Dr. Franchise: Something’s Wrong With Chucky

So the Child’s Play movies vary wildly in quality and tone. Yet, it all came from a single artistic voice. Don Mancini has been the creative captain of the famous killer doll franchise since its inception. That being said, MGM/Orion actually has the rights to the very first film, Child’s Play (1988), every sequel after is owned by Universal.  MGM wants some of that delicious franchise money, so they have made a remake for this summer. This is the first Chucky film without Mancini. It stars Gabriel Bateman as young Andy Barclay, Aubrey Plaza as his loving mother, and has Mark Hamill (of Luke Skywalker and Joker from Batman the Animatedmovie Series fame) voice the killer doll in a role usually performed by Brad Dourif.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with a Child’s Play remake in concept. In fact, I think it’s probably a great idea. In all honesty, I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner when Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and every other horror movie had their universe rebooted only to be abandoned. Perhaps they didn’t have a good angle for it. That era had a very poor output of horror due to lack of effort, not to mention that the Chucky series actually was going pretty strong in contrast to its contemporaries. That’s to the credit of Mancini and the decision to adopt an edgy, subversive, comedic style. It was a little cutting edge and the change was more natural and guided than how other horror films tried to adapt. When you are expected to laugh with the slashers and their jokes, a killer doll is easier than a burnt child killer or a mute undead behemoth wearing a hockey mask.

So, if we as a public are open to it, does the new Child’s Play look like it’s not lazy and poorly thought out? It’s a little complicated, but as a doctor specializing in film franchises and their cultural place in the world, I’m going to talk about what the film is doing wrong or right and how it could’ve been something special instead of something that will probably be disposable. I’m not a proctologist, but I’m about to go in deep.

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This is the toy of the future, over thirty years old.

Diagnosis: Low Hanging Fruit and the Rotting of the Old

Okay, before I complain or praise what these past few trailers show I’m going to state some things to get them out of the way: I’m writing this on April 22, 2019. I’ve seen two trailers for this film and heard one line from Hamill. Any speculation and other thoughts are merely gut feelings that are probably right, but this paragraph is a reminder that I might totally be wrong. If I am, feel free to completely ridicule me by posting about this masterpiece of cinema after this comes out.

The other thing I should talk about is the original Child’s Play film. It’s my favorite of the entire franchise. The Child’s Play sequels were bad until they changed tone, but the original stands out to me as something special. The original film is such a simple concept done almost perfectly. I’m not saying it’s some Mancini magnum opus, but this is probably the best gimmick slasher movie ever. If you consider Freddy Krueger’s dream antics a gimmick I would concede, but if you just think of the countless lazy uninspired slasher flicks based on stupid gimmicks, Chucky’s killer doll stuff is top of the class.

The original film has a secret weapon that legitimizes the film: the acting talent. Chris Sarandon and Catherine Hicks are completely believable adults having to deal with a completely surreal concept. Dourif is an Academy Award nominated actor being given a character to have absolute fun with and delivers a complete range of negative emotions for a completely despicable character. That’s impressive with just a voice too.

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Plaza seems like she’ll do a good enough job.

In considering the first film and the remake, I also have to mention how amazing Alex Vincent’s performance as Andy Barclay is. First, being a kid actor is difficult because you’ll probably be bad. Second, being a kid actor as a lead in a horror movie is really difficult. Vincent was the ultimate key to sustaining the suspension of disbelief, which we’ll talk about later. For now, it’s important to realize how real Vincent’s emotions feel in the first film. When he cries or is scared or mad, we feel it. The sequels may have kept some of the casting, but the plots were really convoluted and uninspired and they booted Vincent off after the second film. He came back for the last two sequels, but as a fully grown man, too little too late.

So with all of that being said: what do we see in this remake’s trailers? This remake seems to want to modernize the original film with the first gimmick they thought of and then maintain the rest of the standards of the original film but the standards are just “good enough”. This is the same kind of approach horror remakes tried ten years ago, and they didn’t work then either. This film will probably make money, but if MGM wants to make a franchise out of this and not just a “remember this awful remake?” they really needed to think about their approach. They didn’t.

Let’s talk casting: Aubrey Plaza is the mom. I think she’ll be fine in the role,  I’m a little worried they’ve made her a little too much of a damsel, but I think I’ll believe any line she says. Andy’s casting leads to some of the film’s most major problems. Gabriel Bateman (according to Google) is thirteen years old. That’s crazy old for a kid that’s supposed to want a doll in the year 2019. I was thirteen in 2006 and I didn’t care about dolls. I was into internet porn and Call of Duty.

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Chucky’s scariest when he’s going to reveal your internet search history.

I’m unsure of what to think about Hamill’s performance just yet, it’s not really fair of me to cast judgement on him based on one line. I’ll say this: they chose an accomplished voice actor for Chucky and that was a smart move. Dourif is probably going to be better just looking at what he can do versus what Hamill can do and the substance of the films, but if you’re going to recast Chucky the most important thing about him is his voice. Hamill definitely has range and control within his voice. They wanted to cast somebody that would excite the internet, and Hamill also has the geek credibility to get Reddit excited. Good casting is good marketing. I’m also glad he’s not using the Joker voice for this, though I’m sure everybody was expecting it. Hamill’s voice has less of the serial killer edge Dourif’s had, but from what we know of the film it wouldn’t make sense to have that serial killer edge. Dourif’s Chucky was completely serious and had the main emotion of anger with a hint of glee when he was about to murder. Hamill’s seems to play more into a doll role, just with sinister hints hidden within his sing song tone. My guess is he’ll be the best part of the film.

So then we look at the actual aesthetic, plot, and tone that’s presented within these trailers. Here is where I’m starting to lose my brain trying to break this down. So 13 year old Andy Barclay gets a doll from his mother that’s supposed to be electronically tied into his home and synched up with a bunch of other appliances and products. That’s a fun set up and is clearly the main distinction between these two universes (Chuckyverses?). Yet, I’m stuck on who would buy this doll at all. Original Chucky looks like a Cabbage Patch kid, and for good reason. The eighties were an era of this kind of consumption and shallow toy. Chucky was cute and marketable. In this remake, it’s clear they didn’t want to stray too far away from the original design, so they changed his face and hair to make him look way more sinister from the get-go. So here’s some lessons in suspension of disbelief kids: a voodoo killer doll is easy to accept as long as the film’s logic about that doll makes sense. There has to be a reason for the doll to be bought, and if the actors pretend hard enough (which they did) you’ll never really question it. That’s probably why they cast Bateman: so they could have a child actor with more control in their performance, but there’s still an essential problem here. Maybe they’ll talk about it in the film, like Plaza bought the doll because she doesn’t even know what her own kid likes, but that leads into problems with Chucky.

Looking at the rest of the film, we see that Chucky is going to take over a toy store and use some murder drones and Christmas lights for kills. I actually have a lot of faith in this stuff, I think these kills will be fun and the WiFi angle is going to lead to some creativity. I’m worried that the plot is going to try too hard with the WiFi angle and abandon motivation for the doll. I’m not sure the details of Chucky’s characterization yet but it seems like this is an AI issue, not some voodoo serial killer. If it’s a Skynet issue, the movie is going to need to address a lot more than the original film did. It’s going to need to give us a reason why it’s not happening to other Buddi dolls, it’s going to need to give us a reason Chucky would want to murder the Barclay family specifically (in the original Chucky needed to kill Andy to return into a human body), but it’s also going to need to be tasteful and not do something generic and awful like “If Chucky gets on the toy department’s WiFi he’s going to hack into every Chucky doll in the United States”. God, I don’t want a horror movie with those kinds of stakes.

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Oh man, that’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Bratz dolls.

The other thing that worries me is that shot of a bunch of kids with weapons, as if the kids are going to fight back in a weird Monster Squad (1987)/The Goonies (1985) way. Though the more cynical side of me thinks back to It (2017). It could work in a Child’s Play movie, but it just feels really bizarre coming from the rest of the trailer’s presentation.

Treatment: An Unbalanced Diet of Murder

So that was a lot to digest. I think the film trying to both be different and loyal to the original is what’s going to kill this thing. My doubts for this film would be erased if they dedicated themselves to a single concept. Complete dedicated remake of Child’s Play in 2019? Yeah, I’m down for that – I miss Chucky not winking at the camera, but also a 1:1 remake is pointless. If they dedicated themselves to a Smart House that just chose a toy because toys can easily pick up a knife compared to a fridge, I’m all for it. Then again, is that a Child’s Play remake or some sort of tech movie we’ve already seen? It could be a Monster Squad movie where the adults are all trapped in a store while the kids go in to save the day, but why is the tone so strictly horror instead of fun? If the film was like that it would have more in common with Spy Kids (2001) than the original Child’s Play. That’s okay too, but it feels like they made this movie for the trailer first.

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Okay she looks pretty scared. That’s promising, I guess?

So other than dedicating themselves to a single idea, every other doubt I’ve raised is probably there to stay. Chucky and Andy have an uphill battle to establish themselves. What would I have done for a reboot? I probably would’ve stuck to the eighties. I know it’s cliche and I complain about it all the time, but Child’s Play gets most of its story meat from the height of the children’s toy era. MGM had to completely reinvent Chucky for 2019, and they came up with Siri. If you were doing something unoriginal like rooting it in the eighties, I would explore things the original concept could have utilized that were never explored. Chucky could have a real supporting cast instead of Tiffany (who’s okay) and Glen for one film. Think about how many variations of Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbie and Buddies there are, then you can see that potential with Chucky himself. Chucky likes to talk, so giving him his own team of psychopaths could really make things feel different.

Either way, I just wrote way too much about four minutes of footage. I wish Chucky would take me out back and put me out of my misery. Preferably with a fun and memorable murder, asking for a good plot might be asking for a bit too much nowadays.

 

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