Child's Play: Chucky at 30
'Child's Play' was released 30 years ago this weekend, November 1988.
How did our culture come to allow Chucky from Child’s Play become a thing? Thirty years after the film debuted Chucky remains in the darkest corners of our popular culture appealing to those with a bizarre, macabre sense of humor and a deep tolerance for stupid. Personally, I’ve never had any interest in this silly horror doll nonsense. I’ve never understood the appeal.
Watching it for a 30th anniversary attempt at trying to understand the appeal of Child's Play, I can certainly grasp the absurdity. Much like The Room or Birdemic, Child’s Play is so utterly ludicrous that the invitation to laugh at it like a legitimate comedy is a rather reasonable notion. That, however, doesn’t explain why the film has lasted and spawned numerous sequels and re-imaginings. Why do people keep going back to this character?
Child’s Play stars the figure and mostly the voice of Brad Dourif as serial killer Charles Lee Ray. On the night Charles Lee Ray died he performed a ritual that transferred his soul into the plastic shell of a Good Guy Doll named Chucky. He was then struck by lightning and exploded. Chucky meanwhile, somehow survives the explosion, perfectly intact and in his box no less.
In fact, Chucky is in such good shape that a homeless guy picks up the box and sells it in a back alley to a mom desperate to get one of the stupid, overpriced dolls for her kid. The mom is Karen, played by Catharine Hicks, and the kid is Andy played by Alex Vincent, the single most insufferable child actor this side of Jake Lloyd. I know it’s wrong to call a kid out for being a bad actor, but truly, how does anyone sit through this movie listening to his kid.
The plot has Charles Lee Ray in the body of the Chucky Doll slowly becoming human and needing to get out of his body and into a human host, specifically that of Andy, the first person he revealed himself to. He must get his hands on the kid to perform the same voodoo ritual that got him into the Chucky doll. Standing in his way is a disbelieving cop, Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) who thought he’d seen Ray die in an explosion.
Child’s Play was directed by Tom Holland with a bizarre level of seriousness that may also be part of the absurd appeal of the Child’s Play franchise. Holland directs the movie as if we’re not supposed to be laughing. Sequences are built with actual mise en scene meant to evoke the suspense of what this stupid doll is going to do. An example, Holland frames a shot of Catharine Hicks with her back to Chucky so that we see Chucky over her shoulder. The supposition is that we’re supposed to be frightened if Chucky moves.
I will admit, this framing decision did make me laugh once it occurred to me that indeed I was watching to see if Chucky would move. Perhaps this is yet another absurd prank, Holland drawing us in to see if he can trick us into buying into this nonsense. Holland dedicates his years of filmmaking experience to trying to make this a real movie and I can’t tell if I pity him his effort or admire the moxie of such a futile effort.
Do we watch Child’s Play to laugh with it or laugh at it? I can’t say really. The actors appear to be as dedicated to this silliness as the director. Chris Sarandon really tries to make us buy into the threat of Chucky. A scene set in Detective Norris’s car has Chucky hiding in the backseat and trying to strangle the detective with jumper cables while he’s driving. The effort that Sarandon puts in trying to sell the idea that he’s struggling with the doll is admirable and pitiable at once.
If Tom Holland were to reveal that Child’s Play was a filmic experiment to test the limits of audience suspension of disbelief, I might be willing to believe him. That would be a fun explanation, much more fun than the idea that someone actually thought this would make a believable slasher movie that horror audiences are meant to take seriously and be genuinely frightened by.
Child’s Play is perhaps the dumbest thing our culture has allowed to have a ludicrously long shelf life. The Leprechaun would be a close second though the people who turned that into franchise appear to have much more of a sense of humor than the makers of Chucky who, at least in the original movie, appear to believe they are making a movie that people are supposed to be genuinely frightened by. I don’t know whether to laugh at them or pity their misguided notion of horror.