Wanna Play? Child’s Play and Horror’s First Action Hero

Child's Play poster

Move over Schwarzenegger, there’s a new action star in town, and this one has freckles

1988 would mark the beginning of one of the longest-running horror franchises to ever grace the genre, but it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the first draft of a screenplay that would one day become Child’s Play had been completed way back in the summer of ’85 under the working title Blood Buddy, and would feature a story more in the psychological vein. According to original writer Don Mancini, his vision had more of an emphasis on keeping the audience in the dark regarding the true identity of the killer. Andy was a much darker character — a boy affected by an absent father and overworked mother — which would set up the movie’s main mystery: was there a killer doll running around wreaking bloody havoc or was peewee protagonist Andy in fact the real culprit?

All of this could have made for a very rewarding picture, but at the same time the concept was nothing new. In 1978, Richard Attenborough’s Magic, based on the William Goldman novel of the same name, would pose similar questions in the form of failed magician Charles “Corky” Withers (Anthony Hopkins) and his seemingly murderous ventriloquist dummy ‘Fats’. The movie was a sophisticated take on mental illness that worked wonderfully as a psychological horror thanks to its careful handling and convincing execution. Mancini’s script featured a lifelike commercial doll that bled ‘real blood’, a blood brothers pact with Andy bringing Chucky (then named Buddy) to life, a premise that hardly conjures the same potential for realism.

Enter Fright Night director Tom Holland, who would later adapt Mancini’s screenplay to forge one of the most memorable antiheroes the genre has ever known. Named after three of history’s most notorious killers in Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, the doll otherwise known as Charles Lee Ray was much more than the next in a long line of slasher villains, his cynical wit and anarchic one-liners putting the character very firmly in action hero territory. That doesn’t make him any less terrifying as a horror icon.

Despite Holland’s emphasis on comedy, and to some extent because of it, Chucky is an absolutely terrifying creation. He doesn’t have the imposing physicality or otherworldly powers of some of his contemporaries, but he is absolutely wicked to the core. It’s rare to see a silver screen killer go after kids. Teenagers are fair game but kids, however much they tease, are usually off limits. Not only does Chucky use Andy, he teases him, toys with him, and even savagely attacks him as he looks to possess his body. The doll that Lee Ray inhabits may not be up to much physically, but it gives the character free rein to do exactly as he pleases without ethical limits.

Chucky: The only person that I let in on the fact that I was still alive was a six-year-old kid. I’m gonna be six years old again. Well, John, it’s been fun, but I gotta go. I have a date with six-year-old boy… and you have a date with death.

It is from that limitless capacity that much of the film’s humour is derived. By the late 1980s, the horror genre had descended into comical self-parody as a way to sidestep censorship hysteria, horror icons such as Jason Voorhees and Fred Krueger transformed from brutish killers into self-mocking antiheroes who became mindless preoccupations for the MTV generation.  Those characters had been forced to adapt to such trends, becoming commercial figureheads for their respective production companies, but Chucky was in on the joke from the ground floor up, Holland embracing a tired formula with the kind of zeal that put Krueger’s increasingly hackneyed repertoire to shame.

Child’s Play is not an action movie.  Far from it. But Chucky has all the hallmarks of an action hero, or at the very least an action movie villain, he and Holland forging a relationship reminiscent of Schwarzenegger and screenwriting advocate Steven E de Souza. There is something wonderfully ironic about a murderous crook trapped inside a doll’s body, and against all odds it fits like a pair of DNA-defying gloves. I mean, who on Earth would suspect a seemingly inanimate plaything as a possible murder culprit? Certainly not Chris Sarandon’s Detective Mike Norris, here taking on the role of all-action pursuer, who mirrors our own incredulity at the very notion that a piece of freckled plastic could be responsible for sending an innocent woman careening from the top floor of an apartment complex.

The fact that such a cynical personality could live inside a child’s plaything is pure comedy gold. A moment when an inanimate Chucky is found watching a news report regarding a former partner and future victim is particularly inspired, hinting at the complex evil that lurks beneath. Holland ditches the psychological element for a horror movie that wears its wicked sense of irony on its sleeve, and to his credit. With Chucky he gives us a villain that is wholly transparent but strangely complex, the kind who would spawn a plethora of sequels over a period of four decades and counting.

In 1985‘s Fright Night, Holland wrote and directed a contender for the greatest horror comedy ever committed to celluloid. Like Child’s Play, it presents us with an antagonist who is able to commit evil acts unchallenged based on his situation and environment, Chris Sarandon’s toothy suburbanite Jerry Dandridge lost on a generation that looks for the madman in the hockey mask, not the plain-clothes, overtly Gothic Nosferatu. With Child’s Play he crafts a movie with a similar premise that ditches the subtlety for a balls-out laugh riot. The movie is different, some would say inferior, but regardless of taste it does its job just as effectively, and from it emerged one of the most notable horror creations of the late 20th century.

Chucky is a master manipulator, and in playmate Andy, Lee Ray’s red-headed incarnation has found the perfect pawn as he sets off on a mission of revenge against those who contrived to have him killed. Not only does Chucky set about offing all of those who are close to Andy, he inanimately watches as his greatest ally goes from troubled child with an overactive imagination to potential spawn of Satan and murder suspect. To begin with, Chucky has no choice but to contain his evil, claiming that he was sent to heaven by Andy’s deceased father to play with him, a sadistic ruse that will enable him to develop his master plan. We hear Andy talking to Chucky. We see their matching shoeprints at the scene of Maggie’s murder. We even get an echo of Chucky’s true personality when Andy repeats the killer’s heartless musings regarding his aunt’s murder, but all we see is Andy, and it doesn’t take long for Lee Ray to realise that there is an upside to his absurd predicament. The wicked sense of glee he derives from the situation is nothing short of unconscionable.

Like all the best horror movies, Chucky’s reveal is slow and teasing, a fact that makes his explosive personality all the more compelling when it’s finally unleashed, a suspicious Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) becoming the subject of his pent-up fury when she discovers the doll’s batteries still in the original box. The director shows admirable restraint to the extent that even we question the sanity of the doll’s juvenile owner. We know exactly what is coming, but Holland just won’t let us believe it. Chucky takes great satisfaction in the psychological torture of his victims, particularly Andy, whose violent outbursts while trying to get Chucky to reveal himself are met by a harmless click of the eyelids — the kind of cute, seemingly autonomous greeting that effortlessly displays the character’s sadistic artistry.

Holland and his practical effects crew used a variety of techniques to make Chucky’s plastic facade a stomachable reality, achieving his transition from cuddly toy to graven flesh thanks to a series of lifelike animatronics that included the infamous ‘flailing tantrum Chucky’, a visual creation that typifies the character’s comic savagery. The movie would also rely on make-up and a series of human stand-ins, including actor Alex Vincent’s younger sister and “little person” Ed Gale, as well as a few visual tricks, such as the construction of oversized sets and specific shots designed to give you the sense that Gale was approximately the same size as the plastic Good Guy doll that serves as Chucky’s original form.

Of course, you can’t pull off the cool, dry wit of an action hero without the right actor, and this time muscles were not a perquisite. In screen veteran Brad Dourif, Holland managed to bag himself one of the most effective voice-over actors in the business, and I’m basing that assessment on the part of Chucky alone. Dourif is a revelation as the sadistic doll with the shock of red hair and the kind of quasi-dimpled visage that belies what lurks beneath, and though Holland and his crew work wonders in presenting us with an authentic visual menace, it’s the actor’s perverted relish and sense of comedy that brings the screenplay to life, turning its propulsive use of expletives into an art form. Sometimes you don’t know whether to fall down in disgust or burst into tears of laughter.

Nobody slings the word f*ck with as much panache as Dourif. It is shocking to experience those words coming from the mouth of a plastic bed friend in a quite startling juxtapose, and as violent and as cruel as the character is, Holland and Dourif never allow you to forget the absurdity of it all, and in fact revel in it. Chris Sarandon’s response to Karen Barclay’s revelation that the doll came alive in her hands and tried to kill her is priceless, as is his reaction when Chucky goes for him in a savage car-bound knife attack — a pitch perfect sense of incredulity that is mirrored by our own — and when a motionless Chucky responds with a casual F-bomb having been described as ‘ugly’ by a couple of elderly elevator passengers, you know you’re witnessing something quite special.

Karen Barclay: I said talk to me, damn it. Or else I’ll throw you in the fire. [Chucky comes alive]
Chucky: You stupid bitch! You filthy slut! I’ll teach you to fuck with me!

As a child who should not have been watching this movie, Chucky had quite the impact on me — first as a source of terror and then as a source of amusement — and there were millions more like me. The character’s influence would lead to a series of unfortunate real-life incidents that led to a short-lived resurgence of the tabloid-driven moral panic that first came to prominence a decade earlier. In something reminiscent of the ‘Video Nasty’ scandal, Child’s Play 3 was held responsible for two high-profile murders committed by juveniles, the first involving a 16-year-old girl who was forced to listen to a gang leader repeating the catchphrase “I’m Chucky, wanna play?” prior to her death. The second was even more shocking and high-profile, and not something I am keen to dredge up for the purposes of entertainment.

In response, Holland would defend his creation, suggesting that an audience could only be so influenced by a horror movie’s content if they were unstable to begin with, and anyone who is sane of mind would surely agree. Child’s Play may be violent and sadistic, but it doesn’t warrant such a bleak stigma. After all, this is a killer doll we’re talking about, and at its heart it is a movie driven by humour with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The fact is, there will always be evil in the world. The paths that influence us are different, but the destination often remains the same.

As the sequels rolled on, the series would grow and expand to ludicrous proportions, Chucky wedding Jennifer Tilly’s dastardly doll Tiffany and even producing a plastic offspring as the concept was put through the commercial wringer. Those movies had their moments, particularly the smash-mouth Child’s Play 2, a fun and sadistic Mancini project that took Chucky’s wise-cracking antics to another stratosphere, but in some ways Chucky would become guilty of the kind of derisory antics that sullied the likes of Krueger before him, and for many the novelty soon wore thin.

With the original Child’s Play, Holland delivered a movie that proved rewarding at a time when mainstream horror was mired in mediocrity. He is a filmmaker who understands the finer points of the notoriously tricky horror-comedy sub-genre, and Chucky is the very embodiment of his inimitable blend. The movies may have grown somewhat tiresome, but horror’s original action hero has stood the test of time. He is bold, unique and emblematic, with a sinister charm that is impossible to resist. All of this has made him a proven draw, with a commercial lifespan that is in all likelihood limitless. Like a rabid Energizer bunny, he just keeps on killin’, and you know he’ll continue to do so, even without those pre-packaged Good Guy batteries.

Director: Tom Holland
Screenplay: Don Mancini,
John Lafia &
Tom Holland
Music: Joe Renzetti
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Editing: Edward Warschilka

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