Available on DVD Tuesday, September 9th
Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay
Chris Sarandon as Mike Norris
Alex Vincent as Andy Barclay
Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray/Chucky
Directed by Tom Holland
I envy the generation of kids – now in their late twenties – who were of exactly the right age in 1988 to give their dolls a fearful second glance thanks to the original Child’s Play.
For that crowd, Child’s Play remains a seminal scare. But even though the film never gave this Gen-Xer any sleepless nights, I still have fond memories of how Child’s Play helped re-energize the flagging horror scene of the late ’80s. By 1988, the cinematic bogeymen that had dominated the decade – Freddy Krueger and Jason – were quickly losing their appeal and few other characters had been able to strike a similar chord with audiences. But Child’s Play changed that. Based on the immediate response this film received, there was no doubt that a major new horror franchise had been launched. It was a long way from the kind of explicit splatter-fests that had kicked off the decade’s horror heyday – but director Tom Holland (Fright Night) was able to combine humor, scares, novel special effects and a mix of genre elements both old (Chucky harkens back to the ‘Talking Tina’ doll from the original Twilight Zone) and new (Kevin Yagher’s impressive animatronic work and Brad Dourif’s profane portrayal of Chucky) into a film that could satisfy most horror aficionados across the board.
Until now though, this fan favorite hadn’t been given its proper due on DVD. Rights issues between MGM and Universal were the primary obstacle in keeping a widescreen release of the film on hold and for the opportunity this new disc offers to finally see the film in its original framing, that alone would make this a must-buy for Child’s Play fans. But a sharper transfer, digital 5.1 mix (all the better to appreciate Joe Renzetti’s underrated score) and a generous slate of special features (discussed in detail below) make it one of more notable disc releases of the year.
But after twenty years, how does the film itself hold up? As the most serious entry in the Chucky saga to date, the story of how single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) and her six-year-old son Andy (Alex Vincent) fight to survive against a killer doll that wants to be Andy’s “friend to the end” holds up surprisingly well. Although scattered moments jump out as being flawed in a way that I hadn’t remembered, these moments aren’t enough to keep the film from being effective overall – even if they might make one reconsider the competence of some characters. For instance, in the film’s opening pursuit between Chicago police detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) and killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), when Norris is trying to locate a seriously wounded Ray inside the toy store that the killer has fled into, I never noticed how comical it is to see Norris cautiously prowling through the store’s aisles with no clue where Ray is while Ray is making all the noise in the world as he stumbles through the store in his death throes. After Ray pulls an entire display of Good Guy doll boxes onto himself and Norris is still walking around – probably all of 15 feet away – as though he has no idea where Ray could be, it makes one wonder how Norris has been able to survive as a cop all this time.
And I know it’s supposed to be a cute moment; but when Andy makes his mother breakfast in bed and he overflows a cereal bowl with milk and puts a glob of butter the size of a cat’s head on a slice of burnt toast, I had to verify how old this kid was supposed to be. Six? Really? Come on, now. Even my three-year-old can properly put butter on toast. If at, six years old, he handed me a tray with this kind of breakfast, I’d be forced to have him evaluated for a learning disability.
It also irked me to see Karen give Andy a birthday gift of clothes that she – for some inexplicable reason – has wrapped in a box whose size and shape could only lead Andy to believe this is the Good Guy doll he’s been begging for. This false expectation was obviously put in place for the purposes of misleading the audience as well as Andy, but in the context of the film it just comes off as a perplexing act of stupidity by Karen. Honestly, what sane, caring mother would wrap clothes to look like a toy? Talk about a cruel fake-out! Then again, it’s possible that Karen might be a little on the daffy side as when she later brings home the Good Guy doll that she bought from a peddler, she hands Andy a long, rectangular box gift-wrapped in plain brown paper with the surprise announcement that “This isn’t groceries!” Even screenwriter Don Mancini has to note with a chuckle on his commentary what a head-slapper this moment is.
Fortunately, once Chucky arrives at the Barclay home Child’s Play really comes to life with the scenes of Chucky before he reveals himself to anyone but Andy earning the film its most effective chills. There’s still a few amusing lapses in logic on hand, though, as during his investigation of the ‘accidental’ death of Andy’s ‘Aunt’ Maggie (Dinah Manoff), Norris again causes us to question his qualifications as a detective as he informs Karen that he searched Andy’s closet for shoes or sneakers that would match the tracks in the spilled flour found atop the kitchen counter but, curiously, none did. It only belatedly occurs to this resourceful crime solver to take a look at what Andy’s actually wearing on his feet. And what do you know – he finds his match!
Yet despite these kind of silly incidents, the movie works as a legitimate thriller. We genuinely feel it when these characters are in peril. And that’s due in large part to the film’s talented cast. It’s to their credit that Child’s Play‘s more ridiculous moments aren’t able to jar us out of the movie altogether. And as Mancini and producer David Kirschner both note on their commentary, casting actors of the caliber of Chris Sarandon turns what are essentially nothing parts on the page into actual characters. Watching the film today, I was struck by how roles that I originally remembered as being slightly bigger, like Jack Colvin’s child psychiatrist and Sarandon’s partner (Tommy Swerdlow), were as insubstantial as they are. Thanks to the actors involved, those roles left a far greater impression than they otherwise would’ve.
But above all else, the single aspect that makes Child’s Play succeed as well it does is Chucky himself. This is one of those classic cases where the bad guy makes the movie. Some will argue about that it’s better to have villains who aren’t all bad, who possess shades of gray, but I don’t quite buy that. Instead, I think audiences respond the strongest to pure evil. For instance, Darth Vader was the greatest villain ever until in Return of the Jedi (1983) we found out he was really just a dude who got screwed by his boss. Even going up to today with No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight, those are movies whose impact is almost entirely due to their villains and how completely amoral those characters are. And so it is with Child’s Play and Chucky. We know this character will not experience any moments of doubt or remorse and that’s appealing. Abetted by designer Kevin Yagher’s canny realization of Chucky (the fact that Chucky is a doll to begin with allows any sense of artificiality to look ‘right’), Brad Dourif’s voice work remains electrifying. Maybe it’s because he has to constantly strategize in order to be one-up on his victims (such as when he tries to strangle Norris from the backseat of Norris’ car), but Chucky is a villain that audiences instinctively want to root for. This isn’t a hulking powerhouse like Jason; this is someone who has to work for every kill.
As for Chucky’s effectiveness as a figure of fear, I think it’s ultimately an age-specific thing. I just can’t imagine that anyone over the age of say, eight or nine, was ever truly scared by Child’s Play. Entertained? Absolutely. Scared? No. That said, there are some individual images in this first film that remain striking – such as a low-angle shot of Chucky walking off the elevator in Karen’s apartment building or the sight of a scorched, melted, and none-too-happy Chucky slowly bearing down on Andy with a knife.
Lots of horror trends have come and gone in the past twenty years but while Chucky has often found himself out of favor, in true Good Guy fashion he’s never been more than one step away from a resurrection. In the pantheon of horror icons, Chucky may have always trailed in respect but this 20th Birthday Edition DVD argues that one doll can rule them all.
Audio Commentary with Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, and “Chucky” designer Kevin Yagher: In a piece of behind-the-scenes trivia I was not aware of until this disc, Hicks and Yagher met on the Child’s Play set and later married. The two appear on this informative commentary together – with Yagher supplying the expected insight into Chucky’s creation – while Vincent was recorded separately. I just wish that actor Ed Gale – who portrayed Chucky on oversized sets and performed several stunts as Chucky – had been tapped to provide commentary for this track as well. His input would’ve been a welcome counterpart to Yagher’s reflections.
Audio Commentary with Producer David Kirschner and Screenwriter Don Mancini: Still in the Chucky business twenty years later (the pair discuss plans for a remake on this commentary), Kirschner and Mancini are proud of their creation and have plenty to say about the production (including some mention of strife with Tom Holland). This is a very solid talk, with Mancini in particular showing his credibility as a real film geek every step of the way. He’s also a keen observer, noting that FX artists such as Yagher are “an interesting combination of gearhead and actor.”
Scene Specific Chucky Commentary: Dourif speaks in character over four scenes – “Chucky’s Thoughts”, “The Advantages of Being Chucky”, “Chucky on Filmmaking”, and “Up Close and Personal With Chucky”. Outside of Bruce Campbell’s Elvis commentary on Bubba Ho-Tep, I’m not a big fan of in-character commentary. I’d much rather hear Dourif the actor talk about his role. But at least this is only four scenes, rather than the entire movie, so the novelty isn’t run into the ground.
Evil Comes in Small Packages Featurette: This is a three-part featurette (running about twenty five minutes total) that comes with a ‘Play All’ option. First there’s “The Birth of Chucky”, which details the origins of Child’s Play and discusses details of Mancini’s spec script Blood Buddy (originally called Batteries Not Included but that title conflicted with a Spielberg production of the same name) that was reworked – with the contributions of John Lafia and Tom Holland (which included the smart change of making Karen into a struggling single mom rather than the head of the Good Guy marketing campaign as Mancini had originally scripted her) – into the Child’s Play we know today. Kirschner notes that this was his first live-action film after making his mark in kid’s animation (“I think everyone was pretty shocked that this is what I wanted to do next.”). And both men take the time to note their lingering unhappiness with the voodoo angle introduced to the screenplay by Holland, with Mancini in particular making some humorous observations about why he feels it makes little sense in the context of the film (“As a serial killer, why not just make voodoo dolls of all your victims?”).
Next is “Creating the Horror”, which delves into the actual production and the myriad of challenges faced by the actors and crew. There’s some priceless footage included here of Dourif rehearsing Chucky’s lines in person with Sarandon (“Goodnight asshole!”), Hicks (“You stupid bitch!”), and Vincent (“I’m your friend to the end, remember?”). Finally, there’s “Unleashed”, which addresses Child’s Play‘s theatrical release and subsequent impact. This is the weakest of the three featurettes, one that would’ve benefited greatly from some archival video footage (when Kirschner describes how he held his own premiere of the film and used stacks of Good Guy doll boxes to flank the audience on their way into the theater, you’ll wish that footage or even still pictures existed from the event). And a striking omission among all the special features included in this set is the lack of any new comments from director Tom Holland. Talk of the conflict between the director and Mancini appears in these featurettes and on the Kirschner/Mancini commentary but nothing of detail.
Chucky: Building a Nightmare Featurette: Here, Kevin Yagher’s exceptional work in bringing Chucky to life is spotlighted. It’s amazing to see how young Yagher was at the time (a mere 24 years old) while assigned such a crucial role in making this movie work. Everything hinged on his ability to make audiences believe in Chucky and this featurette gives us a glimpse as to how Yagher and his crew pulled it off.
A Monster Convention Featurette: In this approximately five-minute extra, Hicks, Sarandon, and Vincent appear together on stage at the 2007 Monster Mania convention to field audience questions.
Vintage Featurette: Introducing Chucky: the Making of Child’s Play: This six minute featurette might be my favorite extra on the disc, just for its awesome narration. After a clip of a wide-eyed Karen marveling over Chucky plays – “Wow! He’s something, isn’t he?” – the booming voice of the narrator comes on to add “HE SURE IS!” In general, this spotlights Yagher’s contributions with lots of views of him hard at work in his shop.
Rounding out the disc’s extras are Child’s Play‘s original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and trailers for both Mr. Brooks and Pathology. Also, as an Easter Egg feature, click on Chucky’s eyes on each extras menu to see a computerized Chucky delivering lines.