Collins’ Crypt: Don Mancini Talks CULT OF CHUCKY

BC interviews Chucky's "custodian" about the always surprising series.

If you're a Chucky fan, Universal Studios Home Entertainment has provided two new options waiting for you at your closest Blu-ray store (or Amazon). One is Cult of Chucky, the series' 7th installment, and the other is a glorious boxed set that houses all seven films (yep, even the MGM-controlled original) and offers some sweet cover art that is made to resemble a Good Guy package, which is far more visually appealing than the previous collection(s). So if you don't own all of the films, and/or like me never upgraded the others from the original DVD releases, it's worth the extra dough to get the shelf-saving boxed set - especially if you (again, like me) consider all of the films to be worth owning.

Now, obviously some films are better than others, but the series is highly unique when compared to the other long-running horror franchises (Freddy, Jason, etc) in that every film has been produced by David Kirschner and written (or co-written) by Don Mancini, offering the series a continuity none of its peers has ever managed to maintain. And I don't mean Saw-level continuity where you HAVE to see them all in order to make sense of what you're watching, but just a general approach that they don't consider any film to be unnecessary and opt to ignore it. Mancini has gone on record that he's not a fan of Child's Play 3 (primarily due to its rushed production, as it was in theaters less than ten months after the 2nd film), but that hasn't stopped him from including references to it in these two most recent films (which he also directed); in Cult of Chucky, Andy Barclay (once again played by Alex Vincent) has something very special hidden in a safe behind a framed Kent sweatshirt - a doubly nice nod considering that's the only entry that the Barclay character was played by someone else (the character was aged up into his teens, but Vincent himself was only like eight).

Even more remarkable about this "using the whole buffalo" approach is that most of the films have their own unique style, giving each film a separate identity even though the same characters float in and out of them. Sure, the first three are basically just "Chucky wants to possess a kid and a bunch of adults die along the way" variations, but those can easily be told apart by even the most casual fans thanks to their settings - the original makes the most of its Chicago locales, whereas the second shifts things to the suburbs (and adds more humor), while the third is the one set in the military school. After that they became even more varied - Bride of Chucky is basically a road movie, the campy Seed of Chucky heads to Hollywood, the "old dark house" style of film from the '30s and '40s returns in Curse of Chucky... and now we have Cult, which opts for a mental institution setting and dives heavily into Brian DePalma flourishes for good measure. While it's essentially a supernatural slasher series at its core, the tone and style varies enough that there's probably at least one entry any horror fan can fully enjoy depending on their sensibilities. As a result fan rankings tend to have more variations than the other series; there's no general consensus that ____ is the best sequel; no Dream Warriors equivalent that the majority agrees offers the ultimate Chucky experience. 

And that's what makes the boxed set more enticing than some others, as you can watch the series front to back without getting narrative whiplash. For example, if you watch the first seven Halloween movies you get a wholly unrelated entry and another that tells you that the previous three films you watched do not exist anymore, making back to back viewing less appealing. There's nothing like that in the Chucky series, so even if you're not a particular fan of one or two entries, there's still value in watching (or revisiting) just to see what characters or plot points resurface later. But you won't get fatigue, either; the constant change in tone/scenery makes it an ideal marathon candidate, as you're never stuck just watching Chucky tread the same ground over and over like you would with one of his much taller rivals. 

It's this "Make it fresh without reinventing the wheel" approach that made me jump at the chance to talk to the man most responsible for that appeal: Don Mancini himself. Anyone who has followed my writing over the years knows I only very rarely bother with interviews, because it's not something I feel I'm particularly good at but also because I'm more interested in history than I am talking about a new movie not many will have seen yet and I myself have usually only had a few days (or even hours) to chew on before asking about it. But that wouldn't be the case here; Mancini is more than qualified to talk about the series as a whole (I've talked to sequel directors who clearly had no memory of - or possibly hadn't even seen - earlier entries), and he is proud of his long association with the character, so I knew it would be a worthwhile exception to my "rule". So enjoy a good chunk of our chat (I omitted a few questions that got into spoiler-y details of the new film, which works best if you go in as blind as one possibly could with a part 7), and then go (LEGALLY!) check out Cult of Chucky at your earliest convenience.

BC: I was curious - when we get a new film, how does it work, at this point? Does Universal come to you when they want to make another Chucky, or do you get an idea and go to them and say "Hey I got something here - are you interested?" 

DM: It's kind of simultaneous actually. If the movie does well they are obviously going to want to do another one, but I'm always thinking about it. Over the years I have ideas that are just filed away, regarding Chucky, and the various other characters, and what potential relationships there could be. So I'm always thinking about it, and we sort of come together, and they ask "What's the idea?" Then I have to sell them on whatever that new idea is, because, it's always like, "Hmm... we don't know about X...". It's never completely easy!

You said you get ideas and concepts that you file away, so when did you get the idea to do one set entirely in a mental institute?

Really, it was when we were working on Curse of Chucky. Because I really loved working with Fiona [Dourif, who was introduced in that film], I loved that character, and thought there was more juice to be gotten out of that story. And we had never done Chucky in the sub-genre of the mental institution movie, and I'm always looking for new ways, new generic prisms through which to approach the character, as that's one way to keep it fresh. We had never done one in this particular sub-genre before; a sub-genre that comes along with all of its own archetypes and colors and characters, so we thought it would be a fun new playground for Chucky to operate in, and would allow me to do something new. You know, the "mind-fuck" movie, a trippy psychological thriller. That was the goal anyway!

Pino Donaggio scored Seed of Chucky, but in this one I see a lot of respect for Brian DePalma: the music (by Joseph LoDuca) has a very Pino-y flair, and you got the split screen shots, the psychological elements... did you decide early on to use DePalma as an influence, or was it something more organic?

Well he has always been a huge influence on me. Growing up he was one of the first directors I was fanatical about, and I have been alluding to DePalma as early as Child's Play 2- at the end, when Chucky blows up, we shot it like The Fury, from different angles and what not, and in Seed of Chucky, Glen's dilemma is similar to Dressed to Kill, which is of course similar to Psycho. So by having a DePalma fetish I automatically have a Hitchcock fetish as well! He just has this really cool visual vocabulary that is fun to play with; [the split screen device] is part of his vocabulary that I'm sometimes weary of, for the same reasons he was sometimes weary of it - it's such a formal device and arguably can be distancing. It certainly reminds you that you're watching a movie in a way, and for some people that is exactly the wrong thing to do. But it ends up working really well for us, it helps keep those sequences building visually and dramatically. And people seem to be responding positively to it; I don't want it to be a mere empty gesture to DePalma. Hopefully we are doing with his stuff what he did with Hitchcock's, which is incorporate it into our own little world and put a new spin on it. The idea of seeing Chucky and puppets in a split screen format is in and of itself kind of amusing!

I want to talk about the mythology and continuity of the series. We've never had one writer work on every installment of a horror series that has gone on this long, seven films. The nods and references, the post-credit tags in these last two, those are huge things for the fans - are those things part of your process when you sit down and write a new movie, like "We should see this person again" or "I still haven't answered that question", or do they come more organically?

It comes organically; I don't intend any of that stuff to be mere fan service. It's really just me as a writer and creator of all these characters over the course of decades... I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about these characters over the years and just wondering "What might have happened to this character? What interesting story could we tell about them? What potential interesting relationships could I get taking this character from this part of the franchise and putting him or her with these other characters?" I really am thinking of the characters first, obviously that stuff is going to make fans happy but I'm not approaching it cynically, honestly. I try to make it seem legitimately interesting in terms of telling a story. It's one of the things that makes our franchise unique, that we have a fairly coherent continuity after seven movies and three decades.

And now you have Alex Vincent back as Andy; he showed up for the tag in Curse of Chucky but now he's a primary character in this film. What was it like getting him to return to this character full-stop?

He was thrilled! This was something we had been talking about for years. We're good friends; it's an interesting relationship because when we met I was 25 or 26 and he was five, but we met in this context as work colleagues, which is weird as an adult to forge that kind of a relationship with a kid. But then he grew up and became this cool interesting guy as it turns out, and we reconnected, talked a lot about the movies and the franchise and his experience going to conventions... his entire life, really. I was well aware that Andy was a fan favorite for the hardcore, and when we sort of rebooted the franchise with Curse, the little tag with Andy at the end was just like an exercise. It was really a way for me to sell the idea of bringing him back to the franchise in a bigger way, so it was like "Let's just take the temperature of the fans", and they responded very positively. So from then it was all systems go to bring him back in, but then the challenge is - and this is always the challenge when you're doing sequels - I have to give the viewer something that will satisfy them but it also has to be surprising. They have certain expectations about what they want Andy to be, or what they assume that character is going do in the movie, and it's my job to walk this line where I'm satisfying those expectations but at the same time spinning them so that they are subverted to some degree.

On that note, I was curious: would you ever hand Chucky off? We don't WANT you to go, trust me, I'm just curious - for you, would you ever think you'd be okay with seeing someone else take over? Because it seems at this point they can't do one without you. 

Mission accomplished! (laughs) I certainly want people to think that! No, I love this character, I love doing it. And I love directing; I want to direct more movies, obviously I want to do stuff outside of Chucky as well, but I still love it and I hope people want me to stick around. I think at this point - and this is one of the things we're all proud of - is we make it interesting. It's not the same movie over and over again, that's our goal anyway. It's kind of an elaborate act that we've managed to be successful at, and I want to continue to do that if possible. I find being the custodian of a franchise very interesting; some people are very cynical about it, some people thumb their noses at it, but honestly I think if you approach it the right way it gives you all kinds of unique opportunities to tell interesting stories. Because, by the very nature of the fact that it's a sequel people are coming to it with a certain set of expectations, and that gives me an opportunity to pull the rug out from under the viewers' feet. That's the way I approach sequels, so it continues to be interesting to me as long as people like what we're doing.

Well I can't speak for everyone, but I certainly like what Don and his collaborators did with Cult of Chucky - keep an eye out for a full review later this week. In the meantime catch up with Curse if you haven't already, as it introduces Nica (Fiona Dourif's character) and explains how Chucky came back around, while also returning the series to its original more suspense-driven roots after the full-blown comedy of 2004's Seed of Chucky. It's funny; I have seen most of these movies several times and figured I would just kind of skip around the discs on the boxed set, putting it on in the background while I did other work, but I found myself continually engaged in the films and letting that other work go undone. Just watching Chucky's evolution in terms of his design/animation is a marvel in itself; the Blu-ray might make it easier to spot when little people are being used to double him in long shots, but the facial animation - still mostly done with puppets, not CGI, as we see on one of the bonus features for the new film - has evolved, as has his ability to make expressions and maneuver his weaponry. But it's not that he looks BAD, either - I still marvel at some of the shots in Child's Play 2 and 3, done before they even had CGI to help out. Like the films themselves, Chucky's appearance may change over time, but his ability to get the job done does not. If you've written the series off, it's time to re-evaluate it - thanks to Mancini's commitment, it truly stands apart from its peers, and continues to surprise long past its expected expiration date. Here's hoping for an eighth film!