A Friend to the End: The Endurance of Child’s Play

Over the past couple of decades, a familiar pattern has emerged among slasher franchises that began in the eighties: the first two or three films establish the killer, a subsequent few remakes kill them off and bring them back in increasingly silly ways, and after a disappointing finale, an equally disappointing reboot is released years later. There are, of course, subtle variations to this formula – Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have had more than one sub-par redo! – but the basic idea of falling further away from the horror genre before wiping the slate clean and trying again with a grittier tone is fairly universal. So for this Halloween, I’m here to talk about one of the few franchises that have subverted expectations and remained engaging without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel – Child’s Play, which despite a big-budget remake is still revelling in its own continuity outside of the mainstream.

The Aesthetics of Reboots

Yes, there was a reboot this year, but one that fundamentally fails to achieve the sole function of a reboot: starting fresh after the series has bitten the dust. While the reboots of Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chain Saw Massacre aren’t considered good by a long shot, they at least came about because the original stories had lost their way, descending into dull CGI visuals and technically amateur filmmaking. Because although the most recent Chucky films, Curse of Chuckyand Cult of Chucky, didn’t receive theatrical releases, they have received critical acclaim amongst horror fans, and most people who have watched them aren’t in any rush to gloss over them. I believe that this is, at least in part, due to the willingness of series creator Don Mancini to evolve his films visually – so I suppose, in a way, Curse serves aesthetically as a reboot. Gone are the garish colours and dodgy CGI in Seed of Chuckyreplaced by slick camerawork in sharp HD. Not to mention the distinct lack of celebrity cameos and constant one-liners that had divided so many in the previous iterations.

This tendency towards experimentation and change is a facet of filmmaking that I wish occurred more often in the production of other franchises. It seems as though Marvel may be heading somewhat in this direction with the announcements of the new Dr. Strange and Thor films – a horror and a campy space romp respectively – but the habit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater whenever a new film isn’t beloved by audiences has plagued franchises as popular as Spider-Man. Here, Mancini presents an alternative philosophy – do whatever the f*ck you want to do with the world you’ve made, and take pride in your body of work!

Maintaining Continuity

In terms of series continuity, Chucky isn’t remade in Curse, but resurrected – fitting that a character reborn at the start of his own debut feature should be the one to go the longest without requiring extra-diegetic resuscitation. By now, the event that opens the first film is familiar enough to viewers: serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), with his dying breath, transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll, taking on the moniker Chucky. For the first few instalments, Ray fixates on claiming the body of Andy Barclay (), a resourceful young boy who is shown to grow and mature over the course of the franchise, though much like Halloween’s Laurie Strode he becomes stuck in a permanent state of defence. Eventually, however, Chucky begins to evaluate his life as a doll, realising that immortality in his plastic form isn’t something he wants to give up lightly – thus, we enter the more self-aware, satirical films (obviously influenced by Scream) that allow Chucky to exist without a goal of escape.

In giving Chucky more complex motivations and a greater level of interiority, Don Mancini prevented the franchise from entering into Friday the 13th style repetition; as a series welcome to change, Chucky and friends have effectively adapted with the times, slotting naturally into new styles and decades. He definitely isn’t the only slasher to go from threatening to funny, but he may be one of the only ones who successfully jumped ship back to spooky again once the Scream trend towards snarkiness had died down and audiences desired a back to basics approach. Somehow, the same Chucky that married a doll version of Jennifer Tilly and masturbated onscreen into a cup is able to frighten us in settings as pared down as a pristine white hospital, truly a testament to the idea that you don’t always need to start from scratch.

The Endless Wave of 80s Nostalgia

Between Stranger Things and both chapters of It, we’ve been in the grips of an 80s renaissance for some time. This has certainly extended to 80s slasher horror, a genre the decade helped to truly perfect following its origins in the early 70s, and the original Child’s Play is clearly no exception. As well as becoming an icon of the era in an even broader sense than Freddy or Jason – I believe I found out who Chucky was at age five or six – the figure remains relevant today both through the aforementioned reboot and the numerous sequels. I doubt there are many people over 20 who don’t know who Chucky is, despite being such a product of the era; we can’t forget that it was inspired by the Cabbage Patch doll fad it eventually outshone in the realm of pop culture.

So to some degree, our desperate clinging to anything that gives us a pang of nostalgia has benefitted Child’s Play regardless of the actual quality of the franchise, but rather than simply riding the coattails of this trend, Mancini has actually worked it into the lore of the films themselves. When the Chucky doll enters the home and endangers its inhabitants in Curse, it does so via the high value of nostalgia, with several characters recognising the familiar Good Guy doll aesthetic as a visual relic of their childhoods. Through this lingering memory, Chucky can return to wreak havoc, the filmmakers using his past to carve out his future rather than attempting the impossible task of making viewers forget where Chucky had been before.

Social Progress

In marching forwards, some horror franchises attempt to capitalise on the zeitgeist of their new context for relevance, resulting in a cringeworthy, dated mess – Leprechaun In Da Hood comes to mind first. But instead of falling into this trap, Child’s Play has done something different in recent years, taking the progressive politics that have emerged since its inception and integrating them quietly into the scripts of the two most recent films. While more diverse casts have also contributed to this evolution, it is most obvious in the form of Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), the current protagonist of the series and one that resembles few others onscreen in any genre as a young, three-dimensional character who happens to be a wheelchair user. In a genre where disabled people are so often relegated to pure spectacle (as in Freaks) or outright villainy (think Freddy’s burns and Candyman’s amputation), this is a significant step forward, and Mancini has written Nica wonderfully. Of course, her paralysis is frequently a source of tension and terror, but it has also shaped her worldview and experiences, leaving her as an observant, sympathetic individual rather than just a tragic figure.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention that Mancini himself is openly gay, providing a perspective on the slasher genre beyond the typical assumption of a straight male observation of screaming, semi-nude ladies. While I don’t want to assume exactly how his sexuality has dictated his artistic choices, I do think that his joyous embracing of camp in Seed with an appearance from John Waters, and his tendency to lift the voices of those more downtrodden in society, suggests that he possesses a level of social awareness not necessarily present in other, similar horror writers.

Conclusion: A Legacy of Pride

By maintaining the same continuity over four decades of movies, the Child’s Play franchise has sent out to viewers both new and old a message of determination, resilience, and most importantly pride. The mistakes of the past aren’t erased out of existence, but treated with respect as an inevitable part of the artistic process, no matter how many people saw. Like the doll himself, who has been melted, shot, and blown up more times than I can count, this franchise just keeps coming back, each iteration more intriguing than the last.

Happy Halloween, and Viva la Chucky.


Updated: Oct 31, 2019

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