Devious Dialogues by Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak

Devious Dialogues: Mike Thorn and A.M. Novak on the ‘Child’s Play’ Franchise

From the 1988 release of director Tom Holland’s Child’s Play to Don Mancini’s 2017 film Cult of Chucky, the horror genre’s most famously devilish doll has lived a long and varied life. With their latest Devious Dialogues piece, Mike Thorn and A.M. (Anya) Novak look back at the series entries and provide their thoughts on the newest addition.

Anya: What’s the horror appeal with dolls? Everything from Annabelle (2014) to Puppetmaster (1989) to Dead Silence (2007) has been focused on creepy toy dolls with nasty intentions. Movies like Child’s Play (1988) seem to tap into a subconscious trauma in our collective psyche. Do you personally find dolls like Chucky to be unsettling?

Mike: Ooh, good question! Fundamentally, I think creepy dolls work on the fear of animating the inanimate, which upends our understanding of natural laws. They also tap into horror’s almost ubiquitous dealings with the uncanny (which, to grossly oversimplify, describes the familiar rendered strange); living dolls play on this idea in a number of ways, because they are vaguely human in appearance but assumed to lack human characteristics (most specifically, consciousness). There’s also the subversive idea of perverting or defiling the innocent — these kinds of horror movies work on our assumption that children’s toys should provide comfort and joy. These baseline fears are reconfigured in different ways by different films. I think the Chucky series is well-aware of all of these underlying anxieties, but it uses the possessed doll motif to various narrative and tension-building ends in all of its entries.

Anya: Writer-director Don Mancini returned to pen the second Chucky movie just two years after the original, this time dispensing with the setup of the antagonist and diving right into the bloodshed. Child’s Play 2 continues on the genre trajectory while the seeds of tongue-in-cheek camp began to germinate, sprouting future Child’s Play installments more satirical than straight horror. As far as sequels go, how did this one hold up for you?

Mike: I love Child’s Play 2, and have in fact grown to prefer it to Holland’s original (this isn’t intended as a slight against the first film, which I do think is quite good!). In comparison to Child’s Play’s grim and subdued style, director John Lafia’s approach to Child’s Play 2 reminds me of the great Joe Dante’s work. Lafia’s sensibility brings to mind Dante’s trademark visual energy; Child’s Play 2’s use of genre set-up to satirize capitalism aligns well with the critique underlying films like Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Small Soldiers (1998). I also love the dynamic between Andy Barclay and his babysitter Kyle — the film has such clear empathy for social outcasts, and it nicely establishes the franchise’s commitment to renegade attitudes.

Anya: Child’s Play 3 (1991) takes place eight years into the future (at the time) in 1998, with our beloved Andy now a teenage student at a military academy. Director Jack Bender is now known for directing some stellar episodes of Game of Thrones and Lost, but that talent is not enough to bring the third entry in the Child’s Play franchise out of mediocrity. This film is a lackluster rerun of the previous two narratives, with cringeworthy stereotypical characters and ho-hum kills. Mancini felt that the series was getting too repetitive (which is why another sequel wouldn’t be made for another seven years), and I have to agree with that sentiment. With that said, this is the film in which Chucky the Good Guy doll launches into full self-parody, delivering iconic one-liners and goofy kills with a Freddy Krueger-level of cheekiness. How does humor-heavy Chucky strike you, as opposed to the ruthless Chucky of the previous films?

Mike: I’m fine with humor-heavy Chucky, and I think there’s a lot of sardonic stuff in the two predecessors as well! While I would agree that Child’s Play 3 lacks the rest of the franchise’s consistent ingenuity, I think it still plays just fine as a location-specific slasher film. It’s probably my least favorite of the series, but that’s really just a testament to the other films’ consistently high quality.

Anya: With the financial success of Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996, a myriad of slasher films topped out the last decade of the 20th Century. Bride of Chucky was one such film, where Scream’s direct influence can be seen in a horror-referential scene at the police depository. By this point, young Andy Barclay is no longer the driving character of the narrative; Chucky is the box-office draw, and here, Chucky is the star of the show. What did you think about this decision to make the doll (and his sultry bride) the central focus of the story?

Mike: Most horror film buffs seem to vividly remember their own “gateway drug” genre movies. Bride of Chucky is mine. I am all for this film’s decision to play Chucky and Tiffany as a serial killer nu-Goth update of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I am also so onboard with director Ronny Yu’s distinctive visual style filtered through that milieu-specific, late-90s nu-metal aesthetic (complete with an opening credits sequence scored by Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl”). This is my favorite film of the franchise, no contest.

Anya: While Seed of Chucky (2004) is seen as the goofiest entry in the series, Mancini’s film contains some surprisingly layered themes. Jennifer Tilly’s plastic counterpart Tiffany treats her bloodlust as an unquenchable thirst, which invites the thematic exploration of addiction. The title character, dubbed Shitface, and his gender identity is the source of confusion to his parents, who are dismayed to find that he is not anatomically correct and has no doll genitalia (really). In a nod to Ed Wood’s tale of a transvestite in love, Shitface is given two new names: Glen or Glenda. I found this domestic family drama a pleasant surprise in such a self-deprecating B-horror movie. How did this film strike you?

Mike: I think Seed of Chucky is a wonderful movie, and its goofiness is intrinsic to what it’s saying and doing with both the characters and franchise! It’s an ideologically vexed film, and I wouldn’t personally attempt to parse out all the nuances of its gender depictions in this short of a response. But I’ve always felt that Glen/da is a lovable and empathetic character who the film treats with respect (even if its characters do not). As a wacked-out, campy-to-the-max, domestic horror-comedy about possessed dolls wherein the title character masturbates to Fangoria magazine and John Waters’ acid-corroded face is later the centerpiece of a father-child bonding moment, I think Seed of Chucky is most excellent. I realize that it is not for everyone, but I can’t help digging it.

Anya: In 2013, we got Curse of Chucky, nine years after its gender-dysphoric predecessor. This film offers some of the best cinematography and directing since the 1988 original. From the swirling opening credits to the entire Russian Roulette-esque poisoned dinner scene to the wonderfully gory kill scenes, cinematographer Michael Marshall and Mancini work in tandem to bring forth the most visually appealing film in the franchise. On top of that, Nica (Played by a stellar Fiona Dourif) is one of the most fortified protagonists I’ve seen in a recent horror film. For me, this is the only movie on par with the first Child’s Play film. Your thoughts?

Mike: Curse of Chucky is a smart way to bring the franchise back to protagonist-focused horror, and I agree with you about Dourif’s Nica — what a compelling and well-acted heroine. While my personal favorites are Bride of Chucky, Child’s Play 2 and Seed of Chucky, I am also a Curse of Chucky fan. To me, it works well as a pure Gothic Chucky film (familial deceit, resurrected repression, location as character, etc.), while also incorporating elements of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery. Having said that: there’s one flashback revealing Chucky’s pre-doll backstory that, while aligning with the narrative’s Gothic design, doesn’t work for me within the context of franchise-long character development. Otherwise, this is another solid and effective series reinvention.

Anya: The latest entry in the franchise, Cult of Chucky (2017), is a fun romp that tonally lies somewhere between the all-out campiness of Bride of Chucky and the serious menace of Curse of Chucky. Thematically, it’s a kindred spirit to the institutional paranoia of Child’s Play 2, complete with morally bankrupt psych professionals and murky treatment ethics. Mancini’s recent work on the hit show Hannibal is evident in Cult of Chucky’s foreboding professional setting and its focus on mental coercion and manipulation, but the film can’t quite decide whether it wants to be brutal tongue-in-cheek or serious horror. During your viewing of Cult of Chucky, did the film feel indecisive to you?

Mike: I enjoyed watching it, and I was especially into its third act carnage and identity-blurring mayhem. But now that you mention it, you’ve definitely described something about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It does feel very much like it’s situated between the sensibilities of Seed of Chucky and Curse of Chucky, but I wonder if that’s by deliberate design. This is the third in Mancini’s directorial sequence, so I suspect that Cult of Chucky is maybe his way of unifying the two tonally distinct predecessors. Who knows? I’ve only seen it once, whereas I’ve watched all of the preceding entries multiple times (in case you haven’t guessed it, I’m a huge Chucky fan). So, I agree with you about this one after a first viewing, but maybe I’ll have a different interpretation once I’ve gone back and re-watched it. In any event, I don’t think it breaks the franchise’s streak of consistently solid horror cinema. It’s puzzling, but it’s good.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.

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