Child’s Play

Year: 1988
Production Co: United Artists
Director: Tom Holland
Writer: Tom Holland
Cast: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif

Like Sleeping With the Enemy and Dirty Dancing, this is one of those movies/franchises whose position in pop culture I was keenly aware of even though I'd never actually seen them.

I was especially aware about how – like so many franchises from Lethal Weapon to The Fast and the Furious – it had all descended into broad comedy. So the thing that surprised me most when I finally sat down to watch the original was how seriously it was played and how effective some of the scares were, despite it being the essential silly idea about the soul of a criminal lowlife in the body of a doll.

Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) and his scummy partner Eddie Caputo are running from the cops, and when detective Norris (Chris Sarandon, the villain in writer/director Tom Holland's previous outing Fright Night ) corners him in a toy store, Ray gets desperate. Eddie has driven off in their van and left Ray behind, he's been mortally wounded by a gunshot and Norris is closing in.

Ray grabs the nearest item off the shelf, the enormously popular Good Guys doll, and mumbles some demonic incantation. After a maelstrom descends from the sky he drops dead, his soul now in the body of the doll to wreak further havoc.

Meanwhile, struggling single mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) really wants to buy her cute six year old son Andy (Alex Vincent, who's about six here and went on to appear in just about every Child's Play sequel) a Good guys doll because of how much he loves the TV show promoting them, but she just can't afford it.

Fate steps in when a homeless guy at the back of the building where she works is peddling what's probably a stolen Good Guys doll, but Karen knows how happy it'll make her little boy so she duly takes it home to give the overjoyed Andy and they go about their lives.

But neither of them know they've bought a killer home, and Andy can't convince any of the adults around him that Chucky talks to him. After the mysterious death of Karen's friend in their apartment, who's babysitting Andy at the time, things rapidly go bad.

Next, Chucky sets about taking care of his partner, having Andy carry him across town by train to a seedy part of the city where he blows up the abandoned house Eddie's squatting in while he's still inside. After being at the scene of the death of his babysitter and now some random scumbag but telling everyone Chucky made him do it, Andy is taken off his mother and put in an institution for psychiatric evaluation.

Out of her mind with worry and anger, wanting to but not quite believing her son, Karen angrily demands Chucky talk to her, and the whole film shifts gears, coming alive when Chucky lunges at her, biting her arm and screaming abuse. It's the first time we've seen Chucky move of his own accord and it's a brilliant move on the part of Holland's script.

Like Jaws, it takes its time building tension about what a killer doll is actually going to look like and do – until then, we as the audience are as skeptical of Andy's claims that the doll's alive as the adults around him. Obviously as the audience you know Chucky is sentient because the entire market narrative around the franchise has been based on images and clips of him with his grown-up voice and evil cackle. But until we see Chucky in action it's actually an effectively creepy tale.

After Chucky flees from the apartment Karen then has to try and convince Norris the doll's alive, but after writing her off as nuts like her kid Chucky later attacks Norris in his car, and the battle to find and stop the murderous doll is on.

Chucky goes to visit the voodoo priest who it turns out taught him how to transfer his soul to inanimate objects, and the shaman tells him the only way to stay alive is to transfer his soul to the first human he revealed himself to. Chucky fatally wounds the man and goes off to find Andy in the institution where he's being held, Karen and Norris hot on his little heels.

Several elements make this film work much more than you expect. The first is Hicks as Andy's mother Karen. It must have been more than slightly embarrassing to sign on to a movie about a doll trying to kill your infant son, but Hicks' performance is faultless.

She never once plays it for wry laughs in order to acknowledge how silly the premise is, and she's your way in to believing this is an incredible thing happening in the real world. Her love and worry for her boy are palpable, and she continues to sell her horror even while rolling around on the floor of an apartment pretending to be attacked by a doll.

The other is the special effects that not only looked great for the time, they still hold up three decades later. If you're a film nerd you can usually spot every technology used to bring a fake character to life in the pre CGI era whether it's puppetry or animation, but there were some scenes where I genuinely couldn't tell what they'd used to bring Chucky to life.

Reading about it since makes it pretty obvious which shots had the articulated animatronic puppet, a kid in a suit, etc, but how many movies from the era have in-camera effects that look like they could have been done a month back?

As history has proven, it was also marketable as hell. It's not like there was only ever one Chucky doll, and what silly horror premise is more midnight/camp than a haunted kids' doll? If you're a fan of the whole franchise but haven't watched any of the films in awhile, I'll bet you get a pleasant surprise out of how well structured, acted and executed the first entry still is

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