama ebb and flow across the entire vast canon of Star Trek movies? Or how do the events of the sixth Police Academy film relate to the events of the previous five? The function of The Series Project is to explore the concept of cinematic continuity. It's also a cheap excuse to gleefully force myself through any given five-film series in the world, and brag about the results.
Let me explain a few of my ground rules for Series Project selection.
First: The film series must be at least five chapters long. Three-part film series are common and ubiquitous. A fourth part can be icing on the cake twenty years after the fact. By the time we get to a fifth part, we've reached a weird kind of terminal velocity, and are firmly into a new vast world of filmic continuity. Remakes do not count. If a film series is already five chapters long, though, and then there's a remake, I'll review the remake as well. But remakes will not be used to pad a series into five.
Second: At least the first two films in the series need to have been theatrical releases. I'm not averse to reviewing straight-to-video sequels, and have done so (I've previously written about the Hellraiser movies), but I would prefer the cinematic imprimatur that comes with theatrical release. If the third film makes it to video, well, it becomes game.
Third: The films must have some sort of canonical throughline. Spin-off characters are of dubious connection, and I'm not sure if they should count. I'm thinking of something like Red Sonja in this regard. I've also argued against including the straight-to-video American Pie sequels, as they deal with the doings of supporting characters.
Fourth: I will take any suggestions from readers as to what series I should do next. If there's some obscure long-running series of movies to be done, I'll take a listen. I do, of course, have full veto power, but if you demand it enough, well, I just might have to see what you want.
The first of The Series Project I'd like to offer for the intelligent and faithful readers of CraveOnline is Child's Play, a five-film slasher series that started in 1988 and ended in 2004. A remake of the first (groan) is slated for release in 2013. Onto The Series Project: Child's Play
When people try to think of lists of famous slashers, they often immediately go to the big three (Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees), but then begin to grope around for a fourth. The Big Three are clearly in a school all to themselves, while all the rest have yet to achieve the same sort of notoriety amongst the gorehounds. Pinhead (from Hellraiser) often gets mentioned at this point, but it's easy to argue that, since he's a demon, he doesn't really count as a proper serial killer. I've heard some people bring up The Tall Man from the Phantasm movies, but Phantasm occupies a nebulous outsider position in the slasher firmament. And don't bother mentioning Hannibal Lecter. He was featured in two awesome crime movies (and a few not-so-awesome ones), but I think we all truly know that he doesn't belong in the same camp as supernatural zombies like Michael and Jason.
The only true slasher that warrants comparison to The Big Three, then, is Charles Lee Ray, a.k.a. Chucky from the 1988 horror film Child's Play. Chucky is one of the only supernatural, undying killer monsters that can really be considered a slasher icon in the same way as his famed 1980s contemporaries. The fact that he's a living, talking toy shouldn't distract. Chucky was a serial killer who placed his soul into the body of a hot Christmas toy, and spent the course of five movies trying to put himself back into a human body. The voodoo rules that transfer his soul around from body to body is complex, and I'll explain it as I go through the movies.
To start with…
CHILD'S PLAY (1988)
dir. Tom Holland
This first film, directed by Tom Holland (who did the horror classic Fright Night, and the bizarro Whoopi Goldberg film Fatal Beauty), is a surprisingly solid and kind of scary film. The premise, the director seemed to know, was kind of silly, so he did what he could to make the monster convincing, and didn't bother with too much ambiguous tension; we know from the start that the doll is the one who has been doing all the murderous shenanigans, and while there's talk of the sanity of the lead boy, we know who the real killer is from frame one.
The film opens with a hard-boiled Chicago cop named Mike Norris (the charming Chris Sarandon) chasing down the infamous serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). Norris shoots Ray, and the two of them stumble into a toy shop. Ray manages to lose Norris amongst the toy stacks. Remember when toy stores were all big enough to get lost in? I miss those days. Ray, dying, pulls a Good Guy doll from the shelf, and begins reciting creepy voodoo words above it. The spell takes a long time to speak. A bolt of lightning crashes in through the ceiling, and kills Ray. Norris closes the case on The Lakeshore Strangler.
Good Guy dolls, I should perhaps explain, are two-and-a-half-foot tall battery-operated, cherub-faced toys that are programmed to speak three phrases when spoken to. They each have a name like Tommy or Larry. They're kind of like proto-Furbies in that regard. Good Guys were modeled after Hasbro's successful toy My Buddy, and WOW's talking bear toy Teddy Ruxpin, that would tell stories and had a fully animated face. If you were a young child (or a parent) on Christmas of 1985, you wanted one of those toys beyond all reason. I learned from a Child's Play insider that the working title of the film was Bloody Buddy, but Hasbro didn't like that.
The Good Guy is coveted seriously by young Andy (the seven-year-old Alex Vincent), who lives in a small Chicago apartment with his put-upon single mother Karen (Catherine Hicks). Karen works behind the perfume counter at a department store, so it's something of a wonder how she can afford such a nice apartment. On Andy's 7th birthday, he is appalled to learn all she can afford is clothing for him. Andy is a good kid – he tries to make breakfast for his mom, even though he make a total mess – so Karen wants to get him the Good Guy he so wants. Luckily for her, a bum in the alleyway behind her store has a Good Guy for cheap. I think we all know which Good Guy she got.
For the sake of full disclosure, I have to mention that I actually went to elementary school with Edan Gross, the actor who plays the voice of the Good Guy dolls. That he was a professional actor of course made him cool to all of his classmates, but that he was visibly involved in an R-rated horror film only made him awesomer. I recall that he was a really laidback and practical fellow, Edan, and never bragged or was arrogant. He was a friend. I hope he's doing well these days.
Not long after the Good Guy, who introduced himself as Chucky, moves in with Karen and Andy, strange things begin happening. TVs seem to turn themselves on, and Chucky is found in strange places around the apartment. When Andy's horndog babysitter (and there's always a horny best friend in these kinds of movies, in this case played by Dinah Manoff), begins lackadaisically thunking Chucky's head against walls, Chucky (off camera) pushes her out a window. This will happen a lot over the course of the movies: Anyone who bashes Chucky into a wall gets killed.
When the local cops come in to investigate Manoff's death, Andy begins talking about how Chucky did it, and, hilariously, tells his mom that “Chucky said Aunt Maggie was a bitch, and that she got what she deserved.” The cop is also Mike Norris, who calmly believes that Andy was perhaps the killer. Chucky and Andy begin to have secret conversations off camera, leading Andy to go to dangerous parts of town where Chucky, again off camera, begins sneaking around to kill of his associates. While we haven't yet seen the doll in close-up, we have seen close-ups of his little plastic hands manipulating knives and stoves and what-not. So we know for sure that Andy is not the killer. It would have, perhaps, been nice to have some ambiguity there, but I think we all knew that the doll was possessed going in, so this tension is not, strictly speaking, needed. Andy is soon apprehended again, and is, this time, locked up at the police station. Norris begins to see a few uncanny parallels between this little kid's story, and the previous life of Charles Lee Ray.
In the film's most chilling scene, Karen, beleaguered and home alone, begins yelling at the Chucky doll. When hurriedly disposing of the package, she notices that the toy's batteries were never installed. Indeed, the doll has been moving and talking without batteries this whole time! She yells at the doll and threatens to throw it in the fire. It's only then that Chucky, thanks to some miraculous animatronics, springs to life, and begins screaming in Brad Doruif's voice. I have to say this: throughout all five of the Child's Play movies, the animatronics used to animate the dolls are really, really excellent. The dolls have working arms and fingers, and hugely expressive faces. The creators really captured the creepiness of all those talking kid dolls that were so hot in the '80s, and made it look like they were actually running around and speaking. I think Child's Play 3 is the best in this regard, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Karen goes to Mike Norris with her story of the living doll, and announces she's going to investigate the matter herself. Norris only believes the story once Chucky appears in his backseat and tries to kill him. The car crash is spectacular. In the crash, Chucky begins bleeding from the nose. Eh?
Chucky, we see, visits the fellow who taught him voodoo, and, using a voodoo doll to torture him, learns that he is becoming increasingly mortal, hence the blood. If he remains a doll for too long, he'll be stuck in the doll body forever. He can, however, transfer his soul into the first person he “shared his secret” with. Meaning Andy. Remember that mechanic. It'll be the driving force behind the rest of the films. There's also going to be, in each, the telltale sign of Chucky's nose bleeding.
Chucky goes after Andy (Chucky is a little person in a suit in long shots), and the chase leads from the police station back to the apartment, where Norris, Karen and Andy all face off against an increasingly maniacal Chucky. Chucky, it should be acknowledged, is kind of a fully-formed character at this point, and we're kind of spooked out by his little screaming baby face with bloody pouring out of it. Eventually the doll must be shot, stabbed and burned to be killed.
The first Child's Play is, as I've said, a solid little thriller (at only 87 minutes) with some good tension, some great special effects, and some talented actors giving real heft to the admittedly silly premise. That it's considered a b-level slasher classic is appropriate. There's also something more going on: By vilifying a hot Christmas toy, the filmmakers seem to be making a comment on the rampant children's consumerism that infected the entire decade of the '80s; remember, this was a time when Reagan changed children's marketing laws, allowing for toy-based cartoon shows to appear on TV. That there is an evil stink all over your most coveted toys is not so far-fetched an idea.
This cock-eyed analysis of mine, though, immediately loses weight in the first sequel.
NEXT: Take a trip with Chucky to the factory where he was born and then time travel into the future…!
CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990)
dir. John Lafia
John Lafia was one of the original screenwriters of the first Child's Play, along with Don Mancini, who actually wrote, or co-wrote, all five.
After the events of the first Child's Play, the toy company who makes Good Guys is suffering a PR nightmare, and, just to show how safe the dolls are, has decided to refurbish and rebuild the very toy from that horrible case a year ago. Immediately, you're probably wondering why a toy company would a) commit such a bonehead move, and b) steal evidence from a police locker. But never mind. Child's Play 2 is going to ramp up the action and the mayhem from the first, and we need our killer doll to do that, so Chucky is rebuilt. Things go wrong right away, as one of the toy technicians making the Good Guy is killed accidentally by a shorted out mechanical arm. A lot of this film (especially its finale) will be devoted to the building of Good Guy dolls.
Andy, meanwhile, has been placed into foster care, as his mother has been institutionalized due to her killer doll story. Det. Norris in nowhere to be seen. That Andy is played by the same child actor, Alex Vincent, is rare for movies. Usually, when they need a child character to come back, they get a new, older actor. The return of Vincent is fortuitous, and gives the first two movies a solid continuity. By Child's Play 3, we'll have a different actor, so we need to appreciate this while we can. Andy moves in with a kindly family of perpetual foster care addicts Phil and Joanne Simpson, played by long-time character actor Gerrit Graham and one-time teen heartthrob Jenny Agutter from Walkabout, Logan's Run and An American Werewolf in London. Phil is kind of pushy and rule-oriented, while Joanne is a bit more caring and doting. Phil believes that Andy is mentally ill, which, you would think, would disqualify him from being a foster parent, but whatever.
Also living in the house is the spunky teenager Kyle, played by Christine Elise. Kyle is sort of punk rock, kinda cute, and definitely tough. She falls somewhere on the Fairuza Balk/Clea DuVall axis. Gothy, tough, mean, attractive, and not getting enough movie work. Kyle is the only one to really bond with Andy.
Chucky (still voiced impeccably by Brad Dourif), meanwhile, has been kidnapped by a douchey toy exec (and we know he's douchey because of his ugly power suit and use of a car phone), played by Greg Germann. Chucky kills the guy, and finds where Andy is living by claiming to be his uncle on the telephone. Chucky, you see, still wants to put his soul into Andy's body. I'm guessing his being-stuck-in-this-body-too-long clock has been reset now that he's in a new body. Given the chronology of the first film, his statute of limitations only runs three or four days. A week at most. Given that his time is limited, it's surprising how much time Chucky wastes killing people. Often, in this film, and especially in the next one, Chucky's kills are strictly recreational; he rarely needs to merely dispatch of someone in his way.
Anyway, Chucky finds his way to Andy's new house, kills the Good Guy doll hat's already there (!) and buries it in the backyard. He reveals himself to Andy, and Andy begins anew the complaint that his doll is out to kill him. Phil and Joanne only express concern. In one scene Chucky ties Andy to a bed with a jump rope and starts his voodoo spell. Andy, when he gets one hand free, punches Chucky right in the face. Brave kid. Chucky, it should be mentioned, has a habit of going stiff when other people are around, so he only appears to be a doll. He also seems to be able to speak in his Good Guy voice (hello again, Edan). If Charles Lee Ray has the restraint to stay immobile for extended periods, you'd think he'd also be able to refrain from killing those around him. There was no reason, for instance, for Chucky to murder Andy's new teacher with a yardstick (!). Also, how do you beat someone to death with a yardstick anyway? Aren't those made of balsa wood?
Chucky eventually loses patience, and starts killing Phil and Joanne. Only Kyle really catches on to what's happening. Andy is taken back to the orphanage (run by Grace Zabriskie), and Chucky hijacks Kyle to follow. Kyle manages to ditch an angry Chucky, rescue Andy, and flee to the local toy factory. The entire final 20 minutes of the film is a chase through the toy factory, with hundreds of Good Guys being produced. The machine used to insert the dolls' eyeballs is used to kill a technician there. Chucky begins to bleed when shot. In one scene, Chucky, reaching through a cage to get to his victims, gets his hand stuck, and he's able to rip his hand off to get free. This means that Chucky, in addition to being small, is also lightweight and fragile. Several times throughout the course of these movies, people pick up Chucky bodily, and toss him away across the room. It baffles me as to why people don't think to stomp on him, or pick him up and then spike him like a football.
Chucky is killed in a horrible fashion. After falling into a machine that attaches an extra few plastic arms to his body (and, no, he cannot control the extra arms), he is melted by molten plastic, shot, and decapitated. I do like that Chucky can't be taken down by a simple bullet. He has to be really ripped totally to shreds. Andy and Kyle walk away from the gruesome scene, wondering audibly where they're going to live.
Sadly, we never see, as the next film takes place in the future…
CHILD'S PLAY 3 (1991)
dir. Jack Bender
The director is new on the scene, but the film is still written by Don Mancini. Odd that all the films have the same screenwriter, and yet seem to begin afresh with each new film from here on out.
Only a year has passed since Child's Play 2 was in theaters, but, according to dialogue, it's been eight years. Andy is now 16, which means the film technically takes place in 1998. No other references to the time are given, however, so it's essentially the present. But, seeing as how the fourth film in the series, Bride of Chucky, was released in 1998, perhaps the events of parts 3 and 4 are chronologically closer than we think.
Child's Play 3 is easily the weakest of the series, as it not only has a weird premise, but falls victim to the teleporting killer syndrome; that is, wherever our heroes are, the killer manages to turn up without rhyme or reason. That the whole film takes place at a military academy only weirds up things.
Yes, the film takes place at a military academy. I'll get to that. The toy execs have, after eight years, decided to restart the moribund Good Guy toy line in order to bank on the nostalgia market. That the film franchise itself remained moribund after this film until 1998, only to reboot itself for a few nostalgia bucks, perhaps draws an eerie parallel. Nine years will pass between the 2004 Chucky film and the planned remake, so the series was steps ahead of itself in this regard. The execs at Good Guys, inc. find themselves recycling all the plastic from the last Good Guys factory, and, during the credits, we see that Charles Lee Ray's blood from the last doll is dribbling into the new molten plastic. That's enough, I suppose, to get him back into a Good Guy doll. I would have loved to see a Child's Play movie where Charles Lee Ray accidentally ends up in a Barbie doll, but that's just me, I think. Chucky is soon up and slashing again, killing the exec in his office, and using his computer to find where Andy is. How does Chucky know how to use computers after being dead for eight years? Does he know how long he's been dead? How does he feel about that? None of these questions are answered.
My old friend Edan is back in this film, but, in 1990, he was 12 years old, so it must have pained him to do his little boy voice again. Or maybe not. It was, after all, another paycheck. If I ever talk to him again, I'll have to ask.
Anyway, Chucky finds that Andy, after a rough eight years in and out of foster homes, and after dealing with his increasingly crazy mom (Catherine Hicks clearly didn't want to be in any of the sequels), has been forcibly enrolled in a local military academy called Kent. Chucky has himself mailed to Andy, but is accidentally discovered by a naïve little kid named Tyler (Jeremy Sylver). It's already been established that Chucky has a week at most to transfer his soul into a new body, so it's a bit baffling as to why he'd waste three or four of those days in the mail. Maybe he sent himself express.
Andy, meanwhile, has become a whiny and insufferable teenager, and is now played by Justin Whalin, who at the time was probably best known for a recurring role on Charles in Charge. Whalin seems a lot wussier than Alex Vincent, and while dialogue establishes him as being thick-skinned and jaded by a childhood of violence, he seems like any bland child actor. The casting of Whalin seemed like the first misstep in a film full of them.
The other is the setting. A military academy? Really? That seems like the kind of decision that sprung less from the organic evolution of the story and more from the need to put something original into your franchise. No one has a slasher film set in a military academy before. Let's do one there! Andy is not really fit for military academy, and quickly becomes the newest favorite victim of the school's alpha-a**hole Shelton (Travis Fine). The only person, indeed, who stands up to Shelton is the spunky gal DeSilva (Perrey Reeves, who fares better than most of the cast, and was most recently seen in Entourage). There is also, lurking about the edges of the film, a mad military barber played by Andrew Robinson from Hellraiser and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The mad barber is so obsessed with cutting hair it takes on a fetishistic quality, and we see him stalking the mess hall, ordering students to his barbershop. The scene where the barber is killed is one of the more bizarre in a film full of bizarre deaths.
So now that we have a weird-ass Full Metal Jacket, Jr. story going on, Chucky can finally kick in. He finds that, since he has a new doll body, and that he revealed his secret to Tyler before Andy, he can actually put his soul into Tyler instead. Chucky, however, never seems to find enough time to speak the entire voodoo incantation, and he has to constantly put it off. In the meantime, he stalks about campus killing people (one general he accidentally kills via heart attack), and eventually reveals himself to Andy. Andy is appropriately afraid, and begins sneaking about campus looking for Chucky in the night. Maybe it's because I've never been to military school, and I don't have much interest in the strictness therein, that I can't understand why Andy doesn't simply go AWOL to kill the damned doll once and for all. Each time he is caught sneaking about, he never just bolts to the task at hand. He always makes lame excuses to Shelton and his other superiors as to what he was doing. Oh well.
Eventually the cadets are put into a war game played with paintball guns. Chucky, in a fit of playful pique, swaps out the paint with live ammunition. The usual chaos ensues. By this time, Andy has managed to charm DeSilva (and even gets a kiss out of it!) and convince her that Chucky is a real killer doll who is trying to kill us all, and put his soul into Tyler. I'm sorry if I'm making the story seem choppy in my description, but the story is indeed choppy. For instance, right after the kiss scene I just mentioned, Andy is immediately seen in a tent looking for Tyler. The scenes do not flow into one another, the story doesn't seem to build in a cogent fashion, and, thanks to Chucky's magical ability to appear wherever he is needed, we never know where we are or why.
The film's finale takes place at a local carnival (which we glimpsed earlier in the film), where Chucky finds himself chasing Andy and Tyler through a rollercoaster spookhouse. It was at this point when I began to wonder why Chucky, once known as The Lakeshore Strangler, doesn't do a lot of strangling in these films. He stabs a lot of people, and kills in other creative ways (like that yardstick), but only strangles, or tries to strangle, a few people throughout the series. I guess when you have little plastic hands it's hard to strangle people, and you must improvise thusly, but surely we should be seeing more garrote wire.
Anyway, after getting half of his face sliced off (and a gorgeous close-up of the gory mechanics underneath), Chucky almost manages to say the entire spell to put himself into Tyler. Andy, however, chucks Chucky into a giant spinning fan, and his body parts go flying everywhere. The police are called in, and, before we're given any explanation, the film ends.
I'll say this for the Child's Play movies: they never go on too long. That's actually a good thing. They know that they're quickie horror entertainments, and never go overboard with stupid angst or useless exposition. Child's Play 3 is the longest in the series, and it's only 90 minutes.
Child's Play 3, for all its bad editing and clunkiness, actually has the best doll effects of the series. They've really streamlined the puppetry to the point that Chucky's lips match the words he's speaking. For extended periods you may feel that you're actually watching a living doll, and not an animatronic. Brad Dourif is as game as ever, and says all of his lines with a grand glee, and is usually the strongest part of any of the sequels. He can, with his cartoonish killer line-readings, give life to Chucky. Child's Play 3 may suck, but it's not bad enough to sink the series.
Despite this, the film underperformed at the box office, and there would be a seven-year gap until the next film.
From there the series managed to go through a slight reinvention. But seeing as you've already slogged through the first three movies, we'll leave off here for now, and pick it up again in part two. Be sure to rejoin me my words on Bride of Chucky, Seed of Chucky, and a series overview.