Thoughts on “Child’s Play”, and Why “Cult of Chucky” is Good, Actually

ut of all the 80’s franchises to get tarnished by terrible, late 2000’s remakes, you would have to imagine that 1988’s “Child’s Play” would have to join the list eventually.

A series spanning over thirty years, it’s certainly a collection of movies with… interesting, we’ll say, stories and tones. For it’s first three films, the story of “Child’s Play” revolves around a serial killer (Brad Dourif) possessing a popular children’s doll before being killed by police. This doll ends up in the hands of Andy Barclay and his mother, the former of which spends these next three films trying to escape the killer doll, who goes by Chucky. By the fourth movie, “Bride of Chucky”, the plot is more focused on the dolls than the people, and has completed it’s transition from genuine horror to black comedy.

Seed of Chucky” (2005) was the last film in the franchise until 2013, wherein “Curse of Chucky” was released to Netflix as a soft-reimagining; this film was the first since the original to really make an effort towards genuine horror, although not completely abandoning it’s humor, either. “Cult of Chucky” was released in 2017 as a direct sequel to the 2013 film, and is currently the only one of the two still remaining on Netflix (for whatever reason).

I didn’t grow up watching the “Child’s Play” series, and so I don’t have that “Chucky-scared-me-to-death-as-a-child” attachment that so many people seem to have to these films. I wasn’t allowed to watch the first film until I was about 12, and even then, I was only allowed to watch the cut-for-TV version. I’ve spent the last two or three years catching up on the films as a result, a journey made only a little longer by the 2019 reboot, also titled “Child’s Play”.

“Child’s Play”, 2019, source

As apprehensive as I think everyone is towards remakes, I was willing to give “Child’s Play” (2019) a fair shot. I don’t find the original scary, and I think that they had a good concept to run on in terms of making something socially relevant and equally entertaining. You let Mark Hamill do a creepy voice, you’re almost totally set.

But “Child’s Play” (2019) was being marketed as I continued to slowly work my way through the original franchise, and it, unfortunately, ended up getting on my bad side without even being out at that point. I still haven’t seen it. Why?

Because “Child’s Play” (2019) rebooted a series that, for the first time, was finally doing something interesting with it’s premise.

Yes, I’m talking about “Cult of Chucky”. It’s the best film in the “Child’s Play” franchise.

Now: I know. I know that Cult looks like that one Syfy channel horror movie you accidentally turn on at 3 in the afternoon. I know that it’s movie number seven in this franchise (for context, that makes it the “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” of this particular series). I know that it looks like it has the budget of a ham sandwich, and that they could only afford three, maybe four sets to shoot on. I still stand by that this is the best one.

Cult of Chucky” picks up several years after the events of “Curse of Chucky”, with the protagonist, Nica (reprised again by Fiona Dourif, Brad Dourif’s real-life daughter), institutionalized after taking the fall for Chucky murdering her entire family in the previous movie. The film also follows Andy Barclay again, reprised by Alex Vincent in his first truly notable acting role since “Child’s Play 2” in 1990. Andy is trying to reach Nica in the institution, while Nica is being tormented by both Chucky’s return and those in charge of the institution.

I’ll admit that if you’re going to watch this movie, you need to power through the first five minutes. This opening scene is a bizarrely out of place commentary on gun discourse in America, and it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, outside of establishing that Andy is still deeply traumatized from the events of the first three movies. But once you get past those shaky first steps, the film finds it’s footing, and it really starts to run.

A few weeks ago, I spent probably twenty minutes talking about my complicated feelings in regards to the Child’s Play series (which ended up helping me in writing this, so, thank you, Dia!), and I came to the conclusion that the reason I love “Cult of Chucky” so much is that it feels like the first time the series stops chasing it’s own tail and does something new.

I have a certain level of fondness for the pure absurdity of the original films, but they’re not good. And they don’t really stray from the original concept. In the first five films, it’s always just Chucky trying to escape the doll body, he can never do it, and he’s blasted into the “Princess Bride” land of almost-dead for the next sequel to fully revive. “Curse of Chucky” almost breaks the mold, but still stays true to formula where it really matters.

[ spoilers ahead ]

Cult of Chucky” is the first of these films where something different happens — Chucky finally gets to win.

Throughout Cult, Nica is tormented by Chucky’s return (and Jennifer Tilly’s as well; don’t ask, her cameo and re-introduction to the series is confusing and trying to explain it would make my brain melt), while he slowly kills off her friends in the institution. While Chucky is in the film much more as an active character than he was in Curse, the film is still primarily Nica’s show. And Fiona Dourif does amazing in the role, trying to deal with a multitude of abuses while figuring out the various ways she can try and kill the doll for good. Or, rather dolls.

The second most interesting aspect of this film is the introduction of the concept that Chucky can possess multiple dolls at the same time. This allows him to be with both Andy and Nica at the same time, and even then have a few more dolls running around murdering extras. This raises the stakes- even if you kill one doll, you still have a good half dozen to go- and it opens up a multitude of different story possibilities. As a storyteller, you’re no longer constricted by just having one killer.

In the film’s final third, Andy finally arrives at the institution as the so-far three Chucky dolls are able to incapacitate Nica’s doctor and restrain her. The scene where Chucky starts to recite the words to transfer his soul is something I think every single Child’s Play movie has had up to this point, and there’s always been something to stop it; a secondary protagonist bursts in, Chucky has spent too long inside the doll to get out, a well-timed kick sends him flying, something.

Not the case in Cult. Chucky completes his chant, and he successfully possesses Nica.

I remember watching this for the first time, roughly around midnight, while my roommates slept, and genuinely getting kind of excited. Because while I had watched maybe half of the Child’s Play movies at that point, I hadn’t ever seen anything in them that I thought was really unique. And maybe that’s just because I’d been so thoroughly exposed to the franchise through pop culture and a mom who’s been watching like, two horror movies a night for my entire life. But regardless of how I got there, I still never felt engaged in those original movies. “Cult of Chucky” was finally able to rip the franchise from it’s deeply-trodden path, and that newness was evident even to me.

As a Chucky-possessed puppet, Fiona Dourif has the goddamn time of her life. She throws on this goofy-as-hell accent, struts around with the exact level of drama you would expect from Charles Lee Ray at this point, and at a few points it feels like she’s channeling “Evil Dead II” Bruce Campbell. I’m captivated by her performance throughout the entire film, but this aspect of it in particular is where my heart goes to. I don’t know, there’s always something to love about girls getting to go absolutely batshit.

At one point, possessed-Nica and one of the Chucky dolls kill one of the last surviving secondary characters, and the two share a deranged laugh together. It’s a genuinely (for lack of a better term) beautiful moment of passing the metaphorical torch, where the younger generation is given full control of the franchise, where new life is finally given to this old corpse. Chucky isn’t even dead (not really, though all but one of the dolls fall vacant by the end; he still lives vicariously through Nica and a disembodied doll head), but he’s accomplished what he set out to do. He transferred bodies. He won. Now the story is Nica’s.

It really sucks that we’re not gonna get another movie to explore this, at least any time in the near future. The 2019 soft reboot came and went with middling reviews, and the follow-up to “Cult of Chucky” has been relegated to a television series set to premiere sometime in 2020. Although people involved in the “original” storyline and the remake both promise more films are to come, nothing is yet concrete in that medium.

But even if we never get the film that continues where “Cult of Chucky” left off, it’s a damn good note to go out on. The villain has won, and now she is vastly more powerful and off to wreak havoc on the world with Jennifer Tilly. And even with that almost total victory, our main series heroes don’t die. Andy is alive (albeit probably not for long, if somebody doesn’t go save him), and a post-credits stinger reveals that Kyle (from “Child’s Play 2”) is alive as well, and returns to keep the fight alive.

Cult of Chucky” is a damn good film as well as one of the most engaging sequels to come from the original source material. Fiona Dourif delivers one of the best horror performances to come out of the 2017 horror I’ve seen (bested only by the kids from “It: Chapter One” and of course Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out”); being someone who doesn’t watch a lot of TV these days, she is probably the sole reason I’ll be making sure to tune into the miniseries continuation of her storyline. She’s a great actress, and I want to see her continue to tap into the possessed insanity she should’ve had another cinematic venture into.

If you have a Netflix subscription or even if you don’t, even if you’re a little behind on your “Child’s Play” movies, this is a great installment to get in before October ends. I can’t say if you’ll be scared or not (I don’t scare easy, and I’ve only found this series mildly unnerving at best), but you’ll have a great time regardless. It’s rare that a horror film isn’t scary and still manages to be intentionally entertaining.

Either way, give it a try. Come for the franchise investment and brand recognition, stay for Fiona Dourif and a movie that succeeds despite itself.

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