The year is 1988, and you want to see something scary. Do you go see the film about a freckle-faced animatronic doll possessed by a serial killer's spirit? Or the one about a creature unearthed from a backwoods pumpkin patch? Those three-day-old leftovers lurking in the back of the refrigerator sound more frightening than either of those options, yet Child's Play and Pumpkinhead have both managed to stand the test of time, each inspiring several sequels and a sizable cult fan base. Novelty was clearly a key factor: In the Friday The 13th era, a killer-doll movie and an old-fashioned Southern gothic had no trouble setting themselves apart.
Twenty years later, the Chucky doll in Child's Play has grown into as iconic a horror specter as Leatherface or Freddy Krueger, but if it ever had any menace, the sequels have watered it down into an ironic punchline. It was inevitable, really: If a supernatural nemesis can be stepped on, kicked, or whipped around by its synthetic red hair, then how frightening can it be? Nevertheless, the original Child's Play does a fine job of acknowledging Chucky's ridiculousness ("Aunt Maggie, Chucky wants to watch the 9 o'clock news") without turning him into a big joke. The sequences without Chucky are as stock as they come, and so are all the flesh-and-blood characters around him, but he's still a hugely entertaining mischief-maker, and what he lacks in physical gifts, he compensates for in sneakiness. And as voiced by Brad Dourif, he's got a blue-collar Jersey attitude that's strangely endearing; who can begrudge a doll that's got a score to settle with a guy named Eddie Caputo?
Child's Play was a studio hit; by contrast, Pumpkinhead found its audience almost entirely on videocassette, which seems appropriate, since the film's strengths lie almost entirely in the niche worlds of FX and creature designs. Making his directorial debut, legendary effects and makeup artist Stan Winston (The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Aliens) doesn't show much interest in the characters or the story, which pits a bunch of city kids against a vengeance demon conjured up by Lance Henriksen, a backwoods hick who blames them for his son's death. But Winston and his tech crew heavily invest themselves in the expressively backlit gothic atmosphere and a throwback creature that subtly evolves into Henriksen's eerie doppelgänger, his dark side made manifest. Had Pumpkinhead been made in the silent era, it might now be treated with the reverence granted Nosferatu.
Key features: Two commentaries on Child's Play, neither of which are as good as the brief, scene-specific Chucky commentary. The commentary on Pumpkinhead is an entertaining techie reunion, and both discs include a generous array of featurettes.