Remember That Movie: Child's Play

It’s well-known that the 1980s was a conflicting decade of excess and trickle-down Reaganomics. Those who had it bad had it really bad while the lucky of us thrived. It was also the period where the Saturday morning cartoon and other product-based children shows exploded. There were many that were based on a movie (from Beetlejuice to The Real Ghostbusters) or centered around a celebrity (including Camp Candy, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, The Gary Coleman Show, and Mister T). Yet it seems almost every show was either based around or had a complementary toy; shows like Care Bears, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ThunderCats, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Challenge of the Go-Bots… I could go on.

But the oddest breed of all was probably the kids show that served as advertisement of a doll. My Pet Monster, Teddy Ruxpin, Barbie and the Rockers… I even remember the My Buddy and Kid Sister doll commercials with their unforgettable jingles.

The 1988 film Child’s Play is a horror film that seems to initially be envisioned as a ruthless commentary on these shows and the parents who’d do anything to get their tantrum-prone children one of these most begged-for and commercially-pushed playthings.

In case you don’t remember, Child’s Play begins with a criminal (Brad Dourif) who, when cornered in a toy store after hours, transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll. See the irony? Meanwhile, Andy Barclay, played so convincingly by Alex Vincent that you’d think he walked away from the set with his share of emotional scars, is a boy who is so enamored with Good Guy that he watches the children’s show, dumps its sugary cereal into his breakfast bowl, and seems to never change out of the Good Guy outfit. He’s also apparently a bit spoiled by his single mother (Catherine Hicks) as evidenced by his pouting over every gift that isn’t exactly what he wanted on his sixth birthday.

Ladies and gentleman, we give you the typical eighties child!

Well, Ms. Karen Barclay happens to have a pal in Maggie Peterson (Dinah Manoff of NBC’s Empty Nest), who unfortunately never had a bright idea in her life. Maggie tips Karen to a bum in an alley behind the department store where they work who is willing to sell a Good Guy doll to any parent desperate and foolish enough to buy a doll from a bum in an alley. Of course, we all know that particular doll is the one possessed by the criminal at the start of the film, so once Andy is given “Chucky”, as the doll calls itself, people soon start dying.

Child’s Play feels a bit half-baked, with more going against it than its good ideas. There’s a well-paced thriller about consumerism hidden in Child’s Play that unfortunately never gets to break out of its package. Director Tom Holland, who directed Fright Night and Fatal Beauty beforehand and then went on to direct two Stephen King adaptations (The Langoliers and Thinner), said he wanted to take Don Mancini’s killer doll creation and turn it into a whodunit with more legitimate scrutiny turned on Andy than what resulted. Unfortunately, what resulted was a movie about adults who lack any sense and whose refusal to listen to a six year old even when they’re trying to get answers from him leads to more attacks.

The Good Guy doll (intended as a stand-in for the Cabbage Patch Kids) is quite creepy as is and knowing that there’s a criminal’s soul inside effectively adds to the tension. However, there are two problems with the movie jumping immediately to the pursuit of this criminal by Chris Sarandon’s (he of Princess Bride fame) detective.

1) We don’t know what we’re dealing with. Is he just a petty thief? A serial killer? A Wall Street stockbroker? In fact, because of our unfamiliarity with the character, his voodoo chant to the doll feels really bizarre. It’s only during the last third of the film that we’re told the criminal is in fact Charles Lee Ray, a.k.a. The Lakeshore Strangler (fun fact: Charles Lee Ray is an amalgamation of Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray; does that mean he’s a cannibalistic assassin?).

2) All this body swap info early in the film blows any chance of a mystery with any suspicion cast on Andy by the audience.

So, the set-up is flawed, but how does it work as a horror film? T.M.I. opening aside, it starts out well with the possible kids show commentary and creepy killer doll tension. But the more ridiculous the characters and the logic gets, the less effective the film becomes.

On the other hand, it’s surprising to learn Chucky isn’t exactly like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees who run around killing people willy-nilly. Chucky is mostly targeting only those related to the circumstances that lead to his current situation or those who get in the way of his goal to transfer his soul into a living person’s body. In fact, research tells me (since I’ve never before seen an entire Chucky film) that this is the case for most of the series. So, thin as it may be, the Child’s Play series has a specific goal for its character. This speaks to the thriller aspect that was originally intended in Holland’s script. Unfortunately, as was the case with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, all sincerity was abandoned after a certain point in the series (in this case, The Bride of Chucky). This degeneration isn’t a surprise as even the original film has numerous unintentionally laughable moments, mostly having to do with logic or character intelligence.

That said, one of the strengths of Child’s Play is that it does a lot with very little. High-speed point of view shots and “he’s there and then he isn’t” cutaways are cheap tricks that prove rather effective at building tension. Like many other horror movies, Child’s Play proves that something knee-high can be every bit as frightening as a hulking brute.

Overall, Child’s Play is a missed opportunity. Substance and intelligent plotting was sacrificed for cheap theatrics that rest just above B-movie quality. The creep factor of the doll works well for the first half hour, but is drained of its effectiveness shortly thereafter by everything that doesn’t work. Perhaps Child’s Play serves as a relic of a time when less was demanded of horror films and thereby serves a purpose as cheap entertainment. If not for the skeletal remains of its initial aim to be something more, Child’s Play could’ve possibly been thoroughly enjoyed on that level. I can only hope the remake will give us more by laying down this version’s childish playthings.


4/10

Should you see it? All but the most hardcore or nostalgic horror fans should skip this.


Child's Play is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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