Sorry Jack, Chucky’s back, but not as you know him
When news of a Child’s Play reboot first reached me, I immediately smelled dissension in the air. Reboots are always a cause for concern among moviegoers, and based on what studios have so far delivered it’s not surprising. There are exceptions — the majority of them originating in the latter part of the 20th century — but on the whole modern studio reboots have proved a depressing bunch: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th — they all received the reboot treatment and all failed miserably at one time or another, at least from this writer’s perspective.
There were various creative reasons for this: irreplaceable actors (Robert Englund); mind-boggling backstories (Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers) and a movie that was never going to replicate the appeal of the original Jason Voorhees, despite an interesting premise that transformed Camp Crystal’s perennial scourge into a well-schooled killing machine who hunted his victims like wild prey. But the main reason was the fact that producers cared very little about making a quality product, only about the fact that exploiting long-cherished characters would slash promotional costs and give studios a licence to print tickets. Again, there are exceptions — 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, 2018’s Halloween and the first chapter of Andy Muschietti’s It were handled fairly well for the most part — but they’re barely visible lilies in a deep and stagnant pond.
Audiences were less suspicious of the likes of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg when they rebooted The Thing and The Fly, respectively, though traditionalists were perturbed by a reliance on practical effects and horrific visuals, The Thing suffering at the box office following a spate of negative reviews regarding its sense of hopelessness. Cinema had come a long way since the kitsch days of Cold War sci-fi, both thematically and visually, and generations will always long for the days of old, but for those new to such properties in the 80s there was reason to be excited about modern remakes from some of the genre’s most influential directors.
The same can be said of today’s CGI-attuned audiences. CGI would provide a similar upgrade to that of practical effects and animatronics (the kind that brought the original Chucky so devilishly to life), but today reboots are more plentiful, their reputation watered-down considerably. Unlike today, directors were not chained to the studio’s every whim back in the 1980s; there were more Martin Scorseses than there were superhero franchises, more room to breathe in creative terms. During the last two decades, pretty much every popular franchise has been subjected to a tepid makeover: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Fog, The Wicker Man. In fact, anything that was even remotely popular during the 1980s has been dredged from obscurity, until ultimately producers had very few places left to turn.
I was broken, Andy. I couldn’t make you smile. But I’m all better now. Maybe you don’t want to be happy. Maybe *you’re* broken too! Maybe we should open you up… and see what we’re dealing with! I’m gonna fix ya, Andy!Chucky
It was something of a surprise that Tom Holland’s inimitable Child’s Play took so long to re-emerge. Unlike some of those other classics, the original Chucky-led franchise was still going strong, Cult of Chucky having only been released two years prior to mediocre reviews and even lousier returns. Tom Holland’s original Child’s Play was a revelation, the Chucky character rising to the upper echelons of horror superstardom during the original trilogy. It was fresh, witty, and very much in-tune with the wisecracking, antihero trend of the late-80s, a time when self-aware humour had replaced gore to appease the censorship powers that be. The fact that Chucky was a doll gave him a licence to be more wicked at a time when mortal human killers carried something of a stigma. The series fell into disrepute after the release of 1991’s Child’s Play 3 following a spate of copycat crimes committed by minors, leading the series along an increasingly abstract, self-aware path. In truth, it stumbled on for far too long with Chucky’s original incarnation. If anything, Child’s Play was one of the few properties that was actually in need of a reboot. But could the original Chucky really be replaced?
For me, the original Chucky is to the Child’s Play franchise what Robert Englund’s Fred Krueger is to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The characters share certain similarities — most notably their supernatural persuasion and sadistic sense of wit — and both were blessed by portrayers who made those characters much more than they ever had the right to be, especially as the quality of those sequels inevitably dwindled. As a result, rebooting those properties was a daunting prospect, a fact confirmed by the creative disaster that was 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Stepping into Krueger’s indomitable shoes was actor Jackie Earle Haley, a once B-movie veteran who’d finally begun to earns plaudits for roles in Little Children (2006), hit graphic novel adaptation Watchmen (2009) and Scorsese’s neo-noir psychological thriller Shutter Island (2010), and the high-profile Elm Street reboot was the mainstream lead he had been waiting for. There was nothing wrong with Haley’s turn as an almost unrecognisable, gravel-voiced Krueger, but unrecognisable was the problem. It didn’t help that the movie was little more than a cynical cash-in that singularly failed to capture the essence of the dreamworld concept, but Krueger just wasn’t Krueger without Englund. Despite his best efforts, Haley had sipped from the poison chalice, a move that, rather than catapulting him to A-list player, put him on the commercial shelf for a two whole years.
On the surface, Chucky was a very different entity. Englund lived and breathed Krueger. Not only were his natural features prominent through a prosthetic mask of frazzled flesh, he’d crafted every last nuance to a majestic tee. From his gunslinger stance to his sadistic cackle, he was Krueger; the actor and the character were inseparable. Conversely, Chucky was a nasty little wonder of animatronics, but his look and mannerisms were no less inimitable. The concept of a crook and deranged serial killer trapped inside the body of a freckle-faced bed mate was the ultimate in horror irony, so it was no surprise that the character would become one of the most recognisable in genre history.
As news of a reboot gathered steam, so did our collective cynicism. The details leaked hinted at not only a thematic upgrade, but a complete visual transformation. Despite the character’s dwindling commercial status, the thought of a Chucky makeover was borderline-sacrilegious. How could they mess with such a dead-on concept? How could we accept an aesthetic derivative of such an iconic character. It was unthinkable. When the US teaser poster was released, there was no sign of Chucky’s mean-spirited visage, no hint at what the character’s reimagining would entail. We got an image of a dimly-lit warehouse framing some remotely familiar packaging, but there was no doll in sight, no matter how hard we tried to see past the darkened plastic. It was like poking a bear with a hot poker. It was also the beginning of a truly inspired marketing campaign.
The original teaser sported a very familiar release date — the same slot occupied by Walt Disney’s much-anticipated animation sequel Toy Story 4. In a cheap, yet highly effective promotional grab, Orion Pictures released a series of one-sheets aping Pixar’s most famous creation, delivering a series of cute and startling images that showed Chucky torturing characters from the hit franchise in an inspired touch which reassured fans that our killer’s wicked sense of irony would not be jeopardised. It was a clever slice of commercial chicanery. If you can’t beat them, exploit them, and exploit them well. Notably, none of those images showed Chucky’s face. Instead we got a glimpse of a heel or a hand, the ruins of Toy Story‘s cutesy cast taking centre stage. One poster presented an image of a now teenage Andy sleeping soundly, a familiar sweatered arm and kitchen knife lurking in the foreground. There was even a late-to-the-party poster, designed to coincide with the release of competing killer doll horror, Annabelle, that presented that particular character headless with a knife jammed into its neck, Chucky’s face half-visible in the broken glass. By now full images of Chucky had been revealed, the final theatrical poster putting the character front and centre, but even those were shadowy to some extent, mystery the overriding presentation. Was this simply clever marketing or a precautionary counteraction? Director Lars Klevberg and his team were surely aware of the possibility of a pre-release backlash given the character’s cult status. Perhaps the best course of action for producers was ‘out of sight out of mind’.
Even more of a loss to the Chucky character was the news that Brad Dourif would not return to voice the character. Dourif had been there from the very beginning — two whole decades — and it was his unmistakable brand of evil that put his importance almost on a par with Englund. The announcement that Luke Skywalker himself would take his place was an inspired decision that would go a long way to appeasing fans. Mark Hamill was already a seasoned voice-over actor of cult acclaim thanks to his stellar work as The Joker in the hugely popular Batman: The Animated Series. To put it bluntly, Hamill was a lifeline for Chucky’s latest venture, particularly after his recent return to the spotlight for Disney’s Star Wars trilogy. In what was a monumental signing, the buzz around Hamill was enough for many to overlook the absence of Dourif, or at the very least have renewed hope that 2019’s Child’s Play would not be yet another in a long line of lazy cash-ins whose only intention was to exploit a character who had slashed his way into our hearts.
Ironically, 2019’s Chucky begins like a Toy Story playmate. He’s blue-eyed, inquisitive and genuinely wants a best friend to call his own. An early montage which shows Andy domesticating his super toy is not dissimilar to the sterile corporate ads which precede it, though when he teaches him how to cut a sandwich and glibly stabs the knife into a chopping board in a Psycho-esque motion, it’s the sharp implement that becomes the focal point for his plastic student, the doll’s gleeful imitation a joyful irony. Audiences were less than pleased when they finally got a look at the new, updated Chucky — that was only natural — but while Holland’s plastic monstrosity leapt from the disconcertingly inanimate to pure, wrinkled sadism, Lars Klevberg’s creation begins as a grossly naïve entity, one who unsettles by possessing a corporate residue, a barren, overzealous sense of joy developing almost out of duty. His expressions are wretchedly happy, and Hamill is talented and intelligent enough to convey that beautifully in a truly hypnotising turn that does for 2019’s Chucky what Dourif did for the previous incarnation.
2019’s Chucky works as a commentary on corporate oppression, acting as a hugely enticing upgrade on Amazon’s Alexa, one that specifically targets children. I mean, is there anything more creepy than a corporate giant spying on and analysing and ultimately exploiting your unspoiled offspring at every grossly calculated turn? All the modern identity-stealing trappings are there. Andy’s latest toy scans his face, listens to and evaluates his every word. He even connects to The Cloud as a means to facilitate his learning, a place that stores some of our most important documents and opens us up to a world of lord only knows! The film also has fun with modern technology’s annoying glitches. When Andy introduces himself as ‘Andy, sup?’, his brand new Buddy takes him literally. When he tries to name the doll Han Solo (see what they did there?), the glitching product of disgruntled employee-tampering insists on the name Chucky.
[in a sing song voice] If they don’t let us play, they all go away.Chucky
When Chucky finally loses his shit, he’s just as foul-mouthed as his predecessor, but he imitates like an impressionable child, as gullible as the next kid weaned on consumer culture. Naturally, his gang of juvenile friends revel in encouraging such anarchic behaviour. It’s like watching a bunch of older kids encouraging an infant, only that infant is just a doll, so they push him further without any thought for the consequences. Like a naïve infant, Chucky struggles to grasp anything beyond the painfully literal. All he wants to do is play. When Andy and his friends decide to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 instead, Chucky consumes the onscreen carnage like a sponge, nicking Andy with a kitchen blade and sulking when chastised for his attempts at fitting in. It’s an inspired moment; a cute commentary on the impressionable nature of violence. Later, when Andy wishes that his mum’s bully of a boyfriend would just ‘go away’, Chucky is as vigilant as ever, his petulant owner ultimately getting his wish and then some. The original Child’s Play thrived on comic violence and cute ironies, and 2019’s version understands the importance of such a formula when it comes to a movie about a killer doll.
If you thought the original Child’s Play was violent, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Like most serial killers, Chucky’s reign of terror begins with animals — namely Andy’s curmudgeon feline, Mickey Rooney, who he attempts to strangle based on a glib remark from Andy that his buddy mistakes for genuine hatred. Soon enough anyone who stands between Chucky’s friendship with Andy becomes an obstacle that must be eradicated at all costs. That includes his conflicted single mother, played with an admirable sense of earnest by the hugely talented Zahra Anderson. Taking its cue more from the likes of Don Mancini’s Child’s Play 2, the movie’s action is deliriously over the top and deliciously ironic. It does fall apart somewhat during the final act, working much better as a social commentary on the steroid-induced strong-arm of capitalism, critiquing an era when round-the-clock surveillance isn’t a transparent Orwellian nightmare, but something illusory that we lust for and actively pursue. Classic dystopian literature was all roving eyes and obvious impositions, but in today’s world we seek our own confinement. We are the self-monitoring wardens of our own making.
The concept of 2019’s Child’s Play is nothing novel — this exact idea has been explored dozens of times through one medium or another — but I fail to recall a ready-made character who so aptly fits the bill; it was a natural progression, and for the most part it is executed beautifully. While Dourif’s Chucky was a black and white evil buoyed by Holland’s delightful sense of mocking wit, there is a sadness to Hamill’s incarnation that is redolent of our times, a tragic element that we can all relate to. Rather than a monster who is motivated by evil, he is a byproduct of sinister machinations and a society moulded by corporate aspiration. Comparing the two movies would be foolish because they are very different entities. While the character’s original incarnation was perfect for the self-reflexive horror of the late-1980s, 2019’s Chucky is a distinctly 21st century monster, a socially relevant threat that is more than welcome. Ultimately, the character is as much a victim as those unfortunate souls he inevitably hacks to pieces. After all, all he ever wanted was a friend to call his own.