13 Days of Halloween Day 13: Child’s Play (1988)

Unless you have never entered a Spirit Halloween Store, the name “Chucky” evokes the image of a homicidal knife wielding possessed doll with a mop of red hair wearing blue bibbed overalls. Nowadays, Chucky is usually seen spotting gashes on his face missing chunks of hair and has Tiffany, his doll girlfriend, by his side. There was a time, though, when Chucky was less campy and much more of a traditional horror character and it all started in the 1980s with Child’s Play (1988).

If you were around back then or have seen the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us (2017-), then you know that the 1980s was inundated with marketing directed towards children. Toys were made and stories and television shows developed to help sell the toys. Logos and characters were stamped on anything and everything that kids would beg their parents for, and company executives slept soundly at night after counting their money.

Loosely based on the urban legend of Robert the Doll, a supposed haunted doll in Key West, Florida and partially inspired by the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone (1959), Child’s Play (1988) is a dark look at the consumerism of the 1980s specifically how marketing affects children. Remember, this was a time when parents physically fought each other for Cabbage Patch dolls, a violent and greedy mob mentality that was a predecessor to Black Friday sale riots.

The film begins with Detective Norris (Chris Sarandon) chasing serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) through Chicago. The chase ends in a toy store where a mortally wounded Ray uses a Voodoo incantation to transport his soul to a Good Guys doll, the toy everyone simply must have. Of course, the Voodoo incantation causes the lightning to strike the toy store and burn it down.

Luckily for Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), a single and struggling mother, a homeless peddler recovered the doll and sells it to her at a fraction of the retail price for her son’s, Andy (Alex Vincent), birthday. Charles Lee Ray, now known as “Chucky,” reveals himself to Andy and continues his killing spree.

Andy is the prime suspect of his babysitter’s murder, and no one believes him when he claims that Chucky is alive. Chucky uses Andy to track down his former partner and Voodoo teacher in order to exact revenge and find out how to escape his new doll form and live in a different body. Before Chucky kills him, the Voodoo teacher tells him he can only transfer his soul into the body of the first person he revealed himself to.

The premise sounds cheesy and hokey, but it works. Most of us have seen a doll that looks a little creepy or makes us feel uneasy. Chucky exploits that common fear. When I watched it for the first time, I was around 6 years old, the same age as Andy is supposed to be and I had a several Cabbage Patch dolls and even a Kid Sister doll. The Kid Sister doll was the female counterpart of My Buddy, a doll that looked eerily similar to the Good Guys dolls. Needless to say, the My Buddy Toy line did not do well, but obviously the Chucky franchise has.

Despite being centered on a possessed doll that walks and talks, the film has a serious tone and includes Karen almost being rapped when she questions the peddler after her close friend and Andy’s babysitter, Maggie (Dinah Manoff), is killed. Freddy Krueger paved the way for Chucky’s smart ass foul mouth that taunts his victims and, like Michael Myers, Chucky takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’ through several injuries that at the film’s climax until he finally dies. Any relief and joy the Barclay’s and Norris feel from Chucky’s death will be short lived because no one will ever believer that Chucky was the murderer.

The writing is what you would expect from a horror movie. Maggie has some nice lines that are mumbled and easily missed. There are also a few missed opportunities, though. Based on the marketing, everyone going into the theater already knew Chucky was a possessed doll and the killer. It would have been much more fun for the audience to be toyed with. We also do not know any details about Andy’s father except that he is in heaven and there are a couple pictures of him (actually the director) in the background.

Karen is also a single mom who seems to be struggling financially except she and Andy live in a really nice apartment and building. It is easy to spot an architect’s desk in the background, so we can assume it belonged to Andy’s father. Maybe he owned the apartment, or he worked for the company that owned the building and the bereaved Barclay’s have lucked out in that regard, but fancy buildings often have building fees that the apartment owners pay. Karen would more than likely not be able to afford such fees.

We know very little about Charles Lee Ray’s partner, Eddie Caputo. We know he drives off to leave Ray to try to escape on foot which Ray sees as a betrayal and eventually kills him. The odd part is that Ray would trust anyone and most serial killers work alone. Ray is known as the Lakeshore Strangler and the Hillside Strangler was actually two cousins who killed together. This could be some of the inspiration between Ray and Caputo.

The script went through several different changes over time. Producer David Kirschner and the director had trouble agreeing on several parts of the film and one argument almost ended up being violent. The first cut of the film was 2 hours long and did not test well. Perhaps some of the issues with writing ended up with scenes and details that would have strengthened the script ended up being edited out or cut.

The strong points of the film are the acting and the technological advancements the special effects team and puppeteers created. To be so young, Vincent delivered. He looked, sounded, and acted like a real kid, not a cookie cutter Disney star. He loved his mom, loved Chucky, hated Chucky, and was terrified by Chucky and we believed it. We felt something for him and we cared for him. We like Chucky, but we also wanted to see Andy survive. We wanted him to be okay.

Brad Dourif…his voice! His laugh! His delivery! He is iconic thanks to Chucky. He is Chucky as much as Robert Englund is Freddy. Child’s Play (1988) would never have been as good a film without Dourif voicing Chucky. By the way, as a West Virginia gal I am pleased to report that Dourif is a West Virginia native (bonus…so is Chris Sarandon).

The premise of the killer possessed doll was not new by any means, but this was the first time the concept was used as a full-length film in the days of animatronics. The Chucky puppets slowed production and did have tons of issues, but the creativity of Holland and the special effects and puppetry team really made the film. This was a time before a lot of green screen and CGI. They had to create things and solved technical problems that had not been tackled yet. At times, a doll attached to a dolly was used and other times a stationary doll was used. Sometimes actor Ed Gale, most famous for Howard the Duck (1986) was dressed like Chucky. Even Alex Vincent’s sister was used as Chucky! As the film progresses, the doll turns more human the longer Ray’s soul is trapped in it. This of course makes us wonder what would happen if he did not switch out of the doll. The effects and makeup department made versions of the Chucky doll that looked more human. They changed the hairline to look more like Dourif’s and changed the skin from looking plastic and shiny. The even changed how the eyes set in the sockets.

As a kid, I did not give this film enough credit. I was just scared to death of Chucky and my other dolls! Thanks to the practical effects, it has aged pretty well. It is a great movie to add to your Halloween viewing. It is also worth a second look in anticipation of the Chucky television series which premiered on SyFy and USA on October 12th!

There is some great behind the scenes footage currently available on YouTube. I would suggest any fan to check out Chucky Behind the Scenes that was filmed home movie style during production. It starts out in the workshop where Chucky puppets are being sculpted and wired. It also shows the puppeteers practicing with the puppets and a scene being filmed. A few glimpses of Catherine Hicks and Alex Vincent waiting in the wings make the set look like a fun place and remind us exactly how young Vincent was when he played Andy. It is a lengthy video, but worth a watch!

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