Are the “Child’s Play” Movies Queer Cinema?

A mostly unironic delve into the gay doll movies that got progressively gayer.

Anyway.

It’s taken me close to a decade to finally get through the Child’s Play series, doing so in no particular order. I was finally allowed to watch the first one around the age of 12, found the fourth one on Netflix when I was around 18, which reignited my interest in the franchise, and have since spent the past two years going through the others. Seed of Chucky was the one I got to last, for reasons that might already be semi-obvious, but that I will explain nonetheless shortly.

I’ve already written about this franchise once, here, wherein I made a defense to no one in particular about why I think Cult of Chucky (2017) is the best film in the continuing narrative. Since then, I’ve sort of come to terms with the fact that this is my guilty pleasure franchise; most of the movies in it range from mediocre to terrible, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hopelessly fascinated by it more and more as time passes. Through the process of writing this, I ended up buying the 7-film box set, even.

And it wouldn’t be a franchise I liked if I didn’t try to smuggle in some undertones about gayness. But, unlike most media I engage with, you don’t actually have to bend over backwards to make an argument for that in Child’s Play.

If you want something a little less rambly than I tend to be, there’s a great article on the franchise’s history of queer untones here. It actually points out several areas of inclusion that I forgot about and others that I just simply won’t be covering here for brevity’s sake. Rather than trying to examine all seven films, I’m going to take a look at the two that tackle queerness most directly — Seed of Chucky and Cult of Chucky — and look at how they counter the cis/heteronormativity typically found in the horror genre.

Seed of Chucky

Plus, I like to rag on movies that give a terrible impression of gender nonconformity. So I figured I’d get through the movies that I knew wouldn’t break my brain, and Seed of Chucky would be the boss battle.

Released in 2004, Seed is the fifth film in the Child’s Play series, and the last one to be released theatrically until the 2019 remake. Set six years after the events of Bride of Chucky, the film follows the child of Chucky and Tiffany (all three still dolls) as he attempts to forge a relationship with his parents in spite of their continuing murderous rampage. All the while, Jennifer Tilly (yes, the actress who voices Tiffany; no, I can’t explain to you how she also exists in-universe as herself; just roll with it) is chosen to deliver more of Chucky’s children, and more bodies are sought out to be used as vessels for the collective gang to transfer into.

Right off the bat, I will admit that as a rule, I do not inherently trust transgender or gender-nonconforming characters created by cisgender people. Films and TV series that include characters like this have an uphill battle to prove to me that they’re not going to fuck up horrifically. When I wrote about 1977’s Desperate Living, for example, I talked a bit about how the John Waters’ gayness did not void out the horrifying transphobia concerned with the character of Mole, whose arc in the film concerns his obtainment of a phalloplasty (and the subsequent body horror pulled from it).

Ironically, Waters cameos in Seed.

And I think that John Waters’ presence is a perfect indicator for exactly what kind of film this is. This was Don Mancini’s first time directing, and it is to me obvious that he took great inspiration from Waters’ exploitation films of the 70’s and 80’s. Seed of Chucky is the furthest into comical that the series has ever ventured; it also has the lowest ratings of the series, which I understand. I’m not a fan of John Waters films, and I wasn’t exactly a fan of this.

That being said, the elements that make me love this series are still (mostly) present in this film. The physical comedy with the dolls as well as the gore are both great as always, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly have clearly never stopped having fun with these roles, and the film looks surprisingly good, considering it was shot entirely on some soundstage in Romania. I think every Child’s Play film is a labor of love, and this is no exception; it didn’t fail for me because it was made as a cheap cash-grab, it failed in that the tone and plot didn’t properly mesh with me.

Surprisingly, I have few to no problems with the way gayness is depicted within the film. Even before we get to the actual queerness inherent to the plot, references to gay cinema abound throughout. From the aforementioned John Waters, to the child of Chucky’s being named Glen and Glenda, a reference to the Ed Wood film of a similar title, about a “transvestite”/crossdresser, considered a “so-bad-it’s-good” cult classic. Jennifer Tilly’s lesbian thriller Bound also gets a shoutout in several lines of dialogue.

Bound, 1996, the Wachowski sisters’ lesbian thriller

But you’re here to hear me talk about Glen/Glenda, the doll that is perhaps guaranteed to give me nightmares going into my 20’s. So let’s talk about that little nightmare.

First of all, it took six films for me to find Chucky’s design truly creepy. Glen/Glenda took about ten minutes.

Eugh.

Teased at the end of Bride of Chucky, Glen/Glenda is the child of Chucky and Tiffany who, as previously mentioned, was separated from them at birth. As he is the only one of the three to have never previously had a human form, he has no determined gender (ie, no genitals; he has the exact anatomy of a doll). For a while, Chucky and Tiffany simply make up their own minds about their child’s gender; Chucky deciding Glen is a boy, and Tiffany deciding Glenda is a girl, and referring to them as such.

It isn’t until the last half hour or so that Glen/Glenda finally tries to figure themselves out, stating that they sometimes feel like a boy, sometimes like a girl. And can’t they just be both?

While the film doesn’t really go too much further into this, as this scene transpires right before the climax, this exchange is perhaps the first memorable time I’ve ever seen discussion of gender outside of a rigid binary in a film. And it’s not really taken as a joke in-universe, either. Chucky makes his snide remarks, yes, (unfortunately, Chucky is #problematic), but Tiffany is receptive and accepting.

It bobbles the ball a little bit by the end, by ultimately giving into the binary system, as [spoilers] Glen/Glenda is reborn into the body of twins, a boy and a girl. And as of mid-2020, the character has yet to resurface in any of the sequels. But for 2004, and for being written by a person who isn’t transgender, the character of Glen/Glenda is not the caricature that I entered the film fearing they would be. They’re a surprisingly decent portrayal in a mostly middling picture.

See, Seed of Chucky feels like it’s trying to parody and comment on so many things, it’s hard for me to pin down what, exactly, is the primary focus. The Hollywood system? Gender? Horror itself? In my notes I threw out a guess that Glen/Glenda might be an attempted commentary on how genitals do not equate to gender (terminology frequently used in discussing transgender and intersex people), but, as I’ve said, the ending of the film kind of screws with that interpretation. That lack of any particular focus makes the film fascinatingly bizarre as much as it does boring and slightly infuriating.

I completely understand why, when I’ve brought up this film in the past, my cis friends have essentially put up their hands and backed away slowly. Because on paper, it sounds terrible: the fifth sequel in a horror franchise has introduced a transgender character, voiced by Pippin from Lord of the Rings, and the film is partly about this character’s discovery of his true gender identity. That’s a hard sell.

But as a Queer Film™, I think that Seed of Chucky lands enough on the target for me to clear it. Queerness is never the butt of the joke, and the one character who is explicitly dismissive and transphobic is the crazy murder doll, who the audience has never seen as sympathetic. Just because it’s my personal pick for the weakest in the franchise doesn’t make it anywhere near close to worthless.

Cult of Chucky

The so-far latest film in the main storyline, Cult of Chucky is a direct sequel to Curse of Chucky, and again follows Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) in her battle against the titular killer, who is now able to possess a multitude of dolls rather than just the one. Concurrently, Andy Barclay, the protagonist of the first three films, makes his true return after being teased at the end of Curse. For this article, I rewatched the film with the commentary by Mancini and Tony Gardner, the primary special effects artist and puppeteer behind Curse and Cult.

Where Seed of Chucky is easily the roughest sit for me, Cult of Chucky once again reaffirms itself to be my favorite. Listening to the commentary enhanced the experience even further, getting to laugh along and hear how much effort, love, and general fun went into the production.

This film is perhaps not as overtly gay as Seed was, though it still has its own moments in which it really shines. No John Waters cameo this time around. Instead, for much of the film, the gayness isn’t given much spotlight-style attention. As Mancini notes in the commentary, this film is about reconciling the series’ seriousness with its camp; this means that while much of the film is still purposefully over the top, other elements have a level of subtly to them.

The first nurse that Nica comes across, a man named Carlos, has a husband who is mentioned a number of times only in passing. The commentary further reveals that this was part of a larger subplot that was ultimately cut, wherein Carlos would be selling photos of Nica to Perez Hilton in exchange for money to take care of his husband, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis.

The only surviving bit of this subplot within the film is a moment where we see Andy keeping tabs on Nica through Perez Hilton’s website.

Even less obvious might be Hannibal’s gentle influence on a scene or two. You may or may not know that Don Mancini was a writer and producer on the third season of the cannibal drama, and I’m here to inform you further that the director of photography for both Curse and Cult, Michael Marshall, was also the cinematographer for Hannibal’s finale.

Hannibal S3E13, The Wrath of the Lamb

Yeah! That one.

Hopefully knowing that makes Chucky’s joke about Hannibal’s cancelation make a little more sense.

But the film’s largest moment of queerness comes down to Nica. Most obviously, in her kiss with Jennifer Tilly/Tiffany at the end. In the context of the story, they kiss because Nica is now simply a body that Chucky has finally gotten his soul into. Though admittedly, out of context, it does just look like a lame excuse to make the two female leads kiss. Maybe it is.

The kiss itself aside, the actual possession of Nica by Chucky is, in of itself, unique. Previously, Chucky has always tried to put his soul into the body of boys, and usually pre-teens at that. Null the hinted-at possession of Alice at the end of Curse, Nica is the first and only adult woman that Chucky has ever set his sights on as a new body. It’s also the only time we’ve ever seen Chucky successfully complete the soul to body transfer.

So now in canon, Chucky is quite literally a man in a woman’s body. And if we pretend for a moment that that terminology isn’t horrifically outdated and inaccurate, it does create a new version of the character that is inherently outside the “cisgender” norm; if not the characters, then certainly the narrative itself.

Fiona Dourif as Nica, Cult of Chucky, 2017

I’m not going to start advocating for #TransgenderChucky anytime soon, but it undeniably sets up the franchise and the character itself for an evolution wholly unique. As of mid-2020, we know little-to-nothing about the Chucky series currently in production, the one meant to follow Nica and Tiffany after the events of Cult. But one can imagine that the likelihood of examining what this body means for these two in terms of sexuality and gender is pretty high, considering the series’ priors.

Queerness is not the sole reason why I love Cult of Chucky so much, but it does give the film an added boost. It’s yet another new breath of life that the series so desperately needed, opening up a seemingly endless variety of ways for the franchise to continue onwards. Not only does it work beautifully as a sequel to the film immediately previous, but as the connective tissue between every film that came before it, packaging it all together to continue a cohesive narrative with as many familiar faces as possible.

I was prompted to write this after going down a few Google rabbit holes, and found articles similar in subject matter to this one, and it made me start thinking about whether or not I considered these movies as part of the queer cinema catalog. I wasn’t even aware Don Mancini was gay. Just goes to show you that I am in a constant state of knowing absolutely nothing about anything I’m talking about.

Ultimately, to answer the titular thesis of the article, yeah, Child’s Play is obviously a series that fits into what one would consider queer cinema. And not just for one or two movies, but as a theme encompassing the entire franchise. The whole concept of “a man being trapped in a body he was never meant to inhabit” hits the nail on the head almost too directly. Add in more direct confrontations with gender and sexuality as the series progresses, and I think you would have search hard to find a argument as to why you shouldn’t consider the series as inherently queer.

Now, I don’t think many people are going to whip out their Child’s Play memorabilia the next time Pride comes to town, but I do think that the queerness of this series is very relevant. There is very little representation of LGBT people in film that is inoffensive, and representation within the horror genre is, perhaps appropriately, gut-wrenching at best. Even if the character is not “truly” queer, as is the case with the likes of Norman Bates or Buffalo Bill, we are still forever shackled to them by association. If we are not the monster, then we are the obvious victim.

For Child’s Play to have smuggled in some queer themes somewhere along the way would have been impressive enough. But Mancini has managed to cultivate a 30 years-and-still-going franchise in which queerness is its staple. Hell, you might even run into Fiona Dourif at Pride. At this point, queerness and Chucky are inseparable from each other.

Are there other horror films that perhaps fit more immediately into Queer Cinema? Undeniably. But I think that Child’s Play has been unfairly ignored, in this regard, for a long time now and deserves its credit!

In these movies, gay people are not confined to one character type. Gay people are the murderers, they’re the victims, they’re the heroes. Normalization without martyrdom or idolization is rare to see, but I think Mancini’s managed it.

This is the hill I have definitively decided to die on. Child’s Play is gay, let’s talk about it more often.

20, he/him transsexual. Questions, comments or requests at kredino@gmail.com — Selected works at loganashley.contently.com

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