Everybody’s Into Weirdness - CHILD’S PLAY (1988)

This week, Jacob revisits Tom Holland's killer doll post-slasher classic.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The thirty-first entry into this disreputable canon is Tom Holland’s iconic killer doll classic, Child’s Play

Year: 1988

Trailers: The Magic Christmas Tree; Suspiria

It’s nice to be reminded of a time when our horror icons were actually horrific.

Like Freddy Krueger, Chucky – the walking, talking, misogynist killer Good Guy Doll at the center of Child’s Play – has seen his character diluted to the point of self-parody. After various sequels and shifting creative teams (though original co-screenwriter Don Mancini has remained a constant throughout), the red haired, blue eyed, foot-and-a-half-tall murder machine is no longer scary; the edge of his onscreen persona dulled due to an inane reliance on being a quip-happy, knife-wielding doof. While there are certainly singular moments contained within the subsequent Child’s Play pictures (the deadly paintball game in the third film being this writer’s personal favorite), none wholly packed the visceral, legitimately frightening feel of Tom Holland’s horror classic.

This lack of dread is also partially due to the fact that, though he would go on to become an instantly recognizable horror symbol (even Brad Dourif’s guttural roar is a sonic trademark), a killer doll isn’t necessarily the point of the initial Child’s Play. Sure, we follow the final moments of Charles Lee Ray (Dourif, sweating profusely and shouting into the wintry Chicago night), as the serial strangler transfers his soul into the plastic body of 1988’s most sought after toy. Yet it’s the perversion of unassuming childhood desire that makes the movie all the more effective. Much how John Carpenter utilized the suburbs as a stand-in for safety that is invaded by a Shatner-masked mass killer during Halloween, Holland is taking another holiday (a child’s birthday – marking it as all the more personal for the viewer) and asking: what if the toy all the girls and boys wished for actually wanted to possess their tiny, fragile form?

Adding insult to this intrusive injury is the act of parental altruism that leads to the knee-high barbarian’s reign of terror. All Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks, putting in one hell of a frantic, concerned performance) wants is a Good Guy so that she can see a birthday smile on the face of her son, Andy (Alex Vincent). While working a counter at an oversized department store, Karen seizes a moment to sneak away and buy the doll from a peddler in the alley. Of course, this minor personal miracle is actually a tragedy in disguise, as “Chucky” not only begins knocking off those around the widowed mom and her boy in gruesome fashion, but also wants to transfer the Lakeshore Strangler’s spirit into Andy’s body. It’s a post-slasher update on the Zuni Fetish Doll, tailor-made for an entire generation obsessed with freshly minted iconography.

Thankfully, Tom Holland was one of the very best horror directors of the '80s. Though Child’s Play isn’t as effortlessly cool as his neon soaked vampire riff, Fright Night, Holland still manages to wring a substantial amount of suspense from each set piece that, frankly, probably read completely silly on paper. With the help of an amazing practical FX puppetry team (not to mention a wholly committed cast of thespians), the director completely sells the reality of Chucky’s terrifying presence. Do the seams show almost thirty years later? Totally. But Holland also maintains a relentlessly grim tone, as if to counterbalance the ludicrousness of the tale he’s telling. The film’s final reel is still an utter nail-biter, as Andy struggles with the orders his “best friend to the end” is relaying, all while his mother attempts to convince suave Chicago Detective Mike Norris (Fright Night’s Chris Sarandon, just as hunky as ever) that she isn’t crazy and her son isn’t a psycho. It’s a lean, sub-ninety minute wonder of storytelling economy that never lets up in terms of tension.

At this point, both Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kreuger have been rebooted back to their no nonsense beginnings (though the success of either of those Platinum Dunes endeavors is debatable amongst the devoted), yet Chucky has continued down the path of least consistence, scare wise. Though Seed of Chucky (the sixth entry into the franchise) would tone down the jokiness ever so slightly, we’ve never seen the character return to his truly frightening roots. Could this be because of a writing credit dispute, which resulted in Tom Holland barring writers Don Mancini and John Lafia from the set (Mancini is the sole credited writer on every sequel, with Lafia directing Child’s Play 2)? Or were studio economics playing a role, with Chucky simply following in the footsteps of his forefathers (even Jason had the semi-satirical Part VI and Jason X)? Regardless, Don Mancini continues to threaten a remake that would return to “scary Chucky”, but that seems somewhat impossible at this point. The best bet a horror fan has when it comes to scavenging any semblance of severity from their favorite Good Guy is to forget his further adventures even exist, and enjoy the genuine desire for creepiness Child’s Play completely owns.

This Week at Weird Wednesday: No WW due to the Holidays (See Ya Next Year!)

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers; Message From Space; Rabid