Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cult Movie Review: Curse of Chucky (2013)

Twenty-five plus years later, the original Child’s Play (1988) remains a great, even classic horror film.

The big question, in light of some of its poorer sequels -- and even regarding Curse of Chucky (2013) -- is, simply, why?  What qualities make the original hold-up decades later?

I would consider two factors, primarily.

The first and obvious factor is, of course, Chucky himself.

He’s nothing less than a brilliant creation, a modern horror movie icon. The combination of innocent-looking -- even cherubic – toy doll and Brad Dourif’s malevolent, caustic delivery, creates a vibe both memorable, and creepy. There’s a real tension between the original film’s childish presentation of the doll -- with a mop of red hair, wearing colorful overalls -- and his R-rated vocabulary.

Chucky can be absolutely scary, or totally hysterical; appropriate, or hilariously inappropriate. And Dourif’s vocalizations never err in determining those lines. 

The second factor relates to the film’s director, Tom Holland (Fright Night [1985]) and his approach to the genre material. This is a director who never shies away from mining subtext, either in terms of visuals or themes.

For example, Fright Night is a story of the vampire-next-door, but Holland has a lot of fun there talking about vampirism as a cover for other, real-life issues, including adolescent sexual awakening, homosexuality, and even bullying. Holland brings that same social sensibility to Child’s Play, and that’s a crucial factor that makes the film thrive, even after nearly thirty years.

Bluntly put, Child’s Play is about “who we are,” not just about a killer doll on the rampage.

In my estimation, Child’s Play concerns -- no holds barred -- the way that a materialistic American society in the 1980s sold its children’s souls to the not-so-tender mercies of toy companies.

What happened?

Well, in the first Reagan Administration, Mark S. Fowler was appointed chairman of the FCC and he championed the idea that television, as a milieu, boasts no social responsibility whatsoever.

He famously noted that TV is simply an appliance, a “toaster with pictures” and therefore it requires no regulation, no oversight. He further determined that “the marketplace will take care of children,” and so by Reagan’s re-election in 1984 his FCC was no longer regulating children’s television for toy/marketing, program “synergy.”  Or rather, for rampant product placement.

By the mid-1980s this laissez-faire notion of TV with no social responsibility was in full effect, and TV shows marketing toys -- or “program length commercials for pre-existing toys,” as scholar Julia Schur called them in The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture -- were on the rise. 


Now, I absolutely love and adore He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Challenge of the Gobots, Thundercats, GI. Joe, M.A.S.K., Silerhawks and other programming of this era as much as any 1980s kid does.  Hell, I collect these toys to this day!  But that doesn’t mean the subject isn’t ripe for parody, or satire.

It is difficult to deny, after all that younger children are generally, in psychological terms, incapable of distinguishing between ads and programming. These kind of properties, based on pre-existing toys, knowingly blur that line.

And so we arrive at Child’s Play (1988): a rollicking commentary on this kind of programming, one in which commercial and entertainment imagery are virtually indistinguishable. 

The original film mocks not only the 1983 Cabbage Patch Doll craze, but suggests that children of the 1980s have become slaves to their materialistic desires. Poor little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) is a pre-adolescent “Good Guys” addict who eats Good Guys cereal, wears Good Guys clothes, watches the Saturday morning cartoon, and buys every toy that comes on the market.

The toy, meanwhile, promises not material enslavement, but constant and eternal companionship.  “I’ll be your friend to the end!”

This companionship, however, does not come cheap, and Andy’s Mom (Catherine Hicks) can’t keep up with the expensive bills maintaining Andy in the Good Guys lifestyle.

Then, of course, Andy gets a hold of Chucky -- a malevolent personality hiding inside the “brand name” Good Guys -- and realizes that his desire for all things Good Guys is, actually, going to ruin his life.

The price for owning a Good Guy is higher than he could have imagined. As the end of the film suggests, Andy’s soul is literally vulnerable. The doll is going to take it from him in Chucky’s game of “hide the soul.”

So the original Child’s Play is really about something more than cheeky carnage with evil dolls. It is a purposeful, and wickedly-observed reflection of the society that gave rise to it. You may agree or disagree with the film’s arguments or point-of-view, but it is impossible to deny that the film is actually about 1980s consumer culture as trenchantly as Dawn of the Dad (1978) is about 1970s consumer culture.

The Chucky sequels are of varying quality, to be certain, but not a one manages to capitalize on the second primary strength that I enumerated above. Each features Chucky and Dourif -- thankfully -- but none has a meaning beyond the immediate horror trappings.

Curse of Chucky is included in that list. 

It is better than some Child’s Play sequels (namely, Child’s Play 3, and Seed of Chucky), and worse than some. I would still take Bride of Chucky and Child’s Play 2 over this effort.

It is rewarding, I suppose, that Curse of Chucky attempts to re-balance the horror/comedy quotient of the series, which was way off in Seed of Chucky, but the 2013 film can’t hold a candle to the quality of original, because -- in the end -- it’s just a Chucky-killing-people movie, and not a Chucky-reflects-who-we-are kind of movie, if that makes sense.

The greatest value of Curse of Chucky likely arises in terms of nostalgia.  It is fun to see (and hear) the little guy wreaking havoc again. 

But there’s no sense that this is anything more than an easily consumable, easily forgotten sequel to a classic horror film. Curse of Chucky passes the time, offers some laughs and a few thrills and chills, but overall, isn’t a movie that’s going to move the genre in a fresh direction, or be remembered, a few years from now, as a high-point in the franchise.

It’s just a mediocre new entry in the long-standing saga.

“It’s a doll. What’s the worst that could happen?”

A Good Guy Doll is delivered to the home of artist Sarah Pierce (Chantal Quesnal), and her paraplegic daughter, Nica (Fiona Dourif).  Before long, Sarah dies of an apparent suicide.

Sarah’s death brings Nica’s sister, Barb (Danielle Busutti), and her family to the house to prepare for the funeral. Barb’s daughter, Alice (Summer Howell) takes an immediate liking to the Good Guys Doll, Chucky, and makes him her constant companion.

The family, meanwhile, begins to fall apart over old resentments and new betrayals.

Under cover of this dysfunction, Chucky -- really serial killer Charlies Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) -- engineers a campaign of terror with rat poison, a hatchet, a butcher knife and other tools of his trade.

“That doll looks familiar.”

Curse of Chucky takes place almost entirely in one locale: an isolated house.  Because it is night (and a stormy one at that…), most characters tend to remain in the house, so Chucky can pick them off. 

And he picks them off, admittedly, with the requisite degree of ingenuity.  The film’s best scene sees Chucky putting rat poison in one bowl of vegetarian chili, while leaving five other bowls unmolested.  The dinner scene unfolds, and we watch in droll close-ups as the would-be victims all slurp up the dinner.  At this point, we have no idea who is going to die, but we see all the characters partaking in the meal.

Another murder sequence involves electrocution (a call-back to the original film and the death of Andy’s psychiatrist), and Curse of Chucky also gains steam from Nica’s plight. As a paraplegic, she must work extra hard as our final girl to escape from Chucky, and beat him.  Fiona Davis is great in this role, and not only goes through Hell battling Chucky (and her mean sister), but she earns the love of the audience.

On the details of the narrative, however, Curse of Chucky seems a bit sloppy.  For example, we know from series lore that Chucky can only steal the soul of the first person he revealed his true identity too.  That’s why he spent three movies chasing down Andy Barclay.  However, Chucky is not in a new body in Curse of Chucky, but rather a repaired old body.  We see his stitches and red, stretched flesh underneath a kind of false surface on his face, in one scene.  So by my reckoning, Andy is still the guy whose body/soul he needs to take. 

But this movie asks us to believe it is the little girl, Alice. I’ll confess: I don’t get that. If Chucky is in a new doll body (and Alice is the first person he revealed himself too…) why does he still have the old scars from a different body?  And if he is in a new body, how and why did that transfer occur?

Another scene that doesn’t play fair involves Barb’s death. She is in an attic with Chucky (and discovers his scars…) but her attention is drawn away from Chucky at a crucial moment by a rocking horse that starts rocking.  She looks away for a split second, and when she looks back, Chucky is gone…seizing the advantage. 

So what made the rocking horse move like that?  We know it wasn’t Chucky, because he’s on-screen, immobile, when it occurs.  And we know that there is not a second killer present in the attic, especially one who could move the rocking horse and disappear.  (Note: Chucky does have an accomplice, but my point is that we would see that accomplice, according to the shot’s composition…).

The movie boasts a lot of lapses in situational logic, just like these. At another point, Barb sees Chucky jump out of bed and walk around on her computer monitor, but seems to mistake the red-head, plastic doll for her blond-haired daughter.  Huh?

And then, of course, there’s the question of the Nanny cam. Why does Chucky -- whose campaign of terror’s success rests on his ability to fool others into thinking he’s an inanimate toy -- allow Alice’s dad, Ian, to place one on his person?

Or at the very least, why not get rid of it at the first opportunity, rather than keeping it on him, filming, the whole time?

And wouldn’t the Nanny Cam footage exonerate Nica? Or are potential jurors to believe that a paraplegic got her wheel chair up the stairs to the attic to kill Barb. And then, of course, she went back downstairs, unnoticed.

I understand that the film was working on a limited budget, and other limited resources. But it seems to me that the opportunity here was to make a really nasty, really tight movie in one location, involving Chucky’s pursuit and slaying of a family that has some emotional resonance for him. But the film’s screenplay is loose and dopey, and doesn’t account for all its trickery and mechanics (like the mysteriously moving rocking horse). 

This quality takes away from the film’s overall effectiveness.

I am glad Curse of Chucky was made. I’m glad the Child’s Play series continues, especially with Brad Dourif. But Chucky deserves a better comeback; one which is internally consistent, and which is about something more than a doll’s killing spree. 

Curse of Chucky tries to be modern by featuring scenes with Skype, nanny cams, and a lesbian affair. But ironically, it could have also seemed modern by being about who we are, today, or rather in 2013.

Think about people clamoring for the newest apps, or the Star Wars Day devoted to selling toys for The Force Awakens.  Think about a generation of Dads -- like me -- maintaining a man-cave/shrine to my youth, via toys from the 1980s.  Art, entertainment, consumerism, toys, and nostalgia are more intertwined and inseparable than ever. 

Certainly someone could make a Chucky movie that concern these ideas, right?

1 comment:

  1. Apparently, there was a post-credits scene which was not included in the version available on Netflix.

    I always interpreted the original Child's Play as a commentary on our willingness as adults to turn a "blind eye" (or look the other way) to at-risk children. Andy would tell his mother that Chucky was alive, even dangerous, and she would repeatedly dismiss his warnings as childish fantasy (i.e., "child's play"). Similar to the way adults (even parents) look the other way when children show signs of abuse (physical or otherwise).

    But, I would also add, it has been quite a long time since I have seen the original Child's Play, so I could be way off.