“Sorry, Jack. Chucky’s back!”
For those of you who don’t remember, this was the wry proclamation that announced the return of a very different breed of antihero, and unless you were on the receiving end of a plethora of sadistic, doll-related murders back in 1990, it was a return that was very much welcome. If you don’t recall, take a quick look at this trailer for the much-anticipated Child’s Play 2, the inevitable follow-up to Tom Holland’s cult sleeper hit Child’s Play, a movie that would spawn a decades-long franchise of rare endurance.
The main reason for the Chucky character’s longevity is the actor who forged his inimitable personality. Brad Dourif is perhaps most notable for his turn as the deeply troubled whipping boy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s militant oppressor, Nurse Ratched, but Holland’s creation taps into a very different side of the actor’s capabilities, giving us a horror superstar who is part Jason Voorhees, part Arnold Schwarzenegger, and thus a very unique star was born.
Writer Don Mancini understood this, and with Holland no longer involved in Chucky’s burgeoning franchise, he was finally given free rein over the character having had his idea for the first movie scrapped in favour of a Holland rewrite. Mancini’s original screenplay for Child’s Play, penned under the working title Blood Buddy, was a much darker whodunnit reminiscent of Richard Attenborough’s psychological horror Magic, keeping the audience in the dark for much longer and hinting at peewee victim Andy as the real killer. Holland would see things differently, and though Child’s Play 2 is arguably darker than its predecessor, Mancini picks up right where the original left off, embracing the concept’s wicked sense of irony with a zeal that makes the character even more infectious.
While most slasher franchises turned to the self-reflexive following the censorship impositions of the BBFC and MPAA, Chucky was in on the joke from the ground floor up, and by the time the sequel came to fruition the comedy had been cranked up to preposterous levels, the kind only a murderous cuddly toy could conjure. It’s easy to forget just how much of a revelation Chucky became as horror entered the barren early 90s. Dourif’s anarchic killer was the talk of school playgrounds everywhere, resulting in a series of child-led copycat crimes that plunged the series into disrepute by the time Child’s Play 3 hit the shelves, but despite those unfortunate incidents the series is all about having fun. I mean, just look at the poster for Child’s Play 2. A doll about to snip the head off a very distressed looking Jack-in-the-box. It’s priceless stuff.
The fact that Chucky is actually a voodoo-practising serial killer trapped inside a cute, freckle-faced ‘Good Guy’ is the ultimate horror movie irony. It is also the perfect pretence for a sadistic mind such as Charles Lee Ray, whose spirit is somehow returned to a charred-beyond-recognition doll the cheapskates at the Good Guy factory would rather clean up and rebuild than simply make anew. How the police ever let that valuable piece of evidence back into corporate hands is something of a head-scratcher, but Chucky is nothing if not fortuitous, and fortune very often favours the sinister.
Nothing has changed for Dourif’s Lee Ray, the deceased criminal responsible for adding flesh and blood to a toy of cute grotesquery. He still needs to transport his soul into the body of the first person he came into contact with and sets off on a journey to track down the now-fostered Andy (Alex Vincent) after his mother, presumably refusing to dance with sequel ignominy along with Chris Sarandon’s hard-boiled cop, is conveniently confined to the nuthouse. Sarandon, who would wow as neighborhood Nosferatu Jerry Dandridge in Holland’s hit horror comedy Fright Night five years prior, is said to be less than enamoured with the attention his role in Child’s Play receives. He even had to be persuaded to star in Fright Night after deciding that horror could only be bad for his career. I’m sure the royalties are more than worth it.
Foster mother, Joanne (Jenny Agutter), has no idea what she’s getting herself into when she discovers Andy at a local foster home, a fact made evident when her chosen son finds a Good Guy doll nestled amongst his new toys (for god’s sake, do you research, woman!). Andy also has a foster father named Phil (Gerrit Graham), a man of such little patience and empathy he threatens to drag Andy back to the foster home after his first doll-related outburst, leading the poor kid to feign affection for the red-headed threat sitting ominously in his room, something Chucky quickly takes advantage of.
But Andy has bigger problems than a dismissive schmuck who will surely meet his maker, and he is lucky enough to inherit a spitfire surrogate sister named Kyle (Christine Elise), also fostered, whose Madonna façade and understanding of what it is to be misunderstood uncovers Lee Ray’s perfect disguise with the threat of a lit cigarette, but not before he’s laid waste to a cast of secondary characters in a series of increasingly sadistic ways that will have you laughing through gritted teeth.
The returning Chucky’s capacity for all-out chaos is an absolute joy to behold. Emboldened by Graeme Revell’s fabulously playful score, a darkly comic lullaby with a Darth Vader aura, the cruelty of his quips are air-suckingly on the nose. He’s so cocksure in his abilities too. Like Sarandon’s Dandridge, the absurdity of the film’s reality inoculates him almost completely. His actions are so transparent, but no one in their right mind would ever believe a plastic doll is actually a vicious and vindictive killer, and Mancini takes great delight in the character’s infallibility, like the moment when Chucky, slyly impersonating another Good Guy doll, pauses to remember the name of the primitive toy he replaced.
One of the film’s cutest narrative quirks is that, asides from a few obvious exceptions, the human characters are so unlikeable. From smarmy executives to unsympathetic teachers to curmudgeon guardians, they’re all deserving of at least a little retribution, which allows Chucky to slip devilishly into the role of antihero. Lee Ray may be a lot of things, but at least he’s honest in his intentions, which is more than we can say for the sleazeballs cleaning up demonic products for resale. Whenever one of these characters unceremoniously slings a seemingly inanimate chucky down a flight of stairs or stuffs him into a cupboard, it always leaves you thinking, “big mistake, pal,” and when it comes to dishing out the pain, Chucky rarely disappoints.
Child’s Play 2 is more violent than its predecessor. It may fail to match the scares of the original but it stays true to the delayed reveal of the first movie, only this time we’re in on the absurdity from the off, and are able to delight in the ignorance of a perfectly sane cast in a less than sane situation. The film also benefits from the kind of improved animatronics that turn Chucky into an all-too-real creation that lends Dourif’s incredible voice performance further credence, and what the sequel loses in mystery it more than makes up for with sheer sadistic joy.
Mancini’s sequel does everything in its power to amp-up the voltage, with more deaths, more foul language and a series of over-the-top scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Rambo sequel. Even more desperate to reclaim his flesh and blood, our ironically named Good Guy is prone to fits of incredible frenzy, the kind of violent outbursts you can’t help but marvel at. Chucky is a marauding purveyor of cruelty so well schooled in human ignorance that you quietly want him to succeed for the most part, and he and Dourif have cursing down to a fine art. Ultimately, bigger and bolder is the only way a character like Chucky could have gone. Mancini realised this, as did director John Lafia, and despite Holland’s well-documented disputes with Mancini, you just know this movie brought a smile to his face. It certainly brought a smile to mine.