MGM // 1988 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // September 9th, 2008
"When you're feeling down or feeling blue
A Good Guy will always be there for you!"
Murderous dolls are such creepy things. In the movies, they're often portrayed as ventriloquists' dummies (Dead of Night, Magic). Dolls proper seem to have had more success on television; witness "Talking Tina" from The Twilight Zone or that still-scary Zuni fetish doll that terrorized Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror.
Child's Play introduces us to another evil doll, '80s horror icon, Chucky.
It's little Andy's birthday, and he really wants a Good Guy, a near life-size talking doll. All Good Guys have their own names and respond to certain commands -- they're like precursors to Furbies. Unfortunately, Andy's mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks, 7th Heaven), can't afford this expensive toy. Fate intervenes when she meets a peddler who sells her a Good Guy at a cut rate.
What Karen doesn't know is that this particular Good Guy is tainted. A shootout the night before between murdering psycho Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, The Wizard of Gore) and cop Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon, Dog Day Afternoon) ended up in a toy store, and just before he died, Ray had muttered an incantation that transposed his foul soul into this doll.
Now Andy is the proud owner of "Chucky," a Good Guy who can keep him company, play with him...and kill.
Arguably the last great, R-rated schlock horror film of the '80s -- before the muzak-like PG-13 wave of soft scares that ruled the '90s -- Child's Play offers solid performances, a clever script, and a gleefully malevolent, three-foot-tall villain.
Writer Don Mancini actually set out to write something a bit more sophisticated than the average horror-slash-slasher film, more of a mystery-slash-commentary on consumerism. While Child's Play is first and foremost a horror movie, there are enough elements of mystery and satire to help it rise above the genre. For instance, we don't actually see the doll do anything until well into the film. As presented, the first couple of killings could have been committed by young Andy -- the initial murder is such a blatant steal from The Omen, it's as though director Tom Holland is setting us up to expect another dangerous-kid movie.
Holland actually gets a lot of mileage out of this false mystery component, shooting early scenes from the doll's POV, which adds a welcome layer of tension. He's helped greatly by his actors. As the nominal hero and heroine, Sarandon and Hicks bring a nice level of human foible to their roles; they're not superheroes, and their encounters with the wicked doll are played with a kind of graceful absurdity that's as charming as it is nerve-wracking. There's also a nicely underdeveloped sexual chemistry between them, and while we don't get the pro-forma romance, we can sense that they have a connection.
As 6-year-old Andy, Alex Vincent is very good. His performance is natural, not too cloying and not too knowing. Although one of the cardinal rules of horror is, "don't put the underage star in danger" (unless you're Nicholson and Kubrick or Laughton and Mitchum), in Child's Play, Andy ends up in very real danger, enough that it's almost uncomfortable to watch.
The real star, of course, is the doll, and effects designer Kevin Yagher outdid himself with Chucky. Looking like the in-bred cousin of the "My Buddy" dolls briefly popular in the mid-'80s, Chucky's big blue eyes and toothy overbite are creepy enough on their own and nightmarish when the monster inside the plastic takes over.
Once Chucky is revealed as the vessel of a killer's soul, the film shifts gears a bit, becoming more standard chase-and-slash fare with a couple of terrifically rendered set pieces, including Chucky's assault on a nemesis in a car. What really boosts the film at this point is Brad Dourif, whose first lines as Chucky ("You stupid bitch! You filthy slut!") come around the halfway point, though he did get to say a few words as Charles Lee Ray (a wonderful name for a killer, evoking Manson, Oswald, and James Earl Ray -- company, we suspect, Chucky would have been proud to keep).
Dourif is a talented character actor with a resumé that includes a range from award-winning classics to bottom-scraping drek. He's perfect as the voice of the foul-mouthed, nasty, punk-ass Chucky, whose leering, low-rent sadism makes him the white trash answer to Dr. Phibes. Dourif went on to voice Chucky in four sequels over the next 16 years and is rumored to be attached to an upcoming remake -- er, "reimagining," as such things as Psycho (1998) and Prom Night (2008) are euphemistically called -- from Don Mancini, who's made Child's Play and its progeny his life's work.
An earlier release of Child's Play was a mess: full frame transfer instead of the original aspect ratio, murky audio, bare bones. For Chucky's 20th, we get a mighty impressive upgrade.
While the picture's a little dull and murky in the dark scenes, it's overall clear, and it's an anamorphic transfer in the correct aspect ratio. Audio's been cleaned up and boosted a bit for the 5.1 track, and we also get the original 2.0. We also get a full slate of extras, including two feature-length commentaries, one with the writer and the producer, which is more informative, and the other with Vincent, as well Hicks and Yagher. Evidently, Hicks and Yagher (who met during filming Child's Play and later married) were recorded separately from Vincent and the two commentaries edited together. It's interesting hearing the sometimes different remembrances of the same events, and it's especially fun hearing Alex Vincent reminisce about his role as a childhood experience. We also get a four-scene specific commentary from Chucky himself, which is...pretty much what you'd expect it to be.
In addition, MGM gives us a whole slew of featurettes, including one made back when the film was first released. That one features the only appearance of this disc of director Tom Hollander. There is no mention as to why he did not contribute to the commentaries or features that explore the history and enduring popularity of this film.
"Chucky: Building a Nightmare" is especially interesting, a look at the work of Kevin Yagher, whose effects and make-up work have been featured in films such as Face/Off and Sleepy Hollow. Other effects artists, including Tom Savini, Tom Woodruff, Alec Gillis, and Shane Mahan (listed as Alec Gills and Shane Mohan) weigh in on the lasting impact of Chucky.
Also, if you play with the menus a bit, you'll find a trio of Easter eggs -- once you eyeball the first one, it's easy enough to spot the others.
Make no mistake: Above all else, Child's Play is a cheesy horror movie. Maybe it's the fact that it's well-made that makes its logic failings more noticeable.
Of course, any movie about a serial killer inhabiting the body of a doll is going to have logic issues, but here's the one that stood out the most for me: If you were trapped in the body of a doll, and your only way out was to perform a voodoo-esque ritual with another character and then take over that person's body, you'd want that body to be intact and that person to be alive, right? So why, when Chucky learns this -- and finds there is only one body in the entire world that he can use -- does he go after that person with a knife?
Just one of those mysteries I suspect will remain unsolved.
Child's Play is a deliriously effective, late '80s horror treat. MGM rolls out the red carpet here, showing the film the kind of respect usually reserved for more conventional classics. An easy recommendation, especially with its under-$15 MSRP.
Not guilty, little feller. Hidey-ho.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Catherine Hicks, Alex Vincent, and Chucky-designer Kevin Yagher
* Commentary with Producer David Kirschner and Writer Don Mancini
* Scene Specific Commentary by "Chucky"
* "Evil Comes in Small Packages"
* "Chucky: Building a Nightmare"
* "A Monster Convention"
* Vintage Featurette: "Introducing Chucky: The Making of Child's Play"
* Easter Eggs
* Still Gallery