Child's Play

childs-play-rev Child’s Play  (1988)    UA/Horror-Thriller    RT: 87 minutes    Rated R (strong violence, language)    Director: Tom Holland    Screenplay: Don Mancini, John Lafia and Tom Holland    Music: Joe Renzetti    Cinematography: Bill Butler    Release date: November 9, 1988 (US)    Cast: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif, Dinah Manoff, Tommy Swerdlow, Jack Colvin, Neil Giuntoli, Juan Ramirez, Alan Wilder, Raymond Oliver.    Box Office: $33.2 million (US)/$44.1 million (World)

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 One year for Christmas, my then-three-year-old nephew got the My Buddy doll he’d been wanting. Once he was face-to-face with it, he was scared of it. When Child’s Play came out two years later, I (jokingly) proposed taking him to see it. Chucky the killer doll is almost a dead ringer for My Buddy. If you want to see for yourself, Google “My Buddy doll”. The resemblance is eerie.

 The idea of dolls coming to life and committing evil acts wasn’t new when Child’s Play hit theaters in November 1988. It was the subject of a Twilight Zone episode entitled “Living Doll” in the 60s. The low-budget shocker Dolls (an Empire Pictures production) beat Child’s Play to theaters by a year. Stories about killer dolls strike a nerve with most people because they exploit one of the greatest fears of childhood, that dolls are really alive and just waiting for the right moment to strike. Kids may not admit to it but you remember all the crazy, irrational thoughts that went through your head as you lay awake in a dark bedroom waiting for sleep to come. Director Tom Holland (Fright Night) brings that fear to life in Child’s Play, the first movie featuring Chucky.

childs-play-movie It literally starts with a boom. Chicago cop Mike Norris (Sarandon, Fright Night) has serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Dourif, The Exorcist III) cornered in a toy story. He’s been shot and is very close to death but don’t count him out yet. He’s a practitioner of voodoo and can transfer his soul into another body. Since there aren’t any people around, he puts his soul in a Good Guy doll. The ritual involves reciting an incantation that causes ominous clouds to gather in the sky and lightning to strike. This causes the store to explode. BOOM!

 Six-year-old Andy Barclay (Vincent) wants a Good Guy doll for his birthday but his widowed mother Karen (Hicks, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) can’t afford the $100 price tag. She ends up buying one (at a substantial discount) from a peddler in an alley behind the department store where she works. The doll calls himself “Chucky”. Andy starts behaving strangely almost immediately. That very night, Karen’s best friend Maggie (Manoff, Grease) gets bludgeoned with a toy hammer and thrown out the window a few stories up. Nobody believes Andy’s claims that his doll is responsible. Norris, the lead detective on the case, is convinced Andy did it. The boy also becomes a suspect in the murder of Ray’s accomplice who left him behind to be killed by Norris in the opening sequence.

 Nobody ever believes kids, that’s another idea used to good effect in Child’s Play. Andy claims that Chucky talks, walks and does terrible things. Mom tells him to stop making up stories. The cops wring their hands in frustration. A psychiatrist orders the boy be placed in a mental institution for observation. It isn’t until Karen discovers that the doll’s batteries were never inserted that she starts to think there may be something to her son’s story. When Chucky comes to life and attacks her, that clinches it. The next hurdle is getting people to believe her.

 Child’s Play is a good slam-bang B-level horror flick that’s more clever than most of its ilk. It has a few solid jump-scares. For a while, it keeps you guessing whether or not the whole Chucky-is-really-alive thing is all in Andy’s head. Is the kid losing his mind? It isn’t until midway through that this question is definitively answered. Then Child’s Play becomes a dark comedy of sorts. Let’s face it, there’s something funny about a three-foot doll running around, swearing like a truck driver and killing people. It detracts from the idea of a six-year-old in deadly peril. For reasons spelled out by Ray’s voodoo teacher (Oliver, Forbidden World), he has to transfer his soul into the body of the first person he revealed his secret to and has to do it before Chucky becomes completely human. If not, he’ll remain a doll forever. Of course, Andy will die in the process. We can’t have that, can we?

 Child’s Play is a fairly slick production. The puppet effects used to give Chucky life are very good. It has a couple of cool kill scenes. Somebody gets fried by an electroshock therapy machine. The voodoo teacher’s demise is also quite gruesome. The acting is pretty good all-around. Dourif is awesome as Charles Lee Ray and the voice of Chucky. Then again, he’s usually awesome. Nobody plays a murderous creep like Dourif. Young Alex Vincent does well in his first acting role ever. He doesn’t overdo the cute kid thing; he’s never cloying or especially annoying. Hicks is good as the increasingly frantic and frightened mother. Sarandon more than holds his own as the baffled cop faced with an unusual case.

 Child’s Play moves at a nice clip. The screenplay is well-written. It’s campy at times but that’s one of the things that makes it so good. The final shot of an open door is probably one of the most telling final shots ever seen in a horror flick. Holland makes great use of genre conventions- e.g. the False Alarm scare- without ever making Child’s Play feel derivative. For a B-movie, it’s particularly well-made. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. It’s one of most enjoyable horror flicks of the 80s. 

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