Movies We Like
Taking a cue from the infamous Twilight Zone episode “Talking Tina,” as well as the Zuni doll segment from Trilogy Of Terror, director (and writer) Tom Holland was not only able to craft a “killer doll” movie rich with mythology that is both suspenseful & terrifying, but also arguably the best of this particular sub-genre in horror. And Child’s Play wastes no time as it opens in the middle of a police pursuit with Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) hot on the trail of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Douriff), the notorious serial killer known as the Lakeshore Strangler who has just been ditched & abandoned mid-robbery by his accomplice Eddie Caputo (Neil Giuntoli). The chase ends in a local toy store where, after a brief gun fight, Ray is mortally wounded. But before he dies, he performs a voodoo ceremony to transfer his soul into that of a Good Guy talking doll. Does the mumbo-jumbo spell actually work?
Karen Barkley (Catherine Hicks) is a recently single mother who wants nothing more than to provide for her 6-year-old son Andy. And Andy wants nothing more than to get a Good Guy doll for his birthday. When a peddler out behind the store where Karen works offers to sell her a Good Guy doll for $30 bucks over the normally excessive $100 dollar retail charge, she takes advantage so she can give her son the gift she knows he so desperately wants. All seems fine at first and Andy now has a “best friend to the end”. But then, bad things start happening around Andy.
First, his babysitter (and Karen’s best friend) Maggie takes a horrific plunge out of the kitchen window. Then Andy cuts school and ends up in one of the worst areas of downtown Chicago where an explosion in an old abandoned building takes out Ray’s former partner-in-crime Eddie Caputo. The police and Karen are baffled and much like them, we’re left wondering, could Andy, a sweet soft spoken 6-year-old boy be responsible for what appears to be two murders? Obviously if you’re even remotely familiar with any of the five Child’s Play movies, you’ll know that it is in fact Chucky, the doll that’s responsible. The voodoo spell at the opening of the movie worked! But alas, the longer Ray spends inside the body of the doll, the more human he becomes and he risks being trapped as a doll for eternity unless he can transfer his soul into the first person he told his secret to, which in this case is Andy.
One of the greatest aspects of the movie is how director Tom Holland implements just about every single filmmaking trick in the book in order to sell the appearance that Chucky is in fact alive. This was obviously a time long before CGI, so everything had to be achieved practically. And among the obvious techniques are things like advanced animatronics and basic puppeteering, coupled with not-so-obvious techniques such as forced perspective and using a little person in a Chucky costume in practical sets that were build 30 percent larger than the original scene locations. Two stand-out examples: there’s a moment where we see Chucky enter Andy’s room, walk through it, jump on the bed, and pull the covers off of what ends up to be pillows. The entire room and bed are 30 percent larger and Chucky is played by an actor named Ed Gale. In another similar shot, when Chucky confronts his former voodoo teacher John (aka Dr. Death), we physically see Chucky pacing on the kitchen counter during his conversation with John. And yet again, it’s a counter that was build larger with actor Ed Gale in costume. There’s even one brief shot of Chucky running past Maggie in the background that was actually Alex (Andy), Vincent’s 3-year-old little sister, dressed up as Chucky. It’s scenes like those, along with the other amazing camera tricks employed throughout, that really sell the effect that the doll is actually alive.
And therein lays the success of Child’s Play and the reason it spawned four more sequels. Chucky’s a living breathing character thanks not only to the incredible, innovative work of the FX artists, but also because of Brad Dourif’s performance. While the actor appears as himself only for the opening of the movie, he does the voice Chucky for the remainder of the film. And during the rehearsal phase of pre-production, Brad actually physically acted out all of the “Chucky doll” parts with the actors. (You can see some of that awesome rehearsal footage on the Special Edition DVD release). Somehow, his character work absolutely shines through in that doll just by its physicality and Brad’s voice-over performance, which just goes to show just how terrific an actor Dourif truly is. (He was, after all, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.)
If you’ve never seen the movie, then be prepared for just how vile and foul-mouthed Chucky eventually becomes. One really scary sequence revolves around Karen first discovering the unopened batteries still in the Good Guy Doll box as she goes to throw it out. It becomes apparent that Chucky’s been moving and talking the entire time without the batteries. What follows is a hilarious curse-filled outburst that shows Chucky’s true colors and easily encapsulates what we would expect from that character in the subsequent sequels. Another actor that deserves praise is Chris Sarandon, who is reteaming here with Tom after the two collaborated together on Fright Night. Sarandon, at that time, had played a handful of villains so it’s nice to see him here as the good ol’ Chicago cop, skeptical of everything going on, but still trying to do the right thing.
All in all, Child’s Play is a horror classic. It arrived in theaters in the very late ‘80s when the “slasher” genre was all but over and managed to revitalize it well into the ‘90s with an iconic character that stands his own up against Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. If you’re a horror fan or even moderately interested in the genre, Child’s Play is required viewing.
Fun fact: Chucky’s real name, Charles Lee Ray is actually the amalgamation of three other killers—Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray.