Child's Play (1988) Childís Play (1988) ***

     I think we can probably blame the Cabbage Patch Kids. When those ghastly little homunculi became the hottest toy for girls on the market in 1983, it was the next best thing to a guarantee that the rest of the decade would be a boom time for dolls issuing from the very nadir of the Uncanny Valley. My Buddy was the most horrid of the bunch; I defy anybody to look at one of those things without imagining it coming to life each night after its ownerís family falls asleep, and sneaking off to feed on the blood of the household pets. My Buddy was just crying out for somebody to build a horror movie around it, and in 1988, a band of somebodies including Cellar Dweller screenwriter Don Mancini and Fright Night director Tom Holland did just that. Childís Play obviously spoke to people, too, despite a fair amount of inherent absurdity, because it was a big enough hit to launch the last major horror franchise of the 1980ís. Indeed, sequels have appeared sporadically up to practically the present day, and a reboot of the series (or perhaps just another sequel) is reportedly in development as I write this. The follow-up films descended swiftly into self-parody (and ultimately into conscious self-parody), but the original is as committed to getting under the audienceís skin as practically anything in the genre from its era.

     A prologue sequence which probably seemed a tad less rushed before it was heavily cut to shorten the total running time introduces us to serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, from The Eyes of Laura Mars and Dune), known to his friends as Chucky. Rayís target for the night was poorly chosen; ďsheĒ was really Detective Mike Norris of the Chicago Police Department (Chris Sarandon, of Fright Night and Lipstick), and the cop and his partner, Jack Santos (Howard the Duckís Tommy Swerdlow), are now in hot pursuit. Wounded in an exchange of gunfire with Norris, Ray breaks into a department store to hide. Heís losing a lot of blood, however, and itís hard to imagine the police giving up the chase before he succumbs. Thatís when Ray does something unexpected. Taking shelter in the toy department, the killer grabs a Good Guy doll from a towering display of such things and begins chanting in what sounds like a form of Creole French. A freakishly localized electrical storm immediately breaks out directly over the building, soon generating a lightning bolt of sufficient power to wreck the upper floors and set the store ablaze. In the aftermath, Rayís corpse is found clutching the doll he was messing with before his hideout blew up.

     So what exactly is a Good Guy doll? Only the most sought-after toy on the shelves this year, the demand further stimulated by tie-in products like breakfast cereal, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a clothing line for children designed to mimic the outfits worn by the dolls themselves. Good Guys are about the size of a live toddler, and two C-cell batteries (considerately included with purchase) power simple electronics enabling them to speak a handful of prerecorded phrases. Each Good Guy even has its own personal name, which it announces as one of those stock sentences. You will perhaps not be surprised that the fucking things cost a fortune. Theyíre certainly more than single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks, from Death Valley and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) can plausibly afford on her wages and commissions from some Magnificent Mile department storeís perfume counter. And thatís rather a problem, because thereís nothing that Karenís son, Andy (Alex Vincent, later of Dead Country and House Guest), wants more for his sixth birthday. Karen may be in luck, however. Her friend and coworker, Maggie Peterson (Dinah Manoff, from Night Drive and The Possessed), is a fearless patron of shady street vendors, and she noticed on her way in to work this evening that the bum (Juan Ramirez) peddling probably-stolen crap in the alley behind the store has a Good Guy among his wares. Even his asking price is pretty steep, but itís a fraction of what Karen would have to pay a more reputable dealer. Swallowing all her various compunctions, she buys the doll as soon as she can get a few moments away from her work.

     Andy is thrilled, but even so, he isnít going to get quite the birthday he wanted. Thatís partly because Karenís boss (Alan Wilder, from Kiss the Girls and Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter) calls her in to work at the last minute to make up for a staffing shortfall, even though she put in for the night off weeks ago. But itís also because thereís more to his present than meets the eye. Although the packaging identifies Andyís Good Guy as ďOliver,Ē the dollís first words in response to his prompting are, ďHió Iím Chucky!Ē Youíll recall that weíve heard that name once already in this film. Chucky reveals far more alarming eccentricities, too, after Maggie arrives at the apartment to babysit during Karenís shift. Maggie takes it for a creative bedtime-dodging tactic when Andy pleads that Chucky wants to watch the late news, but just moments after tucking Andy in, she finds the doll sitting in front of the blaring TV set. Nor is Andy playing tricks on her, as she immediately assumes. Chucky is the very same doll that Charles Lee Ray was holding when he conjured up that thunderbolt, and the serial killerís spirit is now comfortably ensconced within it. Furthermore, a ľ-scale body made of fabric, stuffing, and polyvinyl chloride is less of an impediment to committing further murders than you might expect. Chucky draws plenty of bystander attention by pushing Maggie out the kitchen window when heís finished with her, so Karen comes home from work to find her flat crawling with police led by our old pal, Mike Norris. The detective is in essentially the same position as Kinderman investigating Burke Denningís death in The Exorcist; the evidence at the scene all seems to point to a child-sized killer, but who could believe that Andy would brain his beloved ďAuntĒ Maggie with a toy hammer and shove her out of a window to splatter on the sidewalk below? Not Karenó thatís for fucking sure. Sheís sharp enough to recognize how things look, though, so she does everything she can to hustle Norris and his cops out of the apartment before they start to get serious about thinking the unthinkable.

     But letís back up a step here: why the hell was Chucky so hot to watch the news, anyway? Well, it seems that Charles Lee Ray was one of those rare serial killers who donít work alone, and he was curious as to what might have become of his accomplice, Eddie Caputo (Neil Giuntoli, from Hands of Steel and Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer 2: Mask of Sanity). Having satisfied himself that Caputo is still at large, Chucky convinces Andy to sneak away from school the next day to take him to a certain dilapidated house in a neighborhood falling rapidly to ruin. The place was Caputoís favorite hideout, and Ray figures itís just where heíd go with the heat on him the way it is now. You see, itís very important to Chucky that Eddie keep his mouth shut. Evidently the killerís sidekick knows thingsó things that might make it easier for a practical guy like Detective Norris to accept the reality of the stunt Ray pulled by transferring his soul into a frigging Good Guy doll. The limited capacity of six-year-old bladders gives Chucky a chance to slip away from Andy long enough to ignite the gas line to Caputoís safehouse, silencing him once and for all.

     That makes twice in as many days that Detective Norris has arrived at the scene of a suspiciously deliberate-looking ďaccidentalĒ death to find Andy Barclay hanging around. This time thereís no avoiding the implications, eitheró the kid is the prime suspect. His mother will have to be called, of course, but before Norris does that, he brings in a child psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Ardmore (Jack Colvin, from The Terminal Man and The Spell) to puzzle out the significance of the weird story Andy keeps telling about his doll. What really disturbs Norris, though, is the identity of the second victim. He can understand why a budding psycho would want to off his babysitter, but to travel halfway across the city in order to whack Chicagoís most wanted fugitive? Thatís a bizarre thing for a kid Andyís age to do, no matter how twisted he might be in the head. Karen is horrified by what confronts her at the police station, although thereís nothing she can really do about it under the circumstances.

     Fortunately for Andyó at least with regard to his legal troublesó Charles Lee Ray has further unfinished business to attend to, and settling it will require revealing himself to people other than the boy. For one thing, just leaving the apartment is bound to draw Karenís attention now that Andy is locked up and unable to serve as an unwitting alibi for Chuckyís movements. And since a major item on Chuckyís agenda is to get back at Mike Norris for shooting him while he was alive in the ordinary sense, the detective is pretty much bound to find out about him, too. But the main thing Chucky means to accomplish is to check in with the guy who taught him that soul-transference magic he used in the department storeó a Haitian bokor who calls himself Dr. Death (Forbidden Worldís Ray Oliver)ó in the hope that he knows another trick that will turn Ray human again. Dr. Death is uncooperative at first. He regards what Ray has already done as a grave misuse of his teachings, so the killer can just fuck off and be a doll, so far as Dr. Death is concerned. Chucky can be very persuasive, however, and he eventually tortures the secret out of his mentor. It turns out the spell Ray used before will enable him to possess a human, too, but with one important caveat: itíll work only on the first person to whom Chucky revealed himself in his current incarnation. In other words, Andy and his mom arenít quite finished with Chucky yet.

     The big surprise for me at the 2017 April Ghouls Monster-Rama was discovering how unfair Iíve been to Childís Play all these years. Thatís a funny thing to say, since I actually remember liking it, but the point is, I liked it in 1988. My standards in 1988 were indefensibly low, and I tend not to trust any opinion I formed in those days unless and until itís borne out by subsequent experience. As the increasingly feeble-looking Childís Play sequels piled up, I allowed my impression of them to color my perception of my own reaction to the original, until I came to regard my former affection for this movie as a case in point demonstrating my teenaged selfís lack of discernment. But it turns out that I still like Childís Play, and while it may be that my taste remains grotesquely bad, I donít believe for a second that insufficient discernment is the problem. Think of this review, then, as my apology to Chucky and his creators. At least this first time out, he was an effective little bogeyman.

     The crucial point is that Evil Dead 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors had come out only the year before, and their influence hadnít yet combined with increasing public skittishness about horror movies to push the entire genre in the direction of splatstick and black comedy. The Elm Street influence is plainly operative in Childís Play, insofar as Chucky is both a supernaturally empowered killer and a malevolent wiseacre, but at this point the malevolence outweighs the quipping. Thereís also no indication whatsoever that weíre meant to side with Chucky over any of his victimsó not even the ones who are themselves implicated in Charles Lee Rayís career as a mortal criminal. Most of all, Chucky spends the bulk of the running time endangering a child, whether by leading him alone into a blighted ghetto, blowing up a house with him close at hand, framing him for murder, or attempting to take over his body by magical means. The occasional smartass one-liner notwithstanding, Chucky here is a villain pure and simple, and a thoroughly despicable one.

     Heís also truly hideous to behold, not least because his nominally cute initial appearance is plenty nightmarish already. Indeed, I donít think Iíve ever talked to anyone who didnít find the base Good Guy doll creepier in some ways than the overtly monstrous possessed version. The filmmakers did a remarkable job of bringing Chucky to life, too. The various animatronic puppets used for closeups on the living dollís face are excellent for their time, although naturally they scarcely bear comparison with those used for the latest few sequels. More important, though, is the skill with which the puppets are combined with live performances by stunt midgets and the indispensable horror movie POV cam to create a well-rounded illusion that the doll is both alive and dangerous. Thereís one scene in particular of Karen grappling with Chucky which ought to be nothing but ludicrous, but is instead so tense and gripping as to constitute a highlight of the film.

     Nor should we disregard Brad Dourifís contribution. In the years since Childís Play, Dourif has become Hollywoodís go-to guy for a certain species of gleeful depravity. Some hint of his talent for roles of that sort should already have been apparent before 1988 (I mean, the guy was Piter De Vries, alright?), but it was this movie and its sequels that rightly put him on the map. In Dourifís hands, Chucky isnít just a monster or a murdereró heís a creep. Heís loathsome on a human level that most 80ís horror movie villains never attempted to reach, in a way that most 90ís horror movie villains never matched. Through him, Childís Play reveals itself as perhaps the first film to internalize fully the lesson of Freddy Krueger, that a bastard can be more memorable than a mere menace.

     But what impresses me most about Childís Play, and what most fully accounts for its superiority over the run-of-the-mill late-80ís scare flick, is its empathy for its characters. While so many of its contemporaries marched yet another parade of hateful twits across the screen and into the blades of whatever farming implement the killer was using that time around, Childís Play proceeds from the intersection of a solitary childís loneliness and a single motherís guilt over her inability to give him the time and attention he needs while still keeping a roof over their heads. For most of its length, it focuses more on a motherís fear that her son may be undergoing a psychotic break than on the fanciful threat of a doll possessed by a murdererís spirit. And its creators understood the machinery of that loneliness, that guilt, that fear, and used it to make this story resonate on frequencies that even the most skillful treatment of the killer doll premise never could have on its own.

 

 

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