The slasher-horror movie “Child’s Play” was released 30 years ago on Nov. 9, spawning a massive franchise with films such as “Child’s Play 2,” “Bride of Chucky,” “Seed of Chucky,” “Cult of Chucky,” and an anticipated 2019 reboot of the original film. “Child’s Play” follows the murderous exploits of Chucky, a doll possessed by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). Pursued by detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) and mortally wounded, Ray transfers his soul into a doll via a voodoo ritual to escape death. When Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) buys the doll as a birthday present for her son, Andy (Alex Vincent), Chucky’s violent appetites slowly reveal themselves. “Child’s Play” is fast-paced, witty, and creepy as hell. With a villain so perfectly suited to the slasher genre, it’s easy to see why he’s stuck around.
Chucky’s a great villain because he can create suspense without saying anything, doing anything, or even being onscreen. In this way “Child’s Play” is a little reminiscent of “Jaws,” the influential 1975 thriller about a man-eating great white shark. According to one commonly circulated story about the shooting process, the crew was experiencing technical difficulties with the mechanical shark at the time of shooting, so several scenes had to be shot with the shark offscreen, and this inadvertently resulted in a better, more suspenseful film. As it happens, this story could be apocryphal. The takeaway is unchanged — sometimes implied action is scarier than the real thing. Ever since, implied action has become a staple of the horror genre, with films like “Poltergeist” and “Paranormal Activity” featuring invisible spirits that really like rearranging furniture between camera cuts.
The reason that Chucky is so scary, though, is that while the doll is nearly always onscreen, he’s not always moving. Sure, he murders and moves around plenty when we’re not looking. But the viewer is treated to close-up after close-up of Chucky’s motionless, glassy blue eyes, with the implication that Chucky is listening, processing the situation, and plotting his next kill. This is an ingenious horror device, a kind of step-up from implied action: A lethal threat is in plain sight — maybe held in Andy’s arms or sitting out of focus on the edge of the frame — but nobody’s doing anything about it.
About halfway through “Child’s Play,” Chucky still hasn’t moved onscreen and one starts to worry that maybe the special effects budget wasn’t cutting it. This could end up like “Cloverfield,” a monster movie with a monster so conspicuously absent onscreen as to be less suspenseful than frankly annoying.
Thankfully, it doesn’t. When an increasingly unhinged Karen becomes suspicious of Chucky, she turns on her fireplace, grabs the doll and threatens to burn him in if he doesn’t talk. Chucky comes alive, bashing and biting Karen with the strength of a grown man trapped in a doll’s body and unleashing a stream of horrifying expletives in a guttural man-voice hilariously unlike his programmed speech-box dialogue (“Hi, I’m Chucky, and I’m your friend to the end. Hidey-ho!”).
The quality of the special effects here is almost a relief. When compared to, say, “Annabelle,” which also features a murderous doll, Chucky stacks up well. The doll in “Annabelle” barely moves, and when it does, it’s in stops and starts. Every possible jump-scare is milked. It’s one of those big-studio horror films that feels like it was written with focus group feedback. There’s so much uncertainty around Annabelle’s plans and abilities, so many fake-outs and easy scares, that it makes the film sort of boring.
By contrast, the latter half of “Child’s Play” is just good-old slasher fare. Chucky’s pursuing a clear goal. It’s refreshing to see a horror movie commit to its villain. He’s well-animated and moves freely from kill to kill, cursing like a sailor, getting shot, stabbed, beaten, burned, and more and more pissed off.
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