**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Fiona Dourif, Danielle Bisutti, Maitland McConnell, Brad Dourif
written and directed by Don Mancini
by Bryant Frazer Say what you will about the Child's Play movies, but don't accuse franchise creator Don Mancini of being a hack. Sure, his Chucky, a walking-and-talking "Good Guy doll" possessed by the soul of a serial killer, is a steal. Nothing original about it. Chucky is a foul-mouthed iteration of creepy Toys "R" Us killers from any number of horror films--most of them dating to Cavalcanti's famous segment from 1945's Dead of Night, though another key influence was the notoriously pants-wetting 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, with its murderous Zuni fetish doll sharing the screen with a terrified Karen Black. But something about Mancini's formulation clicked with Fright Night director Tom Holland, and the 1988 Child's Play, which detailed Chucky's origin story and pitted him against a young boy, was a low-budget success that naturally demanded sequels. Mancini remained on board as screenwriter as two more directors took on two more Child's Play entries. After 1991's Child's Play 3, the character seemed played-out, but Mancini successfully resurrected him with the tongue-in-cheek Bride of Chucky, which brought Jennifer Tilly into the fold along with director Ronny Yu, and Mancini finally took the directorial reins himself with the even more broadly comic Seed of Chucky, which numbered Britney Spears and Martha Stewart among its victims.
You could say Mancini's focus on Chucky demonstrates a lack of ambition, or you could credit him with a surpassing level of commitment to his freckled spawn. Colour me impressed that writer-director Mancini's new Curse of Chucky dials back the self-aware comedy and instead mounts a credibly old-fashioned Old Dark House story (with gory kill scenes). This is no snarky, post-modern romp, nor is it a reboot in the commonly-accepted sense; rather, it's a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller in its own right. Watching it alone in the dark in my living room, I jumped a few times, laughed out loud, even had a smile on my face for long stretches. Anyone sliding a Chucky movie into the Blu-ray player has a good idea of what they're going to get, and it's hard to imagine this will disappoint--especially the insane cavalcade of contradictory climaxes, each one topping its predecessor in chutzpah.
Only two collaborators have come anywhere near matching Mancini's degree of Chucky-focus. David Kirschner, credited with creating the actual animatronic doll from the first film, has produced each instalment. And Brad Dourif has voiced Chucky for six films running. His daughter, Fiona Dourif, is the lead in this one, playing the paraplegic Nica, who lives with her mother in an expansive but isolated three-story house somewhere in the woods. Curse of Chucky opens as a special delivery is made--large box, no return address, contents: Chucky. Mom sensibly bins the red-headed stranger, but before the night is through (hell, before the credits have rolled), Chucky is back in the house and Ma is sprawled in a spreading puddle of blood in the living room. Once the police have cleared the body, cue the arrival of family, in this case sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti), her magazine-editor-turned-Starbucks-barista husband Ian (Brennan Elliott), and their daughter, Alice (8-year-old Summer Howell). Also on hand are their live-in nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell) and taciturn priest Father Frank (A Martinez).
Naturally, Chucky spends the movie working his way through the cast. Before dinner is served, he manages to spike one of six identical bowls of chilli with rat poison. The shot of Chucky's tiny hand reaching up to sprinkle poison granules into a dish is funny enough on its own, but Mancini turns the rest of the scene into a suspense set-piece, going so far as to mount the camera overhead and rotate it so that the round dinner table seems to be turning, like the wheel of fate, as the guests choose their seats. Mancini does that kind of thing repeatedly, and it's pretty effective shtick—he'll deflate the tension by letting his audience titter at a glimpse of Chucky in the corner of the frame, scurrying into mischief. Moments later, the hammer will come down in a sharp burst of Fulci-grisly violence.
Mancini figures out other ways to expand his low-budget horizons. First off, he's lucky to have Fiona Dourif. Though her casting smacks of gimmick and nepotism, it’s redeemed. Her performance is right on target. She carries off the requisite screaming and crying as well as the bad-ass Final Girl routine, all without the use of her legs. The script is helpful in sketching her character (I liked the scene early on where Mancini contrasts her visit to a Travel Europe website with the reality of her life in that wheelchair in that house with that controlling mother), and Dourif is notably fine in the role. The rest of the cast has fun playing within type (the shrew, the hot chick, the dreamboat dad), while the elder Dourif shows up to complete the circle, so to speak, in a flashback that essentially stops the film dead. It's probably something you'd have to care about the franchise for its own sake to appreciate, and I don't.
The picture gets a little added pizzazz from its practical effects work. Although I'd expect a direct-to-video Chucky movie made in 2013 to feature all CG all the time, Mancini defies the rush to computer animation by using old-fashioned puppets (designed by FX pro Tony Gardner) for the great majority of Chucky's screentime. There's a CG arm here and an animated eye-roll there, and stuntwoman Deborah Lee Carrington doubles him in a few shots, yet Chucky the doll is mostly a physical presence on set, and it shows. Way less impressive, for my money, is the ever-present CG gore, but that ship has sailed: Adding the red stuff in post rather than dealing with stage blood on set saves so much time and aggravation that it's considered the only responsible choice these days.
Cinematographer Michael Marshall was likely hired because he's a veteran of the shoestring horror-sequel scene (his credits include Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning and Wrong Turn 4), but Curse of Chucky has also inherited some of the weird green glow that infused Marshall's very first film as a DP, Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. I mean to say that it looks good, although the slickness of the digital photography lends it a gloss I'm not sure is entirely appropriate for horror. Mancini and Marshall get off a few split-dioptre shots--though their film doesn’t really benefit from inviting De Palma comparisons, homage is a genre pastime. And the camera spends much of its time photographing the inside of the house from lowish angles that represent Nica's view of the world from her wheelchair. That means ceilings are occasionally visible in the frame, helping to give the house a fairly genuine, lived-in feel. Moreover, the capacious set design is emphasized by repeatedly employing those crane shots where the camera is suspended overhead, pointing down, capturing a god's-eye view of the action.
Speaking of Whom, God receives several mentions in Curse of Chucky. In what may be my favourite scene (oh, I laughed and laughed), Alice, who's been spending time with Chucky, reveals to her stunned mom that there is no God. Oh, what a practical joke! Chucky is a serial killer and thus an asshole, but he's also a prankster. Poison in the porridge is his idea of a good time, but better still is ruining somebody's childhood by introducing them, early, to the disillusionment that faces adults. Curse of Chucky is an effective horror movie partly because it sticks to a certain set of meat-and-potatoes genre conventions, but also because it takes the emotional lives of its characters seriously, at least on a superficial level. Chucky, a children's plaything with an adult's sensibility, gets a kick out of watching you realize the emotional and spiritual comforts you took for granted once upon a time are being stripped away. What Curse of Chucky is about is the same thing a lot of horror is about: that sinking feeling you get when you run out of things to believe in, and the physical and emotional reserves you have to draw on just to keep your fool head above water. Which is to say, it's less sociopathic than it pretends to be.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Curse of Chucky was shot digitally with the ARRI Alexa camera, and the HD master for Universal's Blu-ray was no doubt delivered straight from post-production, so there's no need to worry about how well it represents the film. Basically, it is the "film," as close as a BD can reproduce it, and it looks pretty great. Bright light sources positively glow, and though some spots are blasted-out (even the candlelit dinner is just shy of overexposure), the results often feel more chilly and distancing than warming. There aren't many bright scenes, granted, since the bulk of the story takes place after dark; the nighttime image has a remarkably varied colour palette and a dynamic range that allows us to peer deep into the shadows. While the grainless texture of digital cinematography can be distracting, I got used to it quickly--and a few shots do have a layer of grain (presumably digital sensor noise) that isn't at all unpleasant. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is fine, if unremarkable. The thunderstorm perpetually raging outside and the aggressive score by Joseph LoDuca (The Evil Dead) will give a workout to your subwoofers and your surrounds, respectively.
The package contains Blu-ray and DVD options along with Ultraviolet and Digital Copies. The Blu-ray and DVD feature both R-rated and unrated versions, encoded on the discs using seamless-branching technology. I'm not sure why a direct-to-video title required an R-rated cut at all, let alone why it was included on this release. At any rate, the difference between the two amounts to a few seconds of gore in addition to a post-credits vignette. The unrated version is superior, of course, since gore is part of the point of a movie like Curse of Chucky, but I'm ambivalent about a stinger that amounts to fan service and doesn't even follow from the ending of the movie proper. Presumably all will be explained in Return of the Curse of Chucky.
As usual, the director's commentary is my go-to feature on any movie I enjoyed enough to want to watch more than once, and Don Mancini shares soundbooth duty on this one with actress Fiona Dourif and Chucky puppeteer Tony Gardner. All three come off as genuinely nice, down-to-earth craftspeople, and Mancini seems to speak fairly candidly about the challenges of making a 2013 horror picture on a $5 million budget with a 30-day shoot. He lavishes an awful lot of praise on Dourif, which is fine, and he reveals that rights to the Child's Play characters were enough of a "legal nightmare" to make a reboot impossible, though a sequel was easily doable. My favourite moments are when he reveals that the studio really does sweat the small stuff, even on cheap creepshows like this. He remembers the suits disliking the shade of green that DP Michael Marshall chose for the moonlight, asking that it be dialled down in the digital intermediate, and recalls a fight that he had with them over how visible Dourif's face should be during a scene where the house is plunged into darkness. Mancini wanted her features to be invisible in the shot; the studio wanted her face to be lightened up. The studio won, and if you observe the shot in question, I think you can see some of the unpleasant artifacts that materialize when a digital camera image is pushed too far in post. Also, Mancini is not afraid to ask the key question: "Is it wrong to hear the sound of a little girl peeing?"
More features? Yeah, we got ‘em.
"Storyboard Comparisons" (25 mins., HD)
A tremendous amount of Blu-ray running time is devoted to a presentation of storyboards for a quartet of the film's key sequences. These may be of special interest to budding directors, who can take some solace in the fact that their own storyboard art could hardly be much worse than Mancini's chicken scratches, but otherwise they serve mainly to show how slavishly a low-budget horror movie adheres to its boards, out of sheer necessity. Two of the sequences get juiced up a little bit as storyboard artists Nicholas Burns and Anson Jew provide prettier drawings to replace Mancini's crude sketchwork, but the moral of the story is definitely that if you want to shoot cheap, you gotta plan ahead.
"Playing with Dolls: The Making of Curse of Chucky" (16 mins., HD)
"Fans really want Chucky to be scary again," says Mancini in a soundbite at the very beginning of this EPK fodder anchored by interviews with cast and crew. Mancini is described by actors as "serious" and "gentle" as a lead-in to a quick montage of violent kills from the earlier films. There are no rough edges here, just a lot of "Fiona is awesome" and "I've learned so much from Danielle [Bisutti]" and "Maitland got a kick out of being the T&A," etc. Did I mention that the house in Curse of Chucky is almost like a separate character? The behind-the-scenes footage of the makeup-effects team at work is jolly good, queasy-making fun. Though it's nothing new, it is impressive how well these prosthetics hold up under the unforgiving gaze of a HiDef video camera.
"Living Doll: Bringing Chucky to Life" (9 mins., HD)
Mancini and Gardner talk improvements in puppeteering technology in this Blu-ray only featurette showing different iterations of Chucky, dating all the way back to the original model made for the first film. The conversation turns to the challenge of fabricating duplicates of Chucky's clothes, with contributions from knitter Adelle Burda, who hand-wove each of Chucky's sweaters. (One sweater takes a week.) "We've learned a lot about clothing construction for very small people," says Gardner. We also get tastes of stuntwoman Debbie Carrington at work and Brad Dourif recording his vocal performance, while a bit of B-roll captures the small army of puppeteers working in unison to get Chucky's moves right. "Chucky gets 14 takes," jokes Bisutti.
"Voodoo Doll: The Chucky Legacy" (7 mins., HD)
Another Blu-ray exclusive offers more of the same talking-head interviews, plus clips. Mancini describes his original concept as a critique of marketing to children, specifically the heavily-advertised Cabbage Patch Kids, and from there the short looks at the character's reuse and reinvention in different styles over the years. There's also a cavalcade of famous personalities--Katherine Heigl! John Ritter! John Waters!--who've acted in the series. Jennifer Tilly calls the pregnancy from Bride of Chucky a "morality story" on the dangers of unprotected sex.
"Deleted Scenes" (6 mins., HD)
The most interesting of these six short, inconsequential scenes--which all look fine but appear here without final correction-correction or sound-mixing--is the one showing Nica in bed in the morning, struggling a little to pull her clothes on. On the feature commentary track, Mancini describes more scenes in a similar vein from the script (such as one with Nica bathing in a shower chair that's seen briefly in the film), but says they were never shot due to scheduling constraints. For sheer grisly spectacle, another elision includes a quick shot of a character's body bursting into flames.
"Gag Reel" (1 min., HD)
This is pretty mild stuff. Apparently the breakneck pace of photography didn't leave a whole lot of time for clowning around.
When you load the disc, you're greeted by the usual crap. Shamefully, there's an actual commercial here for awkwardly-named Internet services, followed by a plug for the Hollywood-sanctioned Ultraviolet "movies in the cloud" system. Trailers load dynamically, so you can never be sure what you'll get, but already encoded on the disc are noisy, strobe-y previews for latter-day shockers, including Silent House, Dead in Tombstone, Mama, Machete Kills, The Strangers, The Unborn, Dream House, My Soul to Take, The Fourth Kind, and The Purge, plus the 2013 "Bates Motel" TV series and a theme-park attraction called Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights.