Child’s Play Turns 30: A Personal Look at a Franchise Favorite

Thirty years ago, the horror genre saw the dawn of the slasher craze—films that introduced us to knife-wielding lunatics attacking people at random during appropriately themed holidays or even from within their victims’ own dreams. With each crazy plot, adding a film about a serial killer-possessed doll to the mix doesn’t seem that absurd. I certainly never thought it was—Child’s Play scared the hell out of me. I’m not currently, nor have I ever been, afraid of dolls, but Chucky is different. Something about this Tom Holland classic, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today, has stuck with me.

There have been a lot of evil doll movies released since Child’s Play. Some have been legitimately spooky, like the Annabelle spin-offs within The Conjuring Universe. Others have been just awful, like Pinocchio’s Revenge from 1996. But all of them, in some way, owe a great deal to Don Mancini’s Chucky. I myself owe a lot to Chucky, for better or worse. Premiering about a year after my birth, that means I’ve only spent a year of my life not living in fear.

Even if I didn’t have the connection I have to Child’s Play, with it being one of the first movies to legitimately scare and deeply affect me (more on that later), I believe I would still hold the movie in the same high regard because it holds up. It’s not like a lot of the other slashers from its era, the ones that you watch today that can’t stop reminding you that they were made in the ’80s and need you to cut them some slack. In fact, aside from a few moments and styles, the movie is timeless—an accomplishment it manages despite having a plot concerned with the tastes of the day.

And those tastes? Toys. So many toys. Toys monopolized ‘80s pop culture in a way like never before. People fought over Cabbage Patch Kids, whole TV shows were produced to advertise toys like Transformers. Child’s Play had something to say about that, with Little Andy wanting more than anything to have a toy, pajamas, cereal, all from his favorite TV show. But it was too popular, and the doll was too expensive.

Catherine Hicks and Alex Vincent in Child’s Play (1988)

This is where Child’s Play comes together with all the right ingredients needed to make a horror movie great. Killer Charles Lee Ray desperately trying not to die, ultimately needing to put his soul into the person he revealed himself to, Andy, before his soul became stuck in the doll forever might seem laughable on paper, but it’s solidly written and seriously acted on screen.

With all due respect to Tom Holland and his incredible directing, Don Mancini and Brad Dourif are the source of the success of Child’s Play and Chucky in all future movies. Chucky is Mancini’s creative child, and all decisions—good and bad—rest with him.

At first, the film was playing out as more of a mystery. Is Andy actually committing the murders? But that plot point was just a red herring, and we got our iconic possessed doll instead—the doll that Mancini has been keeping close through all of the subsequent franchise installments. It’s rare that a character and a franchise have been under the control of the same person, and Don Mancini clearly loves his character and has taken care of him ever since he screamed his first lines: “YOU STUPID BITCH, YOU FILTHY SLUT! I’LL TEACH YOU TO FUCK WITH ME!”

Child’s Play (1988)

Reading that line, it’s hard not to hear it in the incredible voice of the man who has been Chucky for the past 30 years, Brad Dourif. Chucky hasn’t had another voice (aside from the voice of the actual toy) in all this time, and I would argue that the appeal of Chucky as a character rests with Brad Dourif.

Though the doll’s looks have changed over the years with updated technology, Chucky never looked better or scarier than he did in Child’s Play. I still have a hard time looking at the animatronic doll and that face. And through whatever insane thing the doll was doing, no matter how ridiculous the situation, Brad sold every second. Wether he’s chanting the incantation that will transfer his soul to a child’s body, or trying to impregnate the real-life Jennifer Tilly, Brad is having a great time.

It’s not often that an actor stays with a character through every franchise installment, but the characters and movies are often better for it. Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger (ignoring that insulting remake) are great examples. Dourif has the added benefit only having to lend his voice (excluding a few minutes here and there), which allows him to take other incredible roles, while continuing to keep this iconic character alive and consistent.

Brad Dourif in Child’s Play (1988)

Together Mancini and Dourif have created a character that has been scaring people for three decades. You can put me at the top of that list, as Chucky traumatized me as a child. The greatest testament to the character, though, is that Chucky affected me before I ever even saw the entire movie. I must’ve been around four years old when I snuck into my sister’s room and caught my first glimpse of Chucky on screen. Unable to control myself, I quickly blew my cover, running from my hiding place crying.

I don’t even think that Chucky was doing anything too horrible in the moments I saw—just existing. But the sound of the voice, the knife in his hand—it changed me. I had that image burned into my mind, and would freeze every time my friend and I would play in his brother’s room and I’d see the Chucky doll sitting on his dress. Thankfully, I could generally talk my way out of being near the doll and could avoid seeing Chucky most places. That is, until he started showing up in my nightmares.

I managed to avoid actually watching the series until Seed of Chucky was released in 2004, a time when my friends and I were specifically looking to consume the worst movies that we could find. Seed was too good to pass up, representing objectively the lowest time in the franchise’s history which had then turned from straight horror to painfully attempted comedy, and watching it motivated me to start back at the beginning and do the series right.

Alex Vincent in Child’s Play (1988)

Child’s Play absolutely hooked me, and the following two hold up really well also. The following installment, Bride (1998), was a perfect blend of horror and comedy, but Seed took the “comedy” too far and things were dialed back for Curse of Chucky in 2013, where is where I thought the series got back on track. The most recent installment, last year’s Cult of Chucky, felt like another weird sidestep at the time—I never expected I’d have to think so hard during a Chucky movie—but made more sense once news of an upcoming canonical TV series broke.

And that’s not all for our favorite killers doll: According to recent announcements, a remake of the original Child’s Play is in the works, against vehement opposition. No one who’s important to the real franchise wants anything to do with the transparent cash grab, and hearing a voice other than Brad Dourif’s coming out of Chucky’s mouth is going to be like hearing the wrong voice come out of Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. Adding insult to injury, the remake isn’t even reported to follow the original’s storyline.Looking more like a reimagined Small Soldiers, the remake clearly does not know why the 30-year-old classic is so beloved.

No matter what the future holds, we still—and always will—have our Child’s Play and Chucky. With so much love surrounding the series, it’s a safe bet that the real Chucky isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As long as Don Mancini and Brad Dourif continue to create, the fans will continue to follow. And though that can’t continue on forever, we’ll always have the original Chucky when the well runs dry—and he’ll always be my friend ’til the end.

Alex Vincent in Child’s Play (1988)
About Mike Cramer 64 Articles
Michael Cramer is an ambitious 20-something go-getter who is always looking for his next step up the corporate ladder. Nah, he's just a guy who loves horror movies and wants others to hear his opinions like "that movie was great" and "that could have been better".

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