Revisiting 1988's Child's Play
Before the remake, a look back at the one that started it all
With the remake being released this Friday, now is as good a time as any to take a look back at 1988’s cult classic, Child’s Play. Written by franchise legend Don Mancini and directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night, Thinner), Child’s Play sees the birth of one of horror’s greatest monsters: Chucky. How does the original killer doll hold up, and what makes him so special? Let’s find out. Spoilers ahead…
In Tom Holland’s 1988 horror film Child’s Play, injured criminal Charles Lee Ray is cornered and shot by cop Mike Norris in a toy store, using his final breaths to implant his soul into a Good Guys doll, a feat made possible with a touch of culturally appropriated and largely misunderstood voodoo magic. So, Charles, who goes by - you guessed it - Chucky, lives on and uses his second chance at life to seek revenge on Mike and his former accomplice, Eddie Caputo, who abandoned him to die. The only caveat in this plan? He’s a life-sized doll who lacks proper mobility and ability to be taken seriously. Adding further wrinkles to his revenge plan, Chucky lands in the hands of young Andy Barclay, son to the widowed Karen Barclay. The real unsung hero of this story, Karen is a doting mother who made one minor parenting mistake: purchasing a possessed, homicidal, and Good Guy from a doll peddler rather than from a trusted source - like, you know, a store. Chucky isn’t going to be deterred though; he’s going to murder his way out of domesticity, and pin it on poor Andy.
A cult classic that has inspired countless sequels, Child’s Play has spawned a storied franchise including Child's Play 2 (1990), Child's Play 3 (1991), Bride of Chucky (1998), Seed of Chucky (2004), Curse of Chucky (2013), and Cult of Chucky (2017), each penned by the same dedicated screenwriter, Don Mancini. While subsequent entries range from utterly forgettable to utterly bonkers, Mancini’s trademark wit and creativity make for an admirable throughline in the series. The scope of Chucky’s influence is undeniable - this doll has inspired real-life murders, after all. Still, it’s hard to say if the remake - controversially the first film without Mancini on scripting duties - will captivate its cult following or make the cut with a new generation of horror fans, especially if it includes the controversial and frankly dated Haitian Vodou. And while many worry that CGI will be replacing much of the original’s practical charms, director Lars Klevberg assures that much of the new film will involve a real doll and state-of-the-art puppeteering.
“Chucky satisfied audiences seeking a silly romp, but was also legitimately scary both in plotline and execution.”
Will the new film live up to its own legend? To answer this question we have to investigate: what’s so special about Child’s Play (1988) in the first place? What makes the downright ridiculous plot so popular that it warrants a reboot? Consider the year: 1988 was ripe for energetic slasher horror movies -the weirder the better - including Pumpkinhead and The Blob! But we also needed something fresh - 1988 was the year that welcomed a fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, a third Poltergeist, and the fourth Halloween installment, meaning that we needed a new notable and identifiable horror icon, someone so distinct that it could continue the legacy created by the iconic Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. What makes Chucky so different, besides his doll form, is his status as a parody of the slasher film. What started as a legitimately terrifying genre of horror had dissolved into near hysteria via camp by 1988. Audiences craved gross, weird, and almost silly renditions of familiar horror storylines, and their favorites weren’t frightening so much as they were familiar. Chucky was the one that satisfied audiences seeking a silly romp, but was also legitimately scary both in plotline and execution.
Said execution harnesses a popular horror cinematography technique that fully takes advantage of Chucky’s diminutive stature: wide shots that draw the attention between the background and foreground are mixed with the victim’s POV shots, so that the audience dwells on what’s just outside of the camera’s line of sight. What’s seen vs. unseen create a gut tension, stringing along an audience just waiting to react - the ideal brew for effective jump scares. For example, as Chucky stalks Andy’s aunt, Maggie, we are treated to a series of shots that come from her point of view as she slowly roves through the apartment, catching only glimpses of the incredibly quick Chucky. At first, Maggie believes that Andy is prowling around, trying to frighten her as she searches for her charge, but she soon falls for Chucky’s traps as spilled flour bowls and mysterious noises guide her into a vulnerable position. It’s effective and original, a refreshing take on the tired slasher trope: predator stalks prey, the audience waits for the kill, rinse and repeat. Instead, Chucky cleverly draws Maggie into the open under the guise of a child, messing with household objects and eventually sending her careening out the window - a calculated kill as opposed to a gruesome bloodbath, and a murder characteristic to a burgeoning horror icon.
Chucky, created by both actors and animatronics, is eerie in his jauntiness, with his robotic yet weirdly expressive face demonstrating the disturbing splice between man and machine. Despite Chucky’s face being rubber, the plastic shifts like skin thanks to underlying robotics. It’s also worth noting that the doll scuttles rather than walks, making any stalking scene much more frightening due to Chucky’s physicality. And while Charles’ voodoo instructor John reveals that the longer Charles stays in the doll’s body, the more human, and thus more susceptible to pain, he becomes, Chucky is a horror villain that feels immortal, untouchable. The character of Chucky can retreat into his doll form and lie in wait, disengaging from accusations and non-believers. This covert yet campy killer is created to be unimaginably horrifying because of his status as a common household toy, made all the more harrowing since Karen and Andy invite Chucky into their home.
In fact, Chucky’s covert nature gives us the most skin-crawlingly iconic scare of the series: the scene in which Karen realizes that Andy’s doll has been animated without batteries. Not convinced her son has murdered Maggie and a myriad of other people, she investigates the doll that Andy points to as the real killer. Searching Chucky’s face for what lurks under the surface reveals nothing to her, so she does what any parent does: she reads the instructions on the box. When the batteries fall from the box and clatter on the floor, the audience has the same horrifying revelation as she does: Chucky has been operating offline this entire time. Worse yet, she’s left Chucky in the adjacent room, completely privy to her epiphany and ready to attack. In the background, he’s disappeared out of fireplace glow into the recesses of the dark apartment, ready to pounce.
Really, it’s masterful how Chucky can be overt, campy, comical, and yet so creepy - all thanks to franchise creator Don Mancini, who brought home invasion horror to the next level. Sure, there’s a myriad of problematic content to acknowledge, particularly Karen’s graphic sexual assault and the gross misrepresentation of voodoo, but these are indicative of the 80s time period rather than a scathing indictment. Rewatch this cult classic, recognizing that Child’s Play’s magic is exclusive to 1988. At the time, the creation of Chucky was only possible with a now dated blend of practical and special effects, and even with the remake’s insistence on puppetry and animatronics, it’s almost a sure thing that some of the original’s janky charms will be lost in the upcoming remake. While you may be enamored or even annoyed with Child’s Play, you’ll have no choice but to recognize it as an irreplaceably comedic - yet frightening - romp that birthed an iconic character.
KT Heins is a social media manager operating out of Denver, CO where she lives with her partner and two chihuahuas. She is an avid horror enthusiast and prefers ghosts over ghouls. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @ktotheheins