DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
BD - Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini and John Lafia and Tom Holland
directed by Tom Holland
CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990)
**/**** Image C+ Sound A-
starring Alex Vincent, Jenny Agutter, Gerrit Graham, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by John Lafia
CHILD'S PLAY 3 (1991)
*/**** Image B- Sound A-
starring Justin Whalin, Perrey Reeves, Jeremy Sylvers, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by Jack Bender
BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998)
**/**** Image B Sound B Extras C
starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by Ronny Yu
SEED OF CHUCKY (2004)
*/**** Image A- Sound B Extras C-
starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Redman
written and directed by Don Mancini
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Twenty years and four sequels later, it's obviously pointless to try to conceal that Child's Play is about a serial killer (Brad Dourif) who transfers his soul into an innocuous doll, but watching it today--more than a decade after it thoroughly traumatized me as an impressionable preteen--I was surprised to learn that the film itself didn't do much to hide that fact from the start. Oh, sure, when you first approach Child's Play, you're ostensibly supposed to wonder whether little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) is responsible for the murders peppered throughout, despite his loud protestations that Chucky did it. But no, it never really tries to pretend that these horrible acts are being committed by anyone other than that godawful doll. In taking that perspective, Child's Play preys upon the irrational fears we all harbour--that sting of dread we get at the sight of an unintentionally unsettling toy, immediately wished away by safe, immutable reason: that's impossible--a doll can't hurt you.
Co-writer Don Mancini has stated that Child's Play was born of his desire to satirize the childhood consumerism attendant to the Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon in his own "Good Guys," but with that the film locates an even deeper sense of adult cynicism directed at the world of a child, which we placate until it becomes tiresome--a world full of imaginary friends and other magical concepts that (ha!) don't really exist. Yet there's still an iota of doubt there, one based on our own experiences; the film interprets our condescending disdain towards children as us channelling the traumas that have stuck around since our childhood into a new generation. It's a little soul transference of its own, isn't it? (If we ever do suspect that Andy is the killer, it's not because we don't believe that this film contains a killer doll, but because that option is almost too disturbing to contemplate.) With all of this in mind, Child's Play is the perfect outlet for a purely technical horror film. Ebert called it "a good example of [the] False Alarm movie," meaning the brief moment of relief before the killer strikes--but what this statement ignores is that, through this approach, the film also forces you to rethink your own personal definitions of safety and danger. A doll can't hurt you, right? So why do we suffer the false alarms at all?
Though Child's Play is already severely undermined by one-note performances from Catherine Hicks (as Andy's mother) and Chris Sarandon (as the cop who took the killer out in the first place), it's also surprising to discover how Dourif's presence prevents the film from becoming a real classic of the horror genre. Perhaps that's a bit misleading--Dourif is an absolute delight in the role, but the truth is that no actor can to take the place of that static doll, so intrinsically sinister that anything more "human" was only bound to distract from his frightening mystique. After all these years, the moment where Chucky spins his head around to recite a threatening version of the toy's catchphrase still sends a chill up my spine; conversely, seeing him fully-animate forces me to admire Dourif's performance and the work of the puppeteers, yet the results are not exactly creepy. Perhaps you could attribute that to Chucky's currently unavoidable position as a cultural icon, but more than that, I think, is the fact that Child's Play gives up trying to challenge its audience when it pulls out all the stops--these scenes don't work because they turn the irrational and back into the rational. Once we realize precisely how he works, Chucky isn't nearly as frightening. It's like trying to explain Michael Myers with Druids.
However, Child's Play successfully pulls the rug out from underneath us at film's end, once Andy sets Chucky ablaze in a fireplace only to see him return as a twisted, smoking husk wielding a knife. As it slowly approaches its quarry, absorbing bullets and losing limbs, it manages to be more unsettling than the unkillable ghosts and zombies that typically populate supernatural slasher flicks. Any sense of internal logic goes out the window because this hunk of plastic isn't playing by the rules. It shouldn't be this difficult to destroy something so innocuous. Chucky's final death rattle--his adult voice reverting to its kiddie recording before fading into oblivion--haunted me for a long, long time as a kid, and it's only now that I realize it's because it throws the burden of fear back into the viewer's mind. With the doll having slowly returned to an inanimate state and logic officially reinstated, you start to wonder if any of this actually happened. (A skeptical cop has no choice but to believe after having Chucky's hand wrapped around his throat, but eventually he concludes, with no shortage of incredulity, "Yeah, but who's gonna believe me?") We haven't learned anything from the experience, and it's ultimately the lifeless doll who wins, forever regarded with irrational suspicion. Child's Play can be a real mindbender if you give it a chance--and, all things considered, it may have been the first film that prompted me to look introspectively to understand why horror films touched such a nerve. It's just too bad that the film's raison d'être required such an expository third act.
The same issues carry over from the very beginning of the immediate sequel: Because Dourif's personality must be thrust to the forefront, Chucky loses all potential to disturb. No longer capable of personifying that which we ascribe to creepy playthings, he's nothing more than a profane, murderous dwarf made out of plastic. Child's Play 2 retains most of the same talent from the original (co-writer John Lafia takes over the director's chair), and while you can't deny that they give it the old college try, you also can't ignore that the whole idea was doomed from the start. In an effort to deflect bad publicity, the toy company responsible for the Good Guys line manages to get its hands on the original doll and rebuilds it from scratch to prove that nothing was wrong with it--which only serves to bring Chucky back to life. The film attempts to make a misunderstood Dickensian hero out of Andy (Vincent again), who has been placed in the care of awful foster parents (Jenny Agutter and Gerrit Graham, the latter better known for playing another awful foster parent--Jay Sherman's kooky old man Franklin--on "The Critic"). Unfortunately, as Andy struggles to convince the adults that Chucky is out to get him again, Child's Play 2 misinterprets the question of logical disbelief in its predecessor as a simple remake of One Froggy Evening.
That said, the picture's worst sin is that it doesn't lay it on thick enough where it counts. Lafia intriguingly employs childhood iconography in the more troubling moments (Chucky destroys another Good Guy doll and buries it beneath a swing set, and he commits a brutal murder with a plastic ruler in a kindergarten classroom), so when the film's final set-piece takes place in the actual Good Guys factory, filled with countless clones of that godawful doll, you'd expect there to be some appropriately traumatic imagery backing everything up. But even as Chucky fails to reclaim his second childhood and regresses into a nihilistic rampage punctuated by moments of self-mutilation, no one can think of anything interesting to do with the setting beyond turning it into a simple obstacle course. By the time Chucky finally receives his eye-rolling comeuppance (done in like Live and Let Die's Kananga), the whole thing feels like one great big heap of wasted potential.
But however poorly executed they are, at least the film gives the impression that there are a few ideas floating around in its head--unlike the franchise's third go-round. Rushed into production, Child's Play 3 was released a scant nine months after 2 and ended up being so inoffensive to the senses that this in itself becomes offensive. Eight years after the factory massacre was swept under the rug (somehow?), the foolish dollmakers decide to resurrect the Good Guys line. Surprise, surprise, the first one off the assembly line is our dearly departed Chucky, who makes a beeline for Andy (Justin Whalin), now a disturbed teenager shipped off to military school. The idea of "Chucky in a military school" represents the sort of premise-relocation that horror franchises of the era would employ to stay fresh, but the truth of the matter is that Chucky isn't a strong enough character to shoulder the same "X in a Y" premise that the Friday the 13th series eventually fell back on. The particulars of the scenario should be familiar by now: someone finds the unassuming doll and roughs him up before the little bastard springs to life and teaches that person what-for. There's nothing else to Child's Play 3, not even with an adolescent Andy being revisited by his harrowing childhood; to call it unworthy of conversation would be the understatement of the year.
Child's Play 3 descends into puerile self-parody as Chucky introduces himself with a pseudo-catchphrase: "Don't fuck with the Chuck." Along those same lines you can pinpoint the problem with Mancini's post-Scream resurrection of his franchise, Bride of Chucky. After ten years of searching, Chucky's ex-paramour Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) finally gets her hands on Chucky's mutilated plastic corpse, stitches it back together, and resurrects the old boy for more mayhem. Alas, the couple disagrees on the future of their relationship, and several rounds of backstabbing later, Tiffany's soul ends up in a bridal-theme doll. She tricks her neighbour Jesse (Nick Stabile) into transporting them to New Jersey, where Chucky's human body is buried with a hitherto-unmentioned magical amulet. Jesse takes his fiancé Jade (a now-unrecognizable Katherine Heigl) along for the ride to escape the hellish captivity of her police chief uncle (John Ritter, who between this and a memorable guest spot on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" had a promising career as a villain ahead of him)--but with Tiffany and Chucky in tow, the trail of bodies they leave in their wake lead them to become media sensations in the Natural Born Killers mold.
If only director Ronny Yu could replicate the self-awareness of that Oliver Stone picture--or, moreover, the impossible cohesion he would later bring to Freddy vs. Jason. Although the latter film managed to locate the interconnected depth of two seemingly-unrelated horror icons (the sins of the father as an invasion of the mind pitted against the unrestrained id, crying out for Mommy), Bride of Chucky only acts as the final confirmation that, even when injected with po-mo humour, Chucky isn't too interesting a character on his own. Granted, horror is hardly on this film's mind: Tiffany encourages her beau to think outside the box when it comes to murder, and eventually, the movie's sense of humour relies not on the idea that these are murderous dolls, but simply that they are murderous entities. One subsequent act of violence is clearly inspired by Suspiria's famous stained-glass sequence, but the homage lacks Argento's ability to locate beauty in the terrifying and repulsive--and we're saddled with the expectation to laugh at the very notion of it. You can read it all as a comment on its own attempt to bring fresh material to the table for a sequel--to reinvent the concept itself as a twisted Bonnie and Clyde love story. Since the idea of a doll possessed by a serial killer is already fairly meta in the horror film canon, though, the whole approach comes across as masturbatory and just a wee bit sociopathic.
Unfortunately, Bride's follow-up takes its worst aspects and cranks them up to maximum volume. Mancini finally got to helm his own script with Seed of Chucky, and he takes the opportunity to craft a screaming piece of camp and a sloppy love letter to Old Hollywood--one that simultaneously serves as a hate-filled death threat to the new establishment. We kinda-sorta pick up where we left off, with a night of killer-doll sex (ho ho!) from the last film having resulted in androgynous demon-spawn Glen--or perhaps Glenda (Billy Boyd)--who has spent six years under the dominion of an unscrupulous British ventriloquist. Escaping to Hollywood, Glen or Glenda goes looking for his parents, who are now being used as props in Chucky Goes Psycho--a film based on the events of Bride of Chucky starring Jennifer Tilly, playing herself as a washed-up starfucker. Upon resurrection, Chucky and Tiffany must decide what's best for their sexually- and morally-conflicted offspring, all while tackling their "addiction" to murder.
So the fact that Tiffany and Chucky are killer dolls is now far beyond the point--they're nothing but snarky nostalgia pieces in exclusive service to homosexual allegories reconstituted from Mancini's favourite cinematic classics. Technically, Chucky does "go Psycho" in this film: Despite his Ed Wood-inspired name, Glen/Glenda is essentially Norman Bates, as raised by Tiffany and Chucky's Frankenstein and Pretorius. It is said that a horror director will cast you as a victim because he admires you--or, in this case, because he admires your hypothetical camp value--but I can't help but sense some rage in the targets Mancini chooses: Set loose in La-La Land, the doll family goes on to kill unworthy pop stars (a Britney Spears look-alike), icons of cinematic change (John Waters--himself much more talented with the whole camp thing--here playing a doomed paparazzo), and pretentious, unlikely filmmakers of the 21st century (rap artist Redman, standing in for Mel Gibson (!) as a scumbag director with a Biblical epic in the works). Who better to teach them the error of their ways than this monster of yesteryear? Although Jennifer Tilly is trapped in the middle of the plot as our delusional Norma Desmond, it's Mancini himself who plays that part: a cinematic Luddite, he's latching on to long-obsolete concepts with all his might, minus any perspective on the reality of the situation.
THE DVD - CHILD'S PLAY
MGM at last delivers Child's Play on DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen rendering to replace the crappy full-frame release that's been on the market for years now--and "Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition" certainly represents a considerable step up. The rather flat colours are pure 1988, but they give the film a pleasant rustic quality; I'm convinced that Child's Play looks as good as it possibly can. Dialogue is perhaps a touch too quiet on the DD 5.1 remix, but it pumps up the musical soundtrack to astounding ends. Not to be missed is the moment when Chucky's body bursts out of the wall as his disembodied head barks orders at it.
Extras abound in two menu screens' worth of "Special Features," the first showcasing the audio commentaries. Now 26 years old, Vincent shares a track alongside Hicks and Chucky's designer/operator Kevin Yagher. All three have plenty of insight to share about their roles on set but project a bored familiarity with the whole thing; Yagher and Hicks fell in love on the production and later married, so you have a feeling that they've been recounting these stories in close company for years now. It's also particularly noticeable in Vincent: While he characterizes the shoot as a great experience, his sullen tone of voice implies that he's had his fill of regurgitating the same anecdotes over and over again.
A second yakker contains a genial conversation with Mancini and series producer/Chucky creator David Kirschner. Kirschner tells amusing tales of working/clashing with the creative team and studio execs and remembers audience reactions during screenings (the original cut was apparently somewhere around a half-hour longer than the theatrical version, something completely unfathomable to me). For his part, Mancini annotates where the film diverts from his draft of the script--originally titled Batteries Not Included (and later Blood Buddy) and featuring a pullstring-operated doll named "Buddy" before the My Buddy doll appeared on the shelves--alternately expressing his pleasure and distaste at moments where co-writers Holland and Lafia took over. He also demonstrates an amazing attention to detail, which makes me believe that he might be a more effective director if he can unshackle himself from this franchise. Finally, Dourif lodges four instances of scene-specific commentary as Chucky, who describes his Hollywood experiences and talks about how awesome it feels it strangle someone. Once again, Dourif is a fantastic actor, and it's always a pleasure to hear his Chucky voice, but this more or less exemplifies everything wrong with the character's post-modern treatment.
The second supplementals menu links to the documentaries. "Evil Comes in Small Packages" is a 25-minute retrospective making-of complete with an option to watch its three sections separately: "The Birth of Chucky" expounds on Mancini's original vision of the story (a golem in service to Andy's id, brought to life by a blood-brother ritual) and how it evolved into its current form; "Creating the Horror" discusses casting and the shoot itself--including brief snippets of rehearsal footage of Dourif acting out Chucky's every move; and "Unleashed" describes the film's release and Chucky's ascent to cult stardom. There's nothing terribly surprising about anything here--and if you already listened to the commentaries, it may seem a tad redundant, though it packages the information in a much snappier way.
Moving on, "Chucky: Building a Nightmare" (10 mins.) starts as a profile of Yagher but primarily offers the intricate details on how the Chucky doll was created and operated. It's especially interesting to see all the Chucky heads placed on a table, charting the evolution of the character's design as the doll comes to resemble his human host. "A Monster Convention" (5 mins.) reunites Hicks, Vincent, and Sarandon for a panel discussion at Monster Mania 2007. The fanboy crowd lobs unsurprising questions at them that have already been asked and answered by the disc's other extras, so there's no real reason to watch it. Although it, too, is more or less redundant, you should give the vintage featurette "Introducing Chucky: The Making of Child's Play" (7 mins.) a quick look, if only to hear the kind of wonderfully melodramatic narration that, sadly, never survived past the promotional documentaries of the 1980s. The cockteasing theatrical trailer, a photo gallery largely comprised of publicity stills, and trailers for Mr. Brooks and Pathology appear to wrap up the disc proper. Search across the menus and select Chucky's eyes in each to locate a short demo of a reasonably well-produced CGI Chucky, voiced by Dourif. A hint, perhaps, at the technology to be utilized in Mancini's planned remake of the original film.
THE DVD - CHUCKY: THE KILLER DVD COLLECTION
Universal took over the franchise with Child's Play 2 and bundled all of its sequels last year as "Chucky: The Killer DVD Collection", an upgrade from their 2003 "Chucky Collection" in that it incorporates Seed of Chucky. The four films have been consolidated on two flipper discs--which, I'm fairly certain, are a simple repackaging of their original releases. Child's Play 2 and 3 occupy sides A and B of Disc One, respectively. Child's Play 2 practically chokes on a concentration of pastel yellow that is (either thankfully or regrettably) muted by a dull 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer plagued by print debris and electronic-processing besides. The film's histrionic score is meanwhile made somewhat less unbearable by a competently-mixed DD 2.0 Surround track. Child's Play 3's own audio is virtually identical, though the preponderance of music stings adds a hair more punch to the proceedings. Its 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer boasts similar specs, although it's slightly darker and duller (and thus grainier) than its predecessor. There are no extras for either film beyond the theatrical trailers for both.
Disc Two boasts Bride of Chucky on Side A, and this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is what led me to suspect that the transfers on this set were merely recycled: there's nothing offensive about it, but it's infected by a slight ghosting unique to DVDs circa 1998-99. The DD 5.1 audio is somewhat underwhelming in its handling of the music--problematic considering the many hard-rock interludes--but does just fine with dialogue. Yu submits an in-depth, if largely technically-minded commentary track while Mancini, Dourif, and Tilly can be found on another channel. I'm happy to know that the three of them share such a deep camaraderie, but if you're looking for something more substantial than Tilly's deep, husky laugh, you should probably set your sights elsewhere. Just don't look to "Spotlight on Location: The Making of Bride of Chucky" (10 mins.), your typical movie-channel puff piece that only briefly, accidentally stumbles upon the filmmakers' intentions.
Flip over to Side B for Seed of Chucky. The 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced image is perhaps a little too good--it's so sharp that it emphasizes the overall cheapness (not to mention the sitcommish patina) of the production. Accompanying DD 5.1 audio is nothing to write home about. Mancini and Tilly can be found on an alternate audio track that manages to reveal even less than their Bride of Chucky yakker; mostly they recount the adventures of filming a British co-production in Romania on a tight budget. I do love Mancini's excitement for the filmmaking process, but I wish he would have followed through with that parody of domestic drama he keeps harping on instead of the rambling diatribe against the entertainment industry he eventually made.
Other extras begin with "Conceiving Seed of Chucky" (18 mins.), another pedantic making-of doc that finds the cast and crew patting themselves on the back for being a part of something so gosh-darn irreverent. More interesting are the moments that focus on the design and operation of the puppets and the numerous people involved in that process; no matter how many times I see this stuff, it never ceases to fascinate me. (What can I say? I grew up on the Muppets.) "Tilly on 'The Tonight Show'" (2 mins.) is a reasonably amusing sketch wherein the actress writes to Jay Leno describing her difficulties in Romania, portrayed here as a Soviet-era hellhole. Finally, the "Family Hell-iday Slideshow" (3 mins.) closes the book on this incarnation of Chucky, as the family sits down to share their vacation slides of a cross-country tour--a fairly weak attempt at comedy that continues to extract awful punchlines from the idea that, gee, Chucky sure likes to kill people. Trailers for the two later films append their respective sides. Originally published: September 22, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - CHILD'S PLAY
by Bill Chambers The "20th Birthday" DVD of Child's Play has been peeled and stuck onto Blu-ray by MGM/FOX, but there are measurable improvements in video and, especially, unexpectedly, audio. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer looks comparatively fresh, the scrim of grain not producing the haze it seems to in standard-def. Colours are splashier and detail is more refined (things like perforated edges on the Good Guys box come into relief), although the film still exhibits a softness common to both its decade of origin and DP Bill Butler. Where this disc truly distinguishes itself--indeed, excels--is in its DTS-HD MA presentation of the 5.1 remix, which better balances the dialogue, beefs up the bottom end, and facilitates a more transparent soundstage: now Chucky skitters around the viewer in seamless pans instead of occasionally popping up like a whack-a-mole in the rear channels. It's a gratifyingly nerve-jangling track, and for an '80s movie, it's practically in a class by itself. A Digital Copy of Child's Play is included in the packaging, while a HiDef spot for the technology itself cues up on startup.
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