October Horrorshow: Child’s Play (1988)

We here at Missile Test love it when a movie with a ridiculous premise is made to work. The President of the United States must be rescued from Manhattan Island prison in a dystopian near future? Excellent movie. Dragons are awakened by subway construction in London and scorch the earth? Bring it. A grown man wears tights and a cape and beats the shit out of street level felons and/or crazed super criminals? Yeah, sure. We all seem to like that. But a murderous psychopath possessing a child’s doll and continuing to add to its death toll? That’s a big ask. Fortunately, the people behind Child’s Play, the 1988 supernatural slasher flick, knew what they were doing.

Sprung from the mind of Don Mancini, who has since made a career out of his franchise horror creation, Child’s Play tells the story of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer who uses a voodoo chant to send his mind into a Good Guy doll before his body expires from gunshot wounds.

The Good Guy doll is something else. Special effects tech Kevin Yagher came up with the design. The doll evokes Hasbro’s My Buddy doll, a contemporary toy of the time. It’s about as large as an average five-year-old, with exaggerated colors and features that settle it right into the uncanny valley — perfect for a horror flick. Even without being possessed by a murderer, it’s hard to picture something so relentlessly creepy amongst a child’s toys. But, again, everyone involved makes it work.

After some minor twists and turns, the possessed Good Guy, nicknamed Chucky, finds its way into the hands of young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), as a birthday present from his widowed mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks).

It doesn’t take long for Chucky to get murderous, either. We’re talking the first night. Charles Lee Ray just couldn’t help himself.

Andy, for his part, can’t help but tell anyone willing to listen, including homicide detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), that Chucky is alive and responsible for all the bad stuff happening around Andy and Karen. That’s bad, because now everyone thinks Child's Play 1988 movie posterAndy is crazy. But, this is a slasher flick, not an exploration of child psychiatric practices in the mid-1980s. All this is just necessary work to make the story more believable. The important thing is that Chucky is a killer doll, and the more bodies he piles up, the better.

The body count isn’t high for a horror flick, to be honest. It isn’t the spectacle that makes this classic horror. Rather, it’s the excellent pace and storytelling from director Tom Holland (who got a screenwriting credit alongside Mancini and John Lafia). The entire film takes place over the course of only a few days, and there is nary a wasted scene in this film’s lean 87-minute running time.

The pièce de résistance of the movie, the moment when Karen realizes that Chucky is alive, ranks among the best “oh fuck” moments in horror film history. It’s that good, and a testament to the filmmakers’ skills. I won’t spoil it any further, but for a moment that held no surprise to the audience, who has been aware since the beginning of Chucky’s true nature, it still had a lot of punch.

By the third act, the stakes become higher, as Charles Lee Ray learns he needs to perform some new voodoo, or he’ll be stuck in the doll forever. He sets his sights on poor Andy, leading to denouement and resolution. Holland then wraps it all up in a satisfying manner, with a deadly game of hide and seek with Chucky.

Not too bloody or gory, Child’s Play lives on sheer competence. With the exception of Vincent, the cast were seasoned pros, and Holland was ready to build upon the reputation he established a few years earlier with Fright Night. Child’s Play is a good film all around, and deservedly regarded as a key entry in 1980’s horror flicks — one of the films that makes that decade so memorable for fans of the genre.

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