Wanna Play? Child’s Play & Horror’s Tailor-Made Antihero

Child's Play poster

Move over Krueger, there’s a new 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 featured 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 movie’s 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 our peewee protagonist in fact the real culprit?

All of this could have made for a very rewarding picture. 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 endeavour, a less-is-more approach cranking up the ambiguity in a movie fraught with mystery and dramatic tension. 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 in modern cinema. 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. Holland would embrace the commercial trends adopted by the likes of Fred Krueger, Chucky’s cynical wit and anarchic one-liners positioning him very firmly in self-aware action hero territory, but there was something fresh about a character who embraced that humour from the off rather than adapting to meet the requirements of a genre mired in censorship.

Boosted by an unregulated home video market that presented countless opportunities for upstart producers, the early 80s would play host to a horror boom that further embraced the brutal realism of the 1970s, the hugely popular slasher genre sparking moral outrage and a censorship crackdown that saw many films banned outright. Filmmakers had pushed the boundaries like never before in an attempt to spark controversy and make headlines, depictions of graphic rape, the torture and degradation of women, real-life animal cruelty and what at the time were very realistic portrayals of murder a far cry from what audiences were used to, but with the Motion Picture Association of America taking a hard line with independent filmmakers, the creative anarchy wouldn’t last.

By the late 1980s, the slasher had ditched the dead-eyed suburban killer for characters of a supernatural persuasion, horror icons such as Jason Voorhees and Fred Krueger transformed from deadly monsters into self-mocking antiheroes who embraced the teen-oriented realms of MTV celebrity. But while those characters had been forced to adapt to such trends, becoming the commercial figureheads for their respective production companies, Chucky was in on the joke from the ground floor up, was tailor-made for a genre that had descended into comical self-parody. By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master hit theatres, Freddy had reached his commercial apotheosis, becoming a glorified stand-up act who ditched the horror for crowd-pleasing pops that would grow increasingly risible. In his debut appearance that same year, Chucky was smarter, fresher and funnier, maintaining a mean streak sorely lacking in some of the genre’s worn-out giants.

Hi, I’m Chucky, and I’m your friend till the end. Hidey-ho!

Chucky

Despite Holland’s emphasis on comedy, and to some extent because of it, Chucky is an absolutely reprehensible creation as deserving of our disgust as he is our disbelieving laughter. He doesn’t have the imposing physicality of his contemporaries, but he’s absolutely wicked to the core, delighting in acts of torture with a sick relish that belies his freckled form. The moment when Chucky fries an (admittedly deserving) psychiatric doctor until his eyes and ears bleed is absolutely excruciating, as is a scene in which he cripples a former mentor limb by limb, cackling his way through the whole sick ordeal. The fact that he uses a voodoo doll to commit such deeds is horror irony at its absolute finest.

Chucky is also one of those rare villains who targets a child, something that lends him a further air of despicability. Since Andy was the first person Lee Ray revealed himself to, it is he who holds the key to his flesh transcendence. The fact that Chucky pursues the soul of a six-year-old boy in order to bag himself a second lifetime of immoral deeds takes the character from everyday villainy to cartoon supervillainy. Not only does Chucky manipulate Andy to his own ends, he teases him, attacks him, frames him for murder, exhibiting the kind of cruel manipulation that was Krueger’s calling card back in 1984. 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 limitations.

It is from that limitless capacity that much of the film’s humour is derived. Child’s Play is not an action movie, but Chucky has all the hallmarks of an action hero, or at the very least an action movie villain, Holland doing for voice actor Brad Dourif what countless writers had done for the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone as cinema continued to shine an ironic torch on itself. Krueger may have gotten there first in that regard, but while he was a horror villain in his pre-supernatural form, Lee Ray had more in common with the crafty and callous action antagonists usually reserved for muscles-to-burn retribution. There is something wonderfully ironic about a murderous crook trapped inside a doll’s body; 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 assuming the role of all-action pursuer, a detective in the action thriller mode 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. In an era that gave us Die Hard‘s acerbic everyman John McClane and Lethal Weapon‘s ‘too old for this shit’ Roger Murtaugh, Norris is every bit the cynical 80s cop, glibly dismissing the notion of a killer doll until the moment when he almost becomes a victim. The scene in question, a perfect matrimony of breathless tension and excruciating comedy, sees Chucky go after Norris’ family jewels with a particularly sharp kitchen knife. Only a supernatural entity of the distinctly human variety could be so sublimely calculated. Chucky was, and is, a unique creation indeed.

Killer dolls were nothing new in 1988, but Chucky’s fictional peers were typically confined to the creeping shadows, evil entities of murky half-shades or, like Fats and The Great Gabbo before him, the byproduct of fragmented human minds that hinted at something else entirely. Though Child’s Play retains the supernatural element that was an almost prerequisite during the latter part of the 80s, we’re not dealing with men passing themselves off as ventriloquist dummies, Lee Ray IS that dummy, a rotten soul with a synthetic veneer that just happens to inoculate him from persecution. To witness a cuddly toy exhibiting such balls-out malice is a shock to the system for not only the film’s characters, but we the audience. Like Norris, we can hardly believe what we’re witnessing half the time.

Chucky’s true power lies in his ability to exploit the disbelief and downright ignorance of others. Lee Ray is a master manipulator, and in playmate Andy, Chucky’s shock of red hair finds the perfect pawn as he sets off on a mission of revenge against those who contrived to have him killed. To begin with, Chucky has no choice but to contain his evil, claiming he was sent from heaven by Andy’s deceased father in a sadistic ruse that allows him to develop his master plan. We hear Andy talking to Chucky. We see their matching shoe prints at a crime scene. We even get an echo of Lee Ray’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’s an upside to his absurd predicament.

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 revealed. That moment comes during the film’s most superbly crafted scene, one in which a previously disbelieving Karen, laughing manically having almost convinced herself of her son’s claims, discovers the doll’s batteries still in their original box and unleashes Lee Ray’s pent-up fury in what is an absolutely priceless pay-off. Before that moment, Lee Ray’s Chucky plays it absolutely straight, clicking his mechanical eyelids and delivering innocuous, pre-recorded responses when a frustrated Andy demands that he reveal himself in public. Though we’re never really in any doubt as to who the true culprit is, Chucky’s initial outburst is absolutely startling. It’s a truly star-making moment.

Isolation is a key part of horror, something the Chucky character exploits so deliciously. There’s nothing more isolating for a kid than having to convince dismissive adults that your new plaything is inhabited by the soul of a high-profile killer, especially when that killer’s supposed death is plastered all over the 6 o’clock news. Imagination can be as much a hindrance as it is a blessing. When Karen finally discovers the truth, she faces those same frustrations, as does a disbelieving Norris when his equally cynical partner plays silly beggars with Chucky’s frazzled head, one of many instances when Lee Ray is tossed and prodded and treated like a toy, moments when you can feel his rage bubbling beneath the impotent restraint. The fact that we’re in on the joke only adds to our enjoyment and Chucky’s status as an antihero. We know that somewhere along the line these people are going to pay for their ignorance, and pay badly.

His real name is Charles Lee Ray and he’s been sent down from Heaven by daddy to play with me.

Andy Barclay

It’s a completely absurd concept that Holland, with the help of his cast and crew, manages to lend credibility to. The film’s cast do a wonderful (and absolutely vital) job of playing it straight amid so much implied humour, particularly the seemingly unshakable Catherine Hicks as Andy’s increasingly unstable mother. Sure, movies aren’t shot in a linear way, which means actors don’t experience events in the same way that we do, but it must have been hard to keep a straight face when delivering some of those lines or interacting with the stuffed doll prop laying idly onset. It always makes me chuckle imagining an actor like Hicks rehearsing her lines with a stand-in. Imagine what they’d have thought reading Child’s Play in print. It must have seemed like a career killer in the making.

For the most part, the reality was of course very different, a movie centering on a three-foot doll often tricky from a technical standpoint, particularly during Child’s Play‘s iconic car attack scene. “Ugh! I don’t want to say it was hell on earth to shoot, because there are much worse things than that in life … but it was not fun to spend at least a day, maybe two days — I can’t remember because it was such an unpleasant experience! — sitting in the front seat of the car, having this knife come into the shot,” Sarandon would lament. “‘No no no, we’re not catching the light of the knife right, it’s flaring off the camera, let’s do it again!’ 50 times, 75 times. And spending almost a day in just a little corner of the studio, punching the radio with my hands to try to get the right sort of rhythm of that. It’s not what you think of as the glamour of moviemaking.”

This wasn’t the first time that Sarandon, who was so repellent to the idea of horror during the early 80s that he almost turned down the film that made him a cult figure in horror circles, had worked with Holland, though in 1985‘s Fright Night the actor assumed something closer to the Chucky role. Like Child’s Play, the movie presents us with an antagonist who is able to commit evil acts unchallenged based on his situation and environment, Sarandon’s toothy suburbanite Jerry Dandridge lost on a generation who look for the madman in the hockey mask, not the plain-clothes, overtly Gothic Nosferatu. With Child’s Play Holland crafts a movie with a similar dynamic that ditches the subtleties for a balls-out laugh riot much more in-sync with the commercial trends of the day, and to his credit.

Despite top-notch support, Chucky remains the true star of Child’s Play, though it didn’t come easy. Holland and his practical effects team used a variety of techniques to make Chucky’s plastic façade a stomachable reality, achieving his transition from cuddly toy to graven flesh thanks to a series of life-like 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. Beyond that, the crew would employ a series of savvy 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 would forever be immortalised in horror circles.

As Sarandon would recall, “We were dealing with little people in Chucky outfits walking around in oversize sets, children in Chucky costumes — [child actor] Alex Vincent’s 3-year-old sister was Chucky once! One day, they were on the set and they realized that the person in the doll suit wasn’t the right size, and [director Tom Holland] looked over and he saw Alex’s little sister, and he went, ‘Hey, put her in the costume!’ And she ran across the set, and that’s the take I think they used.”

As inspired as the practical effects were in 1988, the film’s real trump card did most of his work off screen. 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 dimpled visage. Holland and his crew worked wonders in presenting us with an authentic visual menace, but it’s the actor’s perverted relish and grasp on gallows humour that truly brings the character to life, turning the screenplay’s propulsive use of expletives into an art form.

Nobody slings the F-bomb with as much casual panache as Dourif. It’s 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. 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. That’s the beauty of a film like Child’s Play, sometimes you don’t know whether to fall down in disgust or burst into tears of laughter. The margins are just so fine.

One thing Holland may not have anticipated was how appealing a character like Chucky would be to children. As a child who should not have been watching this movie, Chucky left quite the impression — first as a source of terror and then as a source of amusement — and there were millions more who immediately caught the Child’s Play bug. The character’s influence resulted in a series of unfortunate real-life incidents that led to a short-lived resurgence of the tabloid-driven moral panic movies like Child’s Play looked to sidestep. In something reminiscent of the whole ‘Video Nasty’ hysteria, 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?” The second was even more shocking and high-profile, and not something I’m keen to dredge up for the purposes of entertainment. There was no harm meant on the filmmaker’s part, but the details of those murders point directly to the franchise. There was even a copy of Child’s Play 3 found in the possession of one of the killers.

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.

Chucky

In response, Holland would defend his creation, suggesting that a person could only be so influenced in such a way if they were unstable to begin with, be that through nature, circumstance, or a combination of both, 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 the film has humour in its heart, its tongue firmly in its cheek. The fact is, there will always be evil in the world. Movies are merely a reflection of the human condition.

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, the novelty wearing thin as Chucky became the megastar of an overtly self-aware franchise.

On the subject of franchise cycles, Holland would say, “In the late seventies, it happened with Love at First Bite with George Hamilton as Dracula. It absolutely finished off the vampire genre, until 1985 when Fright Night came out, which resuscitated it. When I made Fright Night nobody was making vampire films any more because they had become objects of derision. They were farce. It’s like the last couple of episodes of Chucky [pre-2019]. The doll has gone into camp and farce. When you do that, it’s because you have become self-conscious. You can’t scare the audience any more. So they have to take a time out to the killer doll genre. I think it’s a cycle that you see with so many of the genres…. horror genres especially.”

That may be true, but in order to trigger such an evolution, you need one hell of a movie, and with the original Child’s Play Holland delivered just that at a time when mainstream horror was becoming mired in mediocrity. Holland, who also penned the delightfully left-field Psycho II, has proven himself a filmmaker who understands the finer points of the notoriously tricky horror-comedy sub-genre, and Chucky is the very embodiment of his inimitable formula. The movies may have grown somewhat tiresome, but horror’s plastic antihero has stood the test of time, and was even re-imagined as the victim of a modern consumerist society in Lars Klevberg’s widely misunderstood reboot. Mark Hamill’s variation of the character was largely inspired, but the original Chucky was bold, unique and utterly refreshing, with a sinister charm that was impossible to resist. All of this has made Chucky a proven draw with a commercial lifespan that is seemingly 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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