Reviewing a Cult Franchise – Child’s Play (1988)

By the mid to late 80’s (the slasher decade), horror fans had been bombarded with sequel after sequel of horror franchises with villains that had turned into anti-heroes. Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger were consistently at the top of the box office and raking in all the money. But in 1988, horror audiences were introduced to something a little bit different. It seemed like a slasher movie just like any other but the big twist this time around was that the killer was not a silent, machete wielding psycho or a nightmare man… but a child’s toy. This first movie would spawn a franchise that had continued for 29 years without being remade. It’s still written by the same man, Don Mancini and the same cast have stuck with these films for nearly three decades. If that’s not wonderful to see, I don’t know what is.

These films are brilliant in their own way but just like any other franchise, some films are better than others. For now though, we’ll start where it’s most sensible to start… at the beginning. I’m pretty sure most of you reading this will have seen the first Child’s Play but just as a refresher, here’s some plot.

The first Child’s Play starts out with notorious serial killer, Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) or ‘Chucky’ as he is known to his friends, being fatally shot by Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). Before dying, Chucky recites a chant and passes his soul into a ‘Good Guy’ doll.

Meanwhile, single mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks) is celebrating her son, Andy’s (Alex Vincent) birthday. He’s disappointed when he doesn’t get a Good Guy doll because Karen didn’t have enough time to save up for it. Later on, she dips out of work with her friend, Maggie (Dinah Manoff) to buy a Good Guy doll dirt cheap from a peddler around the back of her building. No doubt, Andy is pleasantly surprised by his present.

Later that night, Maggie is babysitting Andy when she is attacked by an unknown assailant and falls through a window to her death. Detective Mike Norris appears on the scene and is skeptical of Andy’s claims about the doll, Chucky, being alive and talking to him. After the murder of Eddie Caputo (Neil Guintoli), Chucky’s former accomplice, Andy is taken away and placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Both Karen and Detective Norris discover that Andy isn’t lying and Chucky is alive. They find John Bishop (Raymond Oliver) who is the man who taught Chucky voodoo. He is dying after being attacked by Chucky but reveals that even though Chucky is now in the body of a doll, he is slowly becoming human and vulnerable. Chucky needs Andy to transfer his soul into because Andy is the first person that he revealed his true identity to.

Little do they know that Andy has escaped the hospital and has been incapacitated by Chucky. The ritual has begun and it’s a race against time for the pair to get to Andy before the chant can be completed. From this point on, the final showdown begins.

Child’s play as we see it today is quite different from the original script. Don Mancini’s original draft had the story being more of a psychological thriller than a straight up horror film. The original title for the screenplay was ‘Batteries Not Included’ but was changed after it was discovered that Steven Spielberg was producing a film of the same name that was released in 1987. The title was then changed to ‘Blood Buddy’. This was before the script had been changed to what it is today.

Originally, Mancini’s vision was to write a dark satire of the effects of advertising on children. The dolls produced had fake blood inside them so if the dolls were roughed up, the skin would tear and they would bleed. Special plasters would have to be bought, making more money for the company. As some kind of bond of eternal friendship, Andy cuts his thumb and the dolls thumb, rubs them together and once the blood was mixed, the doll would come to life. The idea was that Andy had a lot of repressed anger. His father is gone, he and his mother were living on the breadline and the doll would be a manifestation of his anger. In turn, the doll would end up killing all of Andy’s enemies, starting with Maggie. Another scene that was not shot was the murder of a teacher which would subsequently be used in Child’s Play 2 (1990).

After the script was sold, it was generally felt that the story should have a clear division between good and evil so the notion of Charles Lee Ray and the voodoo aspect was written into the film.

The 80’s was a significant for the film industry what with the advancements in CGI but what affected Child’s Play in a big way was the advancements in animatronics after films such as ‘Gremlins (1984)’ lauded such technology. Such abilities gave the film makers a chance to give Chucky the doll a physical presence in the film.

Along with a doll that was operated with up nine puppeteers, another technique was used. Even though the doll does look great on film, the doll was limited in it’s motion. With the doll’s limitations taken into account, an actor was cast for all the shots that required Chucky to be a little more mobile. The actor was Ed Gale whose most prominent role before hand was as ‘Howard’ in the 1986 cult classic, ‘Howard the Duck’. Ed Gale was 10 inches taller than the ‘Chucky’ puppet or around 30% taller, whichever way you want to look at it. To achieve the look that Gale was Chucky’s size, the sets used for all of Gale’s shots were 30% bigger. Gale also never performed with any of the other cast. Every shot filmed with the ‘Chucky’ puppet was duplicated with Gale assuming the role and the shots were mixed together in post-production.

In my opinion, the greatest strength in the script is the art of misdirection. It seems that the film should be focused on Andy and Chucky but the plot largely revolves around Karen and Detective Norris. For the first half of the film, we never hear the doll speak except for the prerecorded lines in the cute doll voice until the grand revelation and the freakiest scene in the whole film. When Andy is taken to the psychiatric hospital, Karen returns home with Chucky. She’s about to throw away the box that Chucky came in when the batteries fall onto the floor. Up until that point, the audience (myself included) were under the assumption that the doll had batteries because it was moving about and talking but that moment is a classic piece of misdirection and so effective at the same time.

What I like about the script is that there is a clear objective. Chucky has a clear motive i.e killing all the people who have wronged him, starting with Eddie Caputo who drove away at the start, leaving Charles Lee Ray for the police. Then there’s Detective Norris, the man who killed Charles Lee Ray and doesn’t believe Andy or Karen when they tell him that Chucky is alive and inside of a doll. His mind is quite rapidly changed when Chucky attacks him and he sees it for himself. Chucky also kills John Bishop after he wouldn’t help him. The next objective becomes transferring his soul into Andy.

The climax of the film comes when Chucky is interrupted in his chant to transfer his soul by Karen and Detective Norris. After numerous attempts to stop Chucky including setting him on fire, shooting his head off and filling his body with bullets, Chucky still comes back. After attacking Norris’ partner, Jack Santos (Tommy Swerdlow), Karen tells Norris to shoot Chucky in the heart which seems to work. After Karen and Santos get up to take Norris to the hospital, the last shot of the film is Andy looking back at Chucky’s burned, dismembered body. Then credits.

There are some minor continuity errors that take a keen eye to spot such as when a burned Chucky is slowly approaching upon Karen and Andy. In one shot, she has both hands on the gun then Chucky’s head comes off. The next shot has her right hand on Andy’s shoulder. Chucky is still coming and in the next shot, Karen’s hand is back on the gun as if it never left. The guns in this movie also have the usual trait in which they don’t need to be re-loaded. Detective Norris’ leg wound also gains another stab wound that wasn’t shown. Chucky does cut Detective Norris in his lower leg but when Santos shows up, he rings for an ambulance saying there is a cop down with ‘multiple stab wounds’. Karen also bandages his thigh when the wound was to his lower leg.

With a budget of $9 Million, ‘Child’s Play’ opened at #1 initially taking in $6.5 Million in it’s opening weekend. Child’s Play domestically made $33.2 Million and with another $10.9 Million from overseas, the made a grand total of $44.1 Million. On top of that, the film was met with positive critical reviews, the general consensus being that the film was ‘clever’ and ‘scary’. The film is both of these things and also the special effects were praised.

Overall, I would say that ‘Child’s Play’ is a unique vision from a talented young writer that was executed with sufficient finesse that it heralded the start of a franchise that would take horror to the next level. 29 years and 6 sequels later, there is still an audience that returns every time but it all started with ‘Child’s Play (1988)’.

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