Saturday, September 28, 2013

Unnecessary Retrospective: The Chucky Franchise (Part One - Child's Play)

[Editorial Note]: Hi everybody. Welcome to another installment of Unnecessary Retrospectives. If you don't know what this is, the basic idea is that I take an indepth second look at a movie franchise from my childhood with an eye towards the greater mythology and how each film is integrated into the larger series. You can check out the first two HERE and HERE. On second thought, don't. I posted them back before I used pictures, and before I learned that people didn't want to read 20+ paragraphs about the Critters movies in one sitting. I'll probably re-post them at some point in easily digestible chunks with pics, but in the mean time, here's part one of Unnecessary Retrospective #3, in a format that's short and visually engaging enough that you might actually be able to read it without wanting to kill yourself. Enjoy.

So have you all seen Curse of Chucky yet? Can't see why not, I mean, I recommended it like yesterday, giving you more than enough time to buy it and watch it. Well, your loss I suppose. In any case, being able to indulge in the nostalgic glee of everyone's favorite killer toy possessed by Brad Dourif inspired me to take a look back at the series that started it all, to see if Chucky 1 through 5 were really as good as I remember them. Now, for the one guy nerdy enough to read that last sentence and be mad at it, I should stress that while I'm aware the first three movies don't have Chucky in the title, I will be using Chucky and Child's Play interchangeably when I refer to them, because its common parlance, and I don't care enough to be that precise. So first up, Child's Play, or Chucky 1, whichever you prefer.

Being the first in the series, Child's Play provides us with a blueprint for the entire franchise to come, setting up all the rules and tropes that will be followed or subverted as need be for the next few decades. It begins with a police detective in pursuit of the infamous Lakeshore Stranger, leading to a final standoff in a toy store where the killer suddenly displays a secret talent for voodoo body swapping rituals, and instead of trying to maybe take over the cop chasing him, instead chooses to place his murderous soul into the body of a Good Guy doll, a talking Cabbage Patch clone still mint in the box. One magical lightning storm later and the bad guy is apparently dead, with no one the wiser as to his bizarre escape plan, least of all the unsuspecting woman who buys the doll second hand from a crazy homeless man to give to her son for his birthday.

Apparently in the original script, the idea that the doll would be alive and killing people was something that was to be kept a surprise. For most of the movie, the audience was meant to be unsure if it was the doll, or just an evil little kid blaming the doll for his actions. I can't say which I would prefer, only having experience with the one they shot, but I have to think they could have spent a little more time on the opening, which would have come after the re-write considering how much of the game it gives away. Its not that its bad, but if you don't know what this movie's about before coming into it, the idea that this criminal just somehow knows voodoo all of sudden comes out of nowhere and would take you completely out of the movie. That being said, with the exception of a plot device in Bride of Chucky, I can at least say after watching the whole series again that the mechanics of voodoo magic are kept more consistent than most movies with similar spells underpinning the plot.

And who the fuck buys a doll from a hobo on the street? Was this an 80's thing and I just somehow forgot about it? I know the inspiration for this movie was the Cabbage Patch craze and there were a lot of panicked parents forced to go through private sellers when the stores sold out, but this seems like a bit of a stretch, even in light of that insanity. If anything, I'd be less worried about the fact that the doll is possessed by an evil serial killer and more worried about the herpes you just gave your son for his birthday. And if only to hammer the point home, when the mother tracks the hobo down again to ask him questions about the doll once it becomes suspicious, literally the first thing he does is try to rape her, because all movie hobos being rapists was an 80's thing I clearly remember, and she really should have known better. Come to think of it, why wasn't Rapey Hobo a horror franchise back then?

In any event, this grossly irresponsible parenting places the possessed doll in the home of Andy Barclay and his mother, secretly out for revenge, planning to kill the people he blames for his death, and anyone else who gets in his way. His quest for vengeance and random bloodshed eventually reveals two things about the mechanics of voodoo magic in the Chucky universe that will remain important throughout the series. First, the longer Chucky's soul remains in the doll, the more human it becomes. He bleeds, he feels pain, and if he stays in the doll too long, he's stuck there. Number two, he can't just swap his soul again into just anyone, but only the person who he first revealed his secret true nature to, which just so happens to be young Andy. Each film in its own way focuses on Chucky's many ultimately failed attempts at regaining human form, adding a new wrinkle to the standard "Evil thing that shouldn't be tries to kill people" plot.

Because cops in the Chuckyverse are just as dumb and lazy as in the real world, his escalating series of murders is eventually blamed on the most innocent looking five year old child in the world, because apparently there weren't any innocent young black men in the area to arrest for any of the crimes in his place? Here's why I like Andy as a character so much. He's basically a typical kid, naive enough to accept at face value the idea that his new doll and best friend is alive when it starts talking to him. But he's also smart enough to recognize it when the doll becomes a threat, realizing quicker than most adults in horror movies that the thing you think is your friend is secretly manipulating you. This extends to the climactic battle between the boy and his doll, as for the most part he holds his own against supernatural evil, establishing himself as a character you actually want to follow through a few more movies.

One character we regrettably don't see in any of the other movies is Chris Sarandon's detective. I had forgotten how silly his portrayal of the lead cop in this movie was. He basically plays it like he's in a cartoon, with this over the top accent that isn't any particular region or ethnicity, but seems like it's gotta be offensive to someone somewhere. It's like he read the script and just said "yeah, killer doll movie, whatever" and then just did whatever the fuck he wanted to, because why not. He knows exactly what kind of movie he's in and every time he's onscreen you almost forget how absurd the main conceit of the film is because his presence is so equally absurd that it feels like it all makes sense in context. This is just a world where cops are this goofy, hobos sell toys and rape on street corners, and dolls come to life and kill people.

For what its worth, once the doll is finally seen coming to life and killing people after about the 40 minute mark or so, its pulled off about as well as it could be, and good enough that you almost believe a flimsy hunk of plastic could be a legitimate threat. The climax inside the Barclays' apartment is suitably epic, or about as much as it feasibly could be under the circumstances. At the very least, since this was the pre-CGI 80's, they actually managed to find a midget stunt man willing to be set on fire, and I can't imagine there were a lot of those running around at the time. Yeah, he's small, but he's like a baby Terminator, always getting back up no matter what you throw at him. To put him down for good you have to pierce his heart, but I can't imagine how small that thing is, so if anything the size is an advantage in terms of his ultimate survival. They eventually take him out, but of course, he always comes back...

It didn't occur to me until Andy was lighting Chucky on fire inside the fireplace, but wasn't the kid from Toy Story named Andy too? Probably just a coincidence, but considering that makes two famous cinematic Andys who've had two separate run ins with living toys, part of me hopes the latter Pixar character was a discreet homage to the original. If anything, it seems like a Robot Chicken sketch or shitty Family Guy cut away just waiting to happen, as both kids, now adults, sit in a support group discussing their vastly different experiences with talking dolls. Andy would go on to have two more adventures with Chucky not counting his cameo in a post-credit sequence in the most recent film, and at least one of them is kinda sorta pretty good. So stay tuned for part two of my look back at the Child's Play/Chucky franchise, where the kids are even smarter, the adults are even stupider, and the dolls are even

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