I started finding dolls in interesting situations around the house. You know when it’s time, and when I knew, I made sure Child’s Play (1988) was one of the first horror movies my daughter would remember. What she got out of it is this prank. She’ll leave a certain creepy-looking doll around the house waiting for me. Just as I round the corner, there it is. Sometimes she won’t comment. Often she’ll insist the doll is living and is coming for me. I have never been more delighted. It was then that I knew what I had always really known about Child’s Play. It’s one of the great connective horror premises that captures a childlike imagination for character invention, and it’s truly a great family film, one that is now crucially important in our family. I know this now, but I didn’t know until watching them back-to-back a few years ago just how interesting the whole series is as one continuous project. It fits together in that way in a way other horror properties don’t. It has a nice, clean lineage, ready-made for documentation.
“Let me put it this way. If this were a movie, it would take three or four sequels to do it justice,” Chucky, the beloved killer children’s doll famously quipped. And he was right. They got it in the first movie but then it took a few more to really do it justice. What the Child’s Play franchise is emblematic of, perhaps more so than most any other horror property, is what happens when a writer gets to take their ideas with them. From entry to entry Child’s Play feels like a straight line in envisioning what the original set out to do, with a familial development style of repetitive iteration, always with an eye for what new ideas can expand the series as a horror franchise.
The documentary gets into why it was initially revelatory. We had a genre of horror storytelling about killer dolls. There were books, there was an episode of The Twilight Zone, and there were a handful of tries at movies, none of which truly treated the doll at their center as a living breathing character with quirks and personality traits. It still holds up, even despite the odd voodoo that transfers a human soul into the doll and the implication that the Chucky is slowly turning into a person as the movie goes, a trope the series immediately drops. The rest is great stuff: the premise of taking out the batteries, and yet he still moves! The idea of childhood wrapped around these toys which saves us from tedium but then take on a life beyond the scope of a child’s imagination. The next two movies follow more regularly how horror of the ’80s and ’90s had been more commonly developed, shot back to back, and with little advancement in the themes or central ideas, but from there, the series gets pretty novel in its concepts.
The height of the series is 1998’s Bride of Chucky. While Brad Dourif is a stable presence and a great voice for the killer doll, he works so much better given another doll to riff off of. The ingenious move here is to cast Jenniffer Tilly in a role with three layers. She plays herself, Chucky’s love interest Tiffany, and herself as possessed by Tiffany, and each performance has a new layer and thread to it. It’s an incredibly funny movie but also begins to say something interesting about transformation. This is followed by Seed of Chucky in 2014, which introduces a trans doll and continues a series thread of empathy in the face of terror. From there, we move into 2013’s Curse of Chucky, wherein Brad Dourif’s daughter, Fiona Dourif, plays a character in a wheelchair, battling a killer doll voiced by her real-life Dad. If you understand horror communities, you know why this connects and makes the whole cast a hit at conventions. Finally, at least as of now, we have Cult of Chucky in 2017, which finds ways to meaningfully modernize the series, leading into a TV series that counts as the first fresh start outside the original crew.
The whole project, from that very first iteration to the final movie, was Don Mancini’s baby. It makes sense that the cast and crew developed a familial bond over this time. The documentary spends precious time with all of them, reflecting on the movies, sure, but most importantly the ways that producing this series of horror movies has connected them as people. We begin to get a fuller picture of what this means to the horror community and why we watch extended horror series. They provide us some comfort in returning to these dreams that have always been with us. We begin to feel the way the cast does, that we’ve essentially grown up around a whole series of horror movies. It becomes generationally significant. What begins as a self-contained story expands and adds new characters and context to a beloved scenario. We grow and so does the series. It starts to explore parenthood. The passage of time between the thirty years from when the series was introduced and how it has been developed. It is meant to be passed on. And because the series didn’t change writers, like most horror franchises do, there is a sense of continuity there, which allows for a straightforward documentary that presents the entire run of movies as one developed project. We remember joking with our parents, putting dolls out in precarious positions. Just as I have now passed it on to my daughter. It has gone over the same way. At this very moment, sitting in the chair across from me is my daughter’s doll, which seems to move freely around the house every day. The circle of horror is now complete.