The October Project, Day 8: Child’s Play (1988)

I watched this before at some point, but still can’t figure out when exactly–it was this DVD, but it could’ve been any time in the last six years as a result (yes, I’ve got a database of purchase dates…). Still, I decided to go with that, since this is functioning as a “fill-in” for the night movies got pushed aside for concerts and lots of driving.

Serial strangler Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) is pursued by cop Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) into a toy store where a few gunshots, a lighting bolt, and a strange chant leave him dead with a devilish look at the dolls that surround him on the floor. Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) struggles to support her Good Guys cartoon-loving son Andy (Alex Vincent) on his birthday, being assisted by her friend Maggie (Dinah Manoff) in acquiring a Good Guy doll for him from a back-alley peddler who comes upon one rather by chance. To the surprise of no one who has seen posters or home-media-release covers, that doll, Chucky, seems to have something a bit odd about him…

One of the scattered early memories of my life comes from seeing the (1990) Child’s Play 2 poster in the grocery store my family frequented, which also rented movies out. I didn’t start going for horror until I was somewhere between eight and ten, so this was still in the terrifying range of things (that poster remains vaguely disturbing, if you ask me). Living dolls are a source of terror to many (Magic, numerous anthology bits, like the Tales from the Crypt episode that also scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid, a short that used to air as an interstitial on the early Sci-Fi Channel, a Goosebumps book, Trilogy of Terror, and so on) so it was an area ripe with creeps.

Even before I started watching it, the (oddly chosen) trailers on the Brainscan DVD had dropped an idea in my head: what does the absence of sequels do to horror movie reputations? On there, I saw trailers for I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Many devoted horror fans are at least somewhat selective about sequels (or prequels, or sometimes originals). What would we think of A Nightmare on Elm Street without its sequels? Would Freddy have acquired quite the cultural capital that he did? If, even more impacting, Jason Voorhees never really made his image so familiar–which took at least three movies? What if Michael Myers hadn’t returned so quickly and Halloween had gone anthology on the second movie, preventing the more assured expectation of his appearance in the long-maligned-for-bad-reasons Halloween III: Season of the Witch?

So that was crawling through the back of my mind throughout this one–what if we didn’t have the increasingly weird, blackly-humoured sequels? What if this was just that cool, one-off living doll movie? I’ve got to say, I think its reputation would have been somewhat less tarnished. Mind you, much like the aforementioned slasher series, which spawn things like hating Halloween III simply because it lacked Myers, have their fans and aren’t in any way inherently inferior, they’re just a different tack on all of it. But if this had remained self-contained, it might be seen differently.

Hicks and Vincent sell the hell out of their relationship, I have to say. Vincent’s one of the best of the child actors I’ve seen. His ridiculously awful “breakfast in bed” for his mom looks like a really young kid going overboard–spoilt, maybe, but not in a way that makes him entitled, so much as able to get away with doing some messy stuff on good intentions. His excitement about the Good Guys cartoon and merchandising is completely believable, and it was a brilliant stroke to keep him in his self-described “Good Guys pjs” throughout a lot of the movie, as that’s exactly the kind of silliness a lot of us participate in as kids, at least since the 80s. And Hicks, man, they are paired so perfectly–Karen clearly loves Andy, and wants to do everything she can for him, but reacts as you’d expect someone to when the kid they love is swearing their doll-friend is alive as people start dying.

Sarandon is no slouch as Norris, with the right amount of patience mixed into his incredulity and head-shaking frustration with Andy, and eventually Karen. And, Dourif…well, it’s Brad Dourif. Chucky’s voice is intimidating, threatening, and menacing, just as it should be. He sells the reasons for Chucky acting as he does, in violence, in that they are tied in to his plans from still being human.

And so that’s where the goodness comes from: the script and acting keep everything around Chucky very well-grounded and at least “movie-realistic”. The effects slide between the not-quite-as-good-but-understandable double-for-Chucky and animatronics that give him the right unnervingly stiff movements.

I don’t know how things would be different if the series hadn’t continued for certain, but, like First Blood or Rocky or Hellraiser or even (somewhat appropriately) Puppet Master, it can be unfair to judge a single movie based on a series, and also pretty wildly inaccurate. This is definitely a very solid movie, taken in isolation from its descendants.

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