Child’s Play (1988)

*. Sometimes it’s the things you least expect to last that end up dating the least. Over thirty years later, what impresses me the most about Child’s Play is how good Chucky looks. A mix of animatronics, puppetry, little people dressed in the doll’s clothes, and oversized sets, he’s just as believable as he was back in 1988.
*. They even manage to finesse the difficulty of making us believe that such a small figure could do so much damage. To make the obvious comparison, I don’t buy the Leprechaun at all, but Chucky doesn’t do anything impossible here. He just fights dirty, and it works.
*. It’s not only the technical elements though that are so good, like the way Chucky’s face can so quickly distort into a malign snarl. His basic design is great too. With his coveralls and freckles he might be a demonic Dennis the Menace, and the combination of the flaming, troll-like hair and icy blue eyes works perfectly.
*. That’s a good thing, as Chucky is the film (and, subsequently, the franchise). I like Chris Sarandon but I’d completely forgotten he was in this movie. Catherine Hicks is very good, but I wouldn’t have remembered her name. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else. Ditto for Alex Vincent as Andy, who I don’t think did much else aside from some of the sequels.
*. A lot of the cast’s forgettability comes from their playing types. Their thinness is admitted to by writer Don Mancini on the commentary track, and the fact that for the most part they’re just there to serve the plot. The harried single mom. The cop who cares. The sweet but vulnerable child. Whatever. They’re not important. But everyone remembers Chucky, and Brad Dourif’s voice. This is what it means to be a horror icon: You don’t just take over, you erase everything else around you.
*. Child’s Play is usually lumped in with other demonic doll movies, and Mancini mentions Magic (1978) as being one influence. His original script was even closer to this sort of ventriloquist horror, as in Magic, Devil Doll, and the Michael Redgrave story in Dead of Night. Andy and Chucky were linked in some spiritual way, with Chucky being Andy’s angry id and only coming to life when Andy is asleep. All that was dropped for the voodoo angle we get in the film.
*. Another, no less important influence the film taps into is the satire of children’s advertising and marketing. The Good Guys dolls were most directly inspired by the hysteria over Cabbage Patch Kids, but the plot also ties in well with earlier ’80s horror flicks like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985). In each case the crap being sold on TV through catchy jingles and ad lines turns out to be not just dangerous for small children but lethal.
*. I wish there was a bit more of this, but it’s a subject that Mancini seems to lose interest in as things go on, both in this movie and in the series in general. There’s more of it at the beginning of Child’s Play 2, with children being referred to as consumers-in-training, but then it’s dropped from that film as well. Later movies wouldn’t bring the matter up at all.
*. Aside from the iconic Chucky, Child’s Play has a lot of other things going for it. At only 87 minutes (the original cut was over two hours) it “moves like a bullet train,” as one contemporary review quoted by Mancini put it. Within those tight confines it’s also very well paced. The slow reveal of evil Chucky is nicely drawn out and perfectly timed, with the climax (when Karen discovers the batteries) coming at the exact halfway point in the movie.
*. It’s a well made, well conceived movie. I love Andy watching Chucky climbing the stairs into the hospital building, and the various shots of Chucky’s enlarged shadow. It’s a little thing, but notice that sudden move to a close-up of Karen’s face when she discovers the batteries still in the box. Throw in a couple of really good explosions — blowing up a storefront and a derelict building entirely — and it’s hard to see what more they could have made out of this material. When we think of ’80s horror we tend to think of a lot of different movies that played out as serials, few of which were actually any good or could claim to be well made. I wouldn’t call Child’s Play a timeless classic, but it is an exception to that general rule.

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