Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Chucky in Child's Play (Photo: United Artists/Getty Images), Seed Of Chucky (Photo: Rogue Pictures), and Cult Of Chucky (Poster: Cult Of Chucky). Graphic: Devin Vaughn

The Child’s Play movies are like exposure therapy for people scared of dolls

Chucky in Child's Play (Photo: United Artists/Getty Images), Seed Of Chucky (Photo: Rogue Pictures), and Cult Of Chucky (Poster: Cult Of Chucky). Graphic: Devin Vaughn

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

We all know dolls can be creepy. Who among us hasn’t gazed into the horrific abyss of some unblinking glassy visage, attached to a vaguely humanoid body filled out with inorganic padding, and wondered how many seconds would pass before the lifeless monstrosity turned its head and winked at you? That’s what’s understandable about conditions like pediophobia, the fear of dolls—they’re deeply relatable to just about everyone. Because even if you don’t get upset by every doll you see, or mind having a shelf of them stare at you throughout the night at a random bed and breakfast (or wherever people encounter them in their natural habitats these days), dolls by definition occupy a land just east of the uncanny valley. Call it the Figurine Flats: the territory filled by dolls that instill a deep sense of unease by being weirdly lifelike and simultaneously inert. It’s too close to a dead body and not nearly close enough to a photograph or maybe a nice ball of yarn.

The movies that make up the Child’s Play series are far from the first cinematic efforts to depict the inherently unsettling properties of dolls. We can find the idea of the too-lifelike doll as far back as 1929’s The Great Gabbo, in which a ventriloquist’s dummy seems to possess the ability to talk and move without his master. It turns out to be a feint, however, leaving the true arrival of a supernaturally sentient doll to 1945’s horror anthology Dead Of Night, whose famous last segment features another ventriloquist dummy, Hugo, who leaves his human partner in an attempt to find someone better, to deadly results. (Tod Browning’s 1936 thriller The Devil-Doll is something of a middle ground, a story of a vengeful man who uses a serum that can shrink people down to doll size in order to infiltrate the homes of his enemies and exact punishment.)

From Asylum to Trilogy Of Terror to more recent offerings like The Boy or Annabelle, evil dolls are a staple of the horror genre, thanks to that foundational fear of the almost-human totemic nature of the creations, practically as universal an anxiety as a fear of the dark. Sure, it can be fun to envision a benevolent, or at least harmless, version of this what-if scenario—they’re called the Toy Story films, and they’re a goddamn gift—but the sheer potency of the malevolent take on this idea obviously resonates on a primal level, because storytellers return to it again and again, forever playing upon our fascination with the uncanny. Evil dolls of any kind become much more frightening because they contrast so starkly with the cuddly surface veneer.

Especially if that veneer is being sold to you via advertising. Don Mancini has written every installment of the Child’s Play franchise (and directed the three most recent movies), now 25 years and running, and his goal from the beginning was to create an iconic character that operated both as terrifying nightmare and sharp satire of the crass commercialism and pandering youth-marketing tactics that had suffused American culture in the me-’80s heyday. The original screenplay was called Batteries Not Included, until that was taken by a far sillier film, but his script always maintained a fascination with what he saw as the evil nature of such manipulative corporate machinations, then experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to Reagan’s aggressively business-friendly policies.

That wasn’t the only reason the time seemed ripe for this type of film. Mancini was a student at UCLA Film School when he saw Joe Dante’s Gremlins and realized just how far animatronics had come. One of the reasons ventriloquist dummies were so often the focal point of earlier evil-doll narratives was because effects just weren’t where they needed to be to make an ordinary doll a real character, with pages of dialogue, and have it be scary. (They previously looked “kind of muppety,” as Mancini says.) Now studios had the ability to create fully realized mechanical creations, expanding the visual palette for directors everywhere—but especially in horror, as Mancini suspected.

The first Child’s Play movie is a case of right place/right time, a film that took the long-told tale of a malevolent doll and made it thrillingly alive in a manner previously unseen. The film opens with a simple premise, no backstory needed: Murderous criminal Charles Lee Ray (“Chucky” for short) is shot while fleeing the police, and with his dying breath, he recites a voodoo ritual that transfers his soul into whatever he touches—in this case, a “Good Guy” doll. The repackaged doll is then purchased by single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), who is desperate to provide her son, Andy (Alex Vincent), with his dream birthday present. Chucky begins killing people, leading the detective on the case (Prince Humperdinck himself, Chris Sarandon) to suspect it’s actually Andy committing the murders, while Karen slowly realizes the sweet-faced doll is responsible. It becomes a race against time, as Chucky has a limited window in which he can transfer his soul to the first person he reveals himself to—Andy—before being stuck in the doll forever. The scary-funny ending has Chucky being beaten, stabbed, burned, and finally shot repeatedly, before the credits roll.

Director Tom Holland keeps things moving along, turning the entire film into a pretty ruthlessly efficient scare delivery system. While Chucky immediately starts whispering menacing lies to Andy and kills Karen’s sister, Maggie, that very first night he’s in the apartment, Holland waits a long time before revealing the voice—Brad Dourif’s raspy and nasal drawl coming out of a smiling little piece of plastic. The direction toggles between Chucky point-of-view shots, close-ups of various body parts, and other tricks to keep the complete reveal delayed, in classic monster-movie fashion. Even better, Holland never avoids the fundamental ridiculousness of a little doll stalking people, even as he makes it unnerving at the same time. When Karen pleads to Sarandon’s detective, “Why won’t you believe me?!” he responds with an underplayed, “Because I’m sane, Mrs. Barclay.” The film is short, vicious, and unafraid of surrounding a young child with swearing and gore.

Child’s Play is a satisfying little B-horror film whose deep-seated anxiety struck a nerve with a mainstream audience. It didn’t hurt that it had a $9 million budget, sizable enough to bring its murderous toy to life in a believable manner. That investment was rewarded, as the film became a hit, surpassed only by Nightmare On Elm Street 4 as the highest-grossing horror flick of the year. Chucky may have been killed at the end of it, but that doesn’t matter in scary movies: A new franchise was born.

Child’s Play 2 came out exactly two years to the day after the first film and doesn’t stray much from the formula. As is standard procedure with horror sequels, there are more kills, fewer scares, and an overall emphasis on spectacle over story. Picking up two years later, Andy’s been placed in the foster system, Karen having been committed for supporting Andy’s story of a supernaturally possessed killer doll. Chucky’s been cleaned up and rebuilt by the corporate PR team at Good Guys toys, part of a publicity campaign to reassure the public there’s nothing wrong with the dolls. (If anything, the satire of cynical corporate behavior is ramped up here.) Chucky, naturally, comes back to life, kills a bunch of employees, and looks up Andy, who’s been placed in a new foster home with two parents (Gerrit Graham and Jenny Agutter), as well as a foster sister, teenage Kyle (Christine Elise, better known as Emily Valentine from Beverly Hills, 90210).

In every way, it hangs together less effectively than its predecessor, but Mancini’s script is smartly self-aware (a recurring theme in these films), and new director John Lafia creates some enjoyably gonzo moments. A scene at Andy’s new school has Chucky writing, “FUCK YOU BITCH,” on Andy’s test and turning it in, an absurd comic beat. And when the parents discover Andy literally tied to his bed, they inexplicably dismiss it as just some playing around. After offing the parents and a few other characters, the film’s climax takes place at the Good Guy dolls manufacturing plant, which is rendered practically Looney Tunes-esque in its outsize design, bright and colorful. Andy and Kyle dispatch Chucky by trapping him in the doll-assembling machine, thereby fusing numerous additional plastic limbs to his body, then blasting him with boiling plastic, melting him down. For good measure, Kyle sticks an air hose in Chucky’s nose, blowing up his head. Yeah, it’s a titch silly.

Following two films of essentially identical storytelling, the creative team decided to change up the setting and mood of the next one, even as the fundamental premise was repeated yet again, albeit with slightly different moving parts. Child’s Play 3 finds a now-teenage Andy sent to a military academy, where he befriends a nerd, strikes up a relationship with a girl cadet, and chafes against the authority of a sadistic older boy who basically exists to make the audience hate him and then get killed. Meanwhile, the corporate greed of Good Guy sees the dolls put back into production, and a drop of blood from Chucky’s mangled corpse gets mixed into the new molding, thereby transferring his soul into a new body. Once again, Mancini scores political points in the boardroom scenes of the corporation; the CEO delivers a glibly bleak speech about the fundamentals of amoral capitalism: “It doesn’t matter what we’re selling, whether it’s cars, nuclear weapons, or yes, even toys.” Strangely, few opportunities are taken to similarly skewer the rigidity of the military ideology, outside of a couple observations about how it rewards unthinking obedience and crushes the spirits of nonconformist types.

The doll reboot means Chucky gets a new chance to find a body, so once he kills the CEO and mails himself to Andy, the serial killer instead decides to enter the body of a younger boy at the school, Tyler. Tyler is a bit dim, immediately accepting that this doll is talking to him and not questioning plans to hurt others. In a way, Tyler functions as a symbol of the third movie: Most of the menace has been sapped by familiarity, and Chucky is becoming a wisecracking antihero of the Freddy Krueger sort. Catchphrases and hokey one-liners pour out of him (“Don’t fuck with the Chuck!” is an early groaner), but the movie is still trying—at least on the surface—to scare audiences. It doesn’t work very well, outside of a late-night search for a hidden Chucky in Andy’s bedroom, and what little frights remain are limited to some so-so jump scares. Director Jack Bender has gone on to an acclaimed career in TV, but this material is too threadbare to provide much zest. A finale set at an amusement park (that just so happens to be right next to where this academy conducts its war games) tries to create some last-minute spectacle, but it just feels like warmed-over Child’s Play.

Even Mancini knew the formula was stale. To his credit, he shook up his series in fairly dramatic fashion, and if the results aren’t all that satisfying, the next two films are still an admirable attempt to take the franchise in a new direction. Bride Of Chucky and Seed Of Chucky are shamelessly goofy horror-comedies that acknowledge that the fear has been drained from the subject matter. Chucky isn’t a source of nightmares so much as he is a bloodthirsty carnival barker, delivering kills and wisecracks in equal measure, without much need for anyone to watch the screen between their fingers. Mancini and director Ronny Yu (Mancini then took over directing duties with Seed) create an explicitly campy tone and lean into it. Sure, there’s still gore, but it’s provided with a wink and a nod, instead of a scare.

The film abandons the Andy Barclay storyline, instead turning to Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), an old girlfriend of Chucky’s who acquires the remains of the previous doll, sews it back together, and brings him to life once again, in hopes of marrying her old beau. (In case anyone isn’t clear on the new degree of seriousness, we see Tiffany put together the ritual while consulting the handbook Voodoo For Dummies.) Tempers flare, however, and soon Chucky has electrocuted Tiffany and transferred her soul into a distaff version of himself, explicitly created to look like a doll of Tilly. Suddenly it’s announced that Chucky requires an amulet to transfer their souls into new people, one that’s buried with his human body in New Jersey, so they arrange to hitch a ride with a pair of lovelorn teenagers (Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile) running away from home (and her controlling father, played by the late John Ritter) who don’t understand why everyone around them keeps dying, leaving them the only suspects.

The movie is farce from start to finish, with an unabashedly meta sense of humor, the kind of film where a character will say of the Frankenstein-looking Good Guy doll, “He’s from the ’80s. He’s not even scary!” After drilling a man’s head full of nails, Chucky muses, “Why does that face look so familiar?” an explicit shout-out to Hellraiser’s iconic Pinhead. Chucky and Tiffany get high. There is a doll sex scene. And at the end of the film, Tiffany gives birth to a baby doll. It’s all enjoyable enough, in a lunkheaded kind of way, but it’s awfully low-hanging fruit, humorwise. It feels like people making a joke version of a Child’s Play movie, only in this case it’s the actual creator of the original sending up his own material.

If Bride Of Chucky was hokey, Seed Of Chucky is camp on steroids. Told in part from the point of view of that new young doll (voiced by Lord Of The Rings’ Billy Boyd), who was orphaned at birth but sees their parents on the TV, thanks to the movie-within-the-movie conceit wherein Jennifer Tilly is playing herself starring in a Chucky/Tiffany movie, à la Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Traveling to meet them, our new doll arrives on the Hollywood set and brings the fake Chucky and Tiffany dolls to life in a bit of canon-defying logic. The three then try to make a new life for themselves—their child is opposed to violence, you see—and plan to enter the bodies of Tilly, her romancer/potential director and Wu-Tang member Redman (don’t ask), and the child Tilly gets pregnant with after Chucky inseminates her.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The film careens from one plot point to another with frenzied abandon, never really lingering on any one story long enough to do more than crack a few stale jokes about it. It’s a satire of Hollywood, but a weirdly toothless one. Worst of all is a creaky and outdated use of the gender-dysphoric monster trope, as the young doll can’t decide if it wants to be a boy or a girl, but soon reveals a split personality divided between a psychotic feminine killer and a peace-loving male persona, all played for laughs. The film literally names them Glen and Glenda; it’s cringe-worthy even before John Waters shows up to make you wish you were actually watching a John Waters film. It’s all so artless and vapid; it doesn’t crumble under its own weight so much as it wafts apart into the air.

Having satisfied his gonzo comedic urges, Mancini spent several years unsure where to go with the franchise. During the late 2000s, he attempted to launch a reboot of Child’s Play, much as Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, and other legendary horror series had done. Unfortunately for him at the time (but probably fortunately in the long run, when you consider the quality of those other reboots), the first movie’s rights are shared between two studios, and untangling them proved to be a far bigger nightmare than any killer doll. So after weighing his options, Mancini decided that what the series needed was a back-to-basics approach: Make Chucky scary again.

Curse Of Chucky doesn’t entirely succeed in that regard, but it does manage to play as a moderately effective horror film with elements of both the gothic and comedic. Set in one old house over the course of a single night, the film works as a stand-alone entry, no deeper information about the series backstory needed. Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif, looking uncannily like her father, Brad, a.k.a. the voice of Chucky), in a wheelchair since birth, has just lost her mother in the opening scene. (It’s ruled a suicide, but Chucky had been mailed to the house just minutes before, so draw your own conclusions.) Nica’s sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nanny, along with a priest in tow, arrive at the house to make arrangements. Over the course of the night, Chucky begins acting out his murderous impulses, and Nica finds herself having to confront the fact that something terrible—and terribly inexplicable—is happening.

Given the family isn’t very likable, it’s all on Dourif to give us someone to root for (other than Chucky, of course), and she makes for a resourceful Final Girl, full of moxie but still terrified. The movie feels like a return to scary-movie fundamentals, even as it takes a notable leap forward in CGI assistance. Whereas Seed Of Chucky often looked cheap, the Chucky here is redesigned to be more disturbing, with a much more expressive face, the better to radiate evil. Still, Mancini can’t resist keeping some humor, though it’s not of the winking sort any more. The family members play some outsized personalities, erring just on the right side of the camp divide, and Chucky has some one-liners, but Curse Of Chucky does its best to deliver chills. It only sporadically works, and yet it brings an air of unease back to the franchise.

Without the setup of Curse, the next movie is a bit less coherent, but even taken on its own merits, Cult Of Chucky is the most purely entertaining Child’s Play film since the original. For starters, it’s darker. Before the opening credits even run, we learn that Andy Barclay—the kid from the original three films—is now an adult, living along in a remote cabin, where he keeps the captured head of Chucky (following a post-credits stinger at the end of Curse) mounted on a pike, and tortures it routinely. Meanwhile, in the four years since the events of the last film, Nica has been committed to a psychiatric facility, where a doctor has convinced her that she made up the whole “Chucky” story as a way to avoid accepting responsibility for killing her family. Once she moves to a minimum-security center, it’s only a matter of time before Chucky comes looking for revenge.

Despite a lot of the plot not really holding up under close examination, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the mystery of the Chucky situation. How can he be stalking Nica and safely imprisoned in Andy’s house? Why do some people seem to be aiding the malevolent doll? As returning cast member Tilly informs Andy in a menacing phone call, “The cult is growing.” All this weirdness plays well when paired with the institutional setting, giving Nica a whole host of oddballs to play against, wondering who she can trust. The institution itself is the kind of stark, all-white enclosure that only exists in film, and the story moves along at a good clip, maintaining a dark tone even as it wastes no time delivering kills and gore. Mancini can’t resist indulging his penchant for cheesy meta humor (Tilly bears the brunt of this lesser material, even enduring an “Anyone ever tell you you look exactly like Jennifer Tilly?” line), but the more he jettisons it in favor of mystery and menace, the stronger Cult Of Chucky becomes.

Like a twisted episode of The Twilight Zone, the film even delivers a surprise ending, one that promises inventive new avenues for the narrative to continue.(Hopefully far from Seed Of Chucky territory.) But the Child’s Play films, despite the uneven quality, deserve credit for branching out and exploring new methods of storytelling and structure when so many other series are content to just repeat the same basic narrative over and over, with little variation outside of cast and setting. The films move from supernatural slasher, to action, to comedy, to camp, to haunted-house horror, to mystery—all in service of finding new ways to keep the franchise from sputtering out. With the exception of the first couple of films, you never have to worry about Chucky repeating himself.

Final ranking

1. Child’s Play (1988)
2. Cult Of Chucky (2017)
3. Child’s Play 2 (1990)
4. Curse Of Chucky (2013)
5. Bride Of Chucky (1998)
6. Child’s Play 3 (1991)
7. Seed Of Chucky (2004)