Charles Lee Ray, the Lakeshore Strangler, is being hunted down and shot by a police detective (Mike Norris) after what looks like a bungled robbery. Seems lame for someone with a name like a serial killer, but we'll let that pass. The interesting bit is that Charles (aka. Chucky) seems to have Lovecraftian powers of Summon Thunderstorms and Cheat Death By Sending Your Evil Scumbag Murderer's Soul Into A Doll. The next time we see him, he's being given to one Andy Barclay on the occasion of his sixth birthday. Worst birthday present ever.
That was genuinely good. Colour me astonished. Despite having kicked off an eighties horror franchise (five films and soon a remake too) and having a premise that practically begs the filmmakers to screw it up, Child's Play manages to be effective. I liked the cast and of course its monster is great.
I'll talk about the obvious thing first. Chucky's a nasty little imp. Even a child's toy can be scary if it has a knife and is hunting victims who bend down to look for it underneath beds. His big advantage is that no one knows what they're dealing with until the second half and so are acting completely inappropriately. No matter what Chucky does, they blame Andy. This includes multiple murders. The odd thing is that they make no real attempt to plug into childhood fears and fantasies. You'd expect the movie's last shot to be of a store display of other Good Guy dolls, but no. There's nothing abstract or mythic about Chucky. He's just a foul-mouthed killer who happens to be stuck inside a plastic body the size of a six-year-old child. He's strong, too. The film's last act is basically Terminator Chucky going after our heroes, which is one of this movie's many goofy ideas that could have gone horribly wrong but somehow instead works like a mad bastard.
Andy is a crucial character in the film of course, but almost none of it is from his point of view. I'd love to see the remake trying to step into his shoes and show a child's eye view of the world, which would produce a completely different take on the same material. Instead we see him entirely as adults would. He talks to his doll. Chucky and Andy have a relationship. This is obviously a crucial element of the film, yet we never actually see one of their conversations. The nearest we get is to see Andy holding the doll's mouth against his ear, just like children do all the time in real life. Naturally no one ever believes him, which is completely understandable but was starting to get irritating when the film amused me greatly by turning the tables and showing the rational adults the impossible truth. What happens next serves them right. Just as Andy's mum didn't believe Andy, so she isn't believed by Detective Norris and so on. The film's last significant exchange is "Do you believe me now?" "Yeah. But who's gonna believe me?"
Similarly there's a scene that might have been tailor-made to terrify any parent, in which Chucky talks Andy into taking him alone into the roughest district of the city. This is not a middle-class movie. Andy's mother has a bad job with a repellent boss (who regrettably doesn't get killed) and has to plan her monthly budget just to be able to buy her son's birthday present. At first that scene just looked like Chucky having random fun with child endangerment, but on reflection I could see that it made sense. On his own, people would notice him. Andy is camouflage.
Oh, and I also found it mildly disturbing to see Andy grab a scalpel when being chased in the hospital. It's the right thing for him to do, but there's deep wrongness in seeing a six-year-old with a scalpel. Ewww. Mind you, this is a fairly ewww-heavy film.
Chucky isn't very bright, mind you. Surely he was taking a risk by shooting his mouth off to Andy as soon as they were alone together, even if he'd gambled correctly in assuming that no adult would believe the truth. More importantly, if you're crouching in the backseat of a car and holding a big kitchen knife, then I think your next move is pretty obvious. Why try to throttle your target instead? Okay, yes, one can assume that someone called the Lakeshore Strangler would be fond of that method of disposal, but surely you'd think twice when you're child-sized and your target is a police detective?
Incidentally he's played by Brad Dourif, who's one of those actors whose name I half-know but could never quite place. An internet search reveals that he's played Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings, Doc Cochran in Deadwood, Sheriff Lee Bracket in Rob Zombie's Halloween
and a bunch of other genre stuff, a lot of it on TV. Chucky is probably one of his most notable roles.
The rest of the cast is nothing flashy, but they mostly deliver the goods where it matters. Catherine Hicks impressed me as Andy's mother, managing to keep the audience on her side even when not only reporting a killer doll to Detective Norris but getting annoyed when he doesn't believe her. She's very likeable, as is also Chris Sarandon as Norris. I'm even fond of little Alex Vincent as six-year-old Andy. Obviously he's a failure at any actual acting, but more fool the production team for giving such moments to a child like that. Whenever merely called upon to be himself, which is most of the film, he's natural and charming. He has good chemistry with his mother and you're on his side throughout, which is another of all those elements that could have single-handedly sunk the film. The only failure is Raymond Oliver as Chucky's old voodoo sensei, who's so wooden that he almost becomes a highlight of the movie. Connoisseurs of bad acting will come from far and wide to marvel at this man not only being allowed in front of a camera but managing to get out a few sentences without the producers immediately recasting him and firing the casting director.
Surprisingly the worst thing about that scene isn't Raymond Oliver, but his voodoo doll. I hate those voodoo dolls. You know, where you snap its twig arm and the real person's arm breaks too. I find it unbelievable even in movies about child's dolls animated by the souls of dead murderers, especially when you start wondering what kind of idiot would make such a doll of themselves.
The movie contains head-scratchers. I've mentioned the attempted throttling and the voodoo doll, but I was also puzzled by Andy deciding halfway through that Chucky's been lying to him. Really? About what? Personally I'd been surprised by how freely he'd been shooting his mouth off to the boy, for instance spilling his true name of Charles Lee Ray. It's also unfortunate that we know Chucky can never succeed in his plan of stealing Andy's body, since this is the first of a five-film series about him as a doll. That's not this movie's fault, though.
Overall, far more impressive than I'd expected. Chucky isn't the kind of horror icon anyone's going to take seriously, but if you actually watch the movie there's genuine tension here with him and his kitchen knife. He convincingly terrrorises adults! You'll be happy to watch the child actor! Those are two minor miracles right there. The animatronics are... okay, not invariably convincing, but as a whole they work. Plus point = nasty death by medical equipment. Minus point = no nudity. (These cancel each other out.) I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie, not to mention its message. Next time your son tells you his birthday present is a reincarnated serial killer who's just murdered the babysitter, listen to him.