Child's Play returns: How the killer doll franchise has endured

“Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” (Credit: Universal)
“Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” (Credit: Universal)

On the one hand, the announcement of a new ‘Child’s Play’ movie in 2017 might not seem anything too out of the ordinary. After all, we’re well acquainted with seeing movie properties of yesteryear with marketable titles getting dusted off for contemporary audiences on a near-constant basis.

However, the upcoming ‘Cult of Chucky’ – announced to start production this week, via the teaser trailer below – is something notably different from the tsunami of sequels, reboots, rebootquels and other variants of rehash which we struggle to make up new words for – simply because this new ‘Child’s Play’ film is the handiwork of the same creative team that have been behind all six films made to date in the long-running series.

And yes indeed, ‘Child’s Play’ is a long-running series. Its first installment arrived all the way back in 1988, introducing the now-iconic villain Chucky – a child’s doll who, thanks to a spot of impromptu voodoo, is possessed by the spirit of mass-murderering madman Charles Lee Ray, voiced (and briefly portrayed in the flesh) by Brad Dourif.

Dourif has returned to voice Chucky in every subsequent ‘Child’s Play’ movie, and will also be back on ‘Cult of Chucky;’ nothing too remarkable about that in itself, given how many times other horror actors like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund, ‘Hellraiser’s Doug Bradley, and even ‘Leprechaun’s Warwick Davis reprised their respective bogeyman roles.

What really makes the ‘Child’s Play’ series unique among enduring horror franchises is that every installment has been written by series creator Don Mancini, and produced by David Kirschner (also the designer of the Chucky animatronic, and – curiously – producer of such family-friendly titles as ‘An American Tail,’ ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘The Flintstones’).

With ‘Fright Night’ director Tom Holland (not to be confused with the new Spider-Man actor) at the helm, 1988’s ‘Child’s Play’ was a smash hit at a time when the major horror franchises of the 1980s – primarily ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Halloween’ – were starting to wind down.

Catherine Hicks and Alex Vincent in 1988's 'Child's Play' (credit: Universal)
Catherine Hicks and Alex Vincent in 1988’s ‘Child’s Play’ (credit: Universal)

However, ‘Child’s Play’ isn’t necessarily the teen-oriented stab-fest we might expect going in. Despite the cartoonish absurdity of the premise, it’s actually a largely straight-laced Hitchcockian thriller told mainly from the perspective of Catherine Hicks’ single mother, who doesn’t know if the new toy she gave her son Andy (Alex Vincent) really is alive and killing people, or if she herself is having a mental breakdown.

Unsurprisingly, little time was wasted getting sequels in the works. John Lafia took over as director on 1990’s ‘Child’s Play 2,’ and ‘Child’s Play 3’ arrived almost immediately thereafter in 1991, with Jack Bender at the helm. However, these first two follow-ups unsurprisingly put Chucky centre-stage, with wisecracks and textbook stalk-and-slash scenes galore. Naturally, it got a bit stale in no short order.

The box office cooled off, and creative fatigue set in for writer Mancini, keeping any further sequels getting off the ground straight away. It didn’t help that the series got its name dragged through the mud when the British press erroneously linked ‘Child’s Play 3’ to the infamous murder of James Bulger, an association which lingers to this day despite the fact that it was almost immediately dismissed by the police.

1998's 'Bride of Chucky' (credit: Universal)
1998’s ‘Bride of Chucky’ (credit: Universal)

However, in the wake of 1996’s ‘Scream,’ slasher movies were cool again, provided they came with their tongues in their cheeks. So it was that ‘Bride of Chucky’ arrived on the series’ 10th anniversary in 1998, and put the series back on track beautifully. Stylishly directed by Ronny Yu (who would go on to helm ‘Freddy Vs Jason’), ‘Bride of Chucky’ brought a more overtly comedic tone to the stab-happy proceedings, and – in a particular masterstroke – introduced a second iconic protagonist in Chucky’s wife Tiffany, portrayed by Jennifer Tilly.

In this new age of post-modern, self-referential horror, Mancini creatively brought new life to his creation by harking back to, as he puts it in the DVD extras, a “slamming-door farce” set-up, in which our romantic leads – one of them a young Katherine Heigl – suspect one another of perpetrating the carnage that ensues around them, neither one knowing the dolls in their possession are the ones to blame. The results are infinitely more witty, creative and entertaining than the bulk of the comedic horrors that emerged in the late 90s, most of which were little more than half-baked ‘Scream’ knock-offs.

Unfortunately, Mancini couldn’t quite keep this momentum going when he made his directorial debut on 2004 follow-up ‘Seed of Chucky.’ The fifth film got a little too ambitious and too meta, with an over-stuffed plot which saw Jennifer Tilly playing herself as well as reprising Tiffany, and introduced Glen/Glenda, the gender-confused child of Chucky and Tiffany voiced by Billy Boyd, who didn’t prove such an inspired addition to the ensemble.

After the underwhelming critical and commercial reception of ‘Seed,’ it was perhaps inevitable that 2013’s sixth film ‘Curse of Chucky’ would be the first in the series to go direct to home entertainment. Despite this, ‘Curse’ is a major series highlight. Writing and directing again, Mancini wisely shifts the tone of the series once more with a simpler narrative, and a return to the more pared-down, Hitchcockian approach of the original ‘Child’s Play.’ It’s not entirely surprising, then, that ‘Curse’ had at one point been mooted as a reboot of the franchise – and it’s to the credit of studio Universal that this approach was resisted in favour of something which at once rejuvenates the property, but does not rip it all up and start again.

Fiona Dourif in 2013's 'Curse of Chucky' (credit: Universal)
Fiona Dourif in 2013’s ‘Curse of Chucky’ (credit: Universal)

One key element in ‘Curse of Chucky’s rejuvenation of the franchise was in the introduction of a compelling new central heroine, Nica, who – keeping it a family affair – is played by Fiona Dourif, daughter of Chucky actor Brad (and recently seen in Netflix’s ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’). Happily, Nica is confirmed to return in ‘Cult of Chucky,’ which – in what is sure to be another fan-pleasing move – will also see the return of Alex Vincent as the now-adult Andy, Chucky’s original owner in the first two ‘Child’s Play’ films, who also had a post-credits cameo in ‘Curse.’ Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly will also be back.

So yes, ‘Child’s Play’ is a long-running series that’s lingered since the 80s, and as such it may at a glance seem like just another cookie cutter, profit-driven horror franchise. However, bear in mind that the likes of ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Saw’ reached seven movies within as many years, with creative control changing hands many times within that period; whereas it’s taken 29 years for Chucky to get that far, with the same people calling the shots the whole time, and no reboots yet. Given the state of horror these past 15 years or so, this is quite an achievement; and while ‘Child’s Play’ has had its highs (the original, ‘Bride,’ ‘Curse’) and its lows (2,3, ‘Seed’), it’s a series well worth celebrating.

‘Cult of Chucky’ starts production shortly, and is expected to arrive sometime in the autumn.

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