Joining an established club with entrenched members is never easy, especially when membership means being embraced by the public in general and this goes doubly so for the pantheon on modern movie monsters that cut a swathe of mayhem from one end of the 80’s to the other. Leatherface and Michael Myers were fully paid up members in the 70’s, with Freddy Krueger and ubiquitous Jason Vorhees joining between 81′ and 84′ and finally Hellraiser’s authoritative Pinhead bringing up the rear in 87′. There have been a few others since, during the 90’s Hannibal Lector, Scream’s Ghostface and The Candyman racked up enough kills and sequels to certainly warrant a mention but it was a certain red headed doll who undeniably made the grade back in 1988.
Killer doll movies are an inconsistent sub-genre to be sure; for every Dolls that scores high in ghoulish, creepy, fun you have a Dolly Dearest or Demonic Toys stinking up the place but Child’s Play was subtlety different. Ok, it has similar beats to films like Magic or Pin where you’re not supposed to know whether the doll is actually alive or if it’s someone’s madness seeping out, but it’s execution takes both that AND the concept of a rampaging killer doll and mixes them together so it can have it’s cake AND eat it while it bashes a babysitters face in with a hammer.
Andy Barclay loves the Good Guy dolls, a Cabbage Patch Kid style toy craze that’s sweeping the nation, and his single-parent, working mother desperately wants to get him one despite their excruciatingly tight budget. As luck would have it a friend directs her to a hobo who found one in a burnt out toy store and is selling it on the cheap. All is well until a horrible accident befalls the friend while babysitting Andy one night, or IS it an accident? All clues point to the wide eyed Andy who insists it’s the work of his beloved new doll, Chucky, much to the scorn of police detectives, but Andy’s mother is determined to seek out the truth and free her boy. Meanwhile, the bodies start to pile up.
Ok, let’s not fool ourselves, NO ONE out there has ever seen this movie without knowing that the Chucky doll is really an xmas holiday home for the soul of deceased serial killer, and aspiring Voodoo enthusiast, Charles Lee Ray – played briefly and voiced magnificently by cult actor extraordinaire Brad Dourif – and that HE’S the one doing the killings but that doesn’t mean that Child’s Play is a great little slasher.
What sells it so well is a combination of things, firstly the direction by Tom Holland (No! Not the diminutive Spider-Man actor, the director of Fright Night, silly) is clean and simple, building it’s potentially ridiculous premise up with a strong plot, good characters and savvy actors. Catherine Hicks exudes desperate strength in a strong performance that really isn’t the kind of role you get in films like this. No blustering bimbo is SHE. No, she’s a single mother, raising a son AND holding down a job; her plate’s full even BEFORE her son’s favourite toy goes on a slaughter spree and it’s that every-woman strength drives the story. Opposite her is the endlessly reliable Chris Sarandon (the vampire in Fight Night and the voice of Jack Skellington no less) as the weary detective trying to tie all these untieable loose ends together. Both are believable, as is Alex Vincent putting in a remarkably unannoying turn as the targeted Andy but it’s special effects master Kevin Yagher and his team that truly are the real stars with their Chucky puppet that screams, stabs and, most impressively, ACTS opposite human beings for whole scenes and all the time bolstered by Dourif’s savage lung power, it’s no wonder the vicious little shit joined the ranks of the horror heroes so fast.
It’s also oddly remarkable how much time and effort the film puts into making Chucky SO alive as he isn’t just a walking doll but the film goes on and the longer his soul spends in it’s made in Taiwan prison, his plastic skin becomes real, his face emotes and even his little ginger eyebrows grow out. It’s this level of thought that makes Child’s Play muscle through what could have been an awfully hokey premise and it’s something it’s upcoming remake is going to have to work overtime to better.