(This was written, ironically, in bits and pieces between sweaty sleep, in the midst of a horrible bit of being sick. My feverish sweat permeates through these disjointed, unfocused paragraphs. I don't know what I'm getting at here. Enjoy!)
Oh Baby You're So Vicious
You've Got a Friend in Me
How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Use the Dr. Strangelove Title Joke
1511 Rambling Words About Child's Play
When I was younger, I had a very specific nightmare that depending on the state of my health could've of very well been a fever driven hallucination that has stuck with me. My adolescent life was plagued with getting sicker than most when my turn came up on the normal benchmark firsts of childhood maladies. Chicken pox so thoroughly kicked my ass, and was almost immediately followed up with an insanely viscous bout of tonsillitis, that I missed enough of first grade that my teacher had to come to my house to catch me up. Couple that with my battle with extreme night terrors, sleep talking, and the occasional sleep stroll around the house, (my parents once found me asleep in the cabinet where we hid the garbage can), and all of a sudden I'm starting to think that there’s a connection with my inability to comfortably sleep before 3AM most nights. Sorry, this isn't the place for personal realizations, I'm supposed to be expounding on my particular take on Child's Play. (Isn't this how pop-culture blogging and article writing works? You make it about you, so that the reader feels like it’s about them! Look at me! I'm Chuck Klosterman! Wanna hear about my ex-girlfriends?)
But ANYWAY... I must've been about five years old at the time, (nearly 26 years ago, that's before terrorism!). I was almost certainly half awake, and definitely dealing with a fever, as I starred down at the space where my pillow meets the mattress. With only one eye open, I was already giving myself a vertigo-like bit of spatial confusion, when right in that space appeared Pee Wee's fucking Playhouse (Pee Wee was a comedic adult take on a children's television show that became a Tim Burton film about adult fears about their childhoods, that became a children's television show that adults also love, that became a late night punch-line about adult-films, and finally became a nostalgia-backed reboot on Netflix... for everyone?). It was as if someone had torn the roof off the place and I was starring down at a to-scale diorama of the titular children's entertainer's home base. In my mind I was immediately terrified by the all-too-real feeling that I was too large, or that the Playhouse was too small. Either way, something was fucking off. Then Pee Wee himself appeared, his wiry arms outstretched, and his tiny, tiny self stared me dead in the one eye, as he began to violently spin in circles, from room to room in his madhouse, while chuckling his signature chuckle. The scene itself is more than enough that it still gives me the chilly-willies.
Where were you when you first met Chucky? For those of us of a certain generation, it was most likely accidentally in the form of a poorly “cut for cable” film version on the USA network, or you accidentally caught a glimpse of just the grainy, cardboard VHS box, (insert joke here explaining what VHS tapes are in a way that makes it sound like they're from a primitive society decades gone, and there is no possible record of their actual existence), pausing in abject horror, as you clutched The Duck Tales Movie, (insert similar joke explaining what Duck Tales was, while referencing the soft around the edges reboot that is currently airing, and add in something about the new voices not being as good as the originals or not liking the animation), ready for its 34th rental. Maybe, at least true for me, Chucky was already in your house before Charles Lee Ray had taken control of the brand, in the form of a My Buddy Doll. For those who remember, My Buddy was that cherubic, overall wearing, progressive for the 80's doll for boys, slightly creeping you out with its otherness. You weren't quite sure why, but you knew, at least I knew, at least my brother and I knew, yeah, fuck that doll.
For those of you who don't know, Child's Play is the first in a film series, (seven in total as of this writing), about a doll possessed by a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray, (played with gusto by the “could have been Andy Serkis of all could have been Andy Serkises,” Brad Dourif), aka the Lake Shore Strangler. Charles is gunned down inside a toy store after being abandoned by his partner while running from the police, (which, real quick, what serial killer has a partner? I guess the guy was his getaway driver? But also, what?). Using a voodoo spell he learned during a stint in the joint, the Lake Shore Strangler transfers his soul into a Good Guy Doll, a creepier, red-haired version of the My Buddy Doll, with a dash of Teddy Rupskin talking and blinking thrown in for added creep effect. Thought dead, but now momentarily trapped in the form of Chucky the Good Guy, Charles finds himself gifted by an unsuspecting put upon mother, to her son on his birthday. I'm always amazed how little the voodoo comes into play. Case in point, the original Child's Play has Chucky using a voodoo doll to dispose of one of his victims, (easily the strangest of his murders). What ensues over the course of the series, (with a few cul-de-sacs of what-the-fuckery), is nothing short of an epic battle for souls as Charles, now Chucky, attempts to swap places with Andy, the boy he first revealed himself to, sealing their fate. Andy falls victim to Chucky on numerous occasions, his childhood destroyed, slowly becoming a sort of Van Helsing-meets-Dr. Loomis to Chucky.
Over the course of seven films, Chucky kills nearly 40 people, (oddly. only one of which I can recall is by strangulation, go figure), takes a bride, births a gender-queer doll child, kills Britney Spears, is lit on fire, melted, exploded, torn to bits, and shot. Yet each and every time, the little bastard finds his way back to the land of the living. He's evolved from just straight slasher-with-a great-hook, to comedic post-modern 90's horror, to a strange sort of anti-hero, complete with a rich, remarkably easy to follow mythology. No Irish death cults, no zombie worms, and no side-reimagining-boot-quels to his name. He's Chucky, the killer fucking doll, and he fucking digs it.
The terror in the original Child's Play trilogy (when you get to the _____of Chucky films the franchise becomes wholly different; the strangest of character studies), to me, is really made up of two very specific and unique ingredients. There is the obvious horror of a living doll; this inherent lizard brain superstition we've had since as early as ancient Egypt (go ahead, Google that). From killer ventriloquist dummies, to Zulu fetish dolls, to Talky Tina, to the 80's classic Mannequin (Andrew McCarthy baby), to your grandmother's weird porcelain collection (trigger warning: dead grandmas), to Toy Story (trigger warning: Randy Newman), to the fucking Annabelle-verse (it is a whole verse right?)... We've approached these self built others with a palpable sense of dread. Staring over the cliff into the uncanny valley of not quite self: "Ew. Gross. That thing looks like me."
The second more potent element that makes Chucky initially work so well though is his vicious, unpredictable nature. This effect is a melding of masterstroke voiceover work by Brad Dourif – literally in everything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Lord of the Rings to Deadwood – the dude rules, and the beautiful, practical effects of good, old-fashioned puppetry.
Take this for instance: probably the best scene in the original film (and possibly the whole series) is when Andy's mother, (Star Trek IV's Catherine Hicks), is finally beginning to question the validity of her son's claim that his doll is alive. It's an all-timer of a reveal when she picks up the Good Guy box and looks it over, muttering through her exhaustion, “He wants you for a best friend... Yeah. Sure,” and suddenly, Chucky's D batteries, still in their packaging, fall to the floor. What follows is the perfect blend of inhale exhale suspense as Karen Barclay inspects the doll, reveals he's missing his batteries, gets a great jump scare, drops the doll under the couch, pokes and prods him to no avail, and then finally threatens to destroy him in the fireplace, (Hey! Nice foreshadowing!). Here is the most frightening Chucky has ever been: as he finally comes to life in her hands, the puppetry seamlessly blending from inanimate to active, flailing wildly, he berates her with: “You stupid bitch! You filthy slut! I'll teach you to fuck with me!” Brad Dourif delivers each of these lines with such a razor sharp sense of violence, creating intimidation and just plain dread that pops right off the screen. It is here that we get the true reveal of what, and more importantly who, Chucky is. He is finally complete, not just as the living doll, but also as a sadistic, vicious, unpredictable monster. He is a horrible soul that relishes the chance to murder someone, not just on a whim, but also with an almost artistic drive. Captured in the form of a doll, there is a sense of perversion and wrongness, seeing a toy capable of such raw anger and power, something that seems all so adult.
Child's Play the franchise is a strange beast. Chucky rightfully is often placed in the hallowed halls of slasher-dom alongside Leatherface (9 films), Myers (10 films), Voorhees (12 films), and Kruger (9 films). Yet Child's Play is the one that has never needed, (or suffered rather), a reboot. Writer/Creator Don Mancini has in one form or another always been behind the scenes, including writing every installment, and directing the last three films to varying degrees of success. Throughout Chucky's life, Don has experimented with weird settings, (a military academy, a haunted house), weird genre's (a farcical extrapolation of Bride of Frankenstein, or the all out bonkers meta-approach of Seed of Chucky), and weird expansions of even the basic voodoo backbone in the mythology, (Have you seen Cult of Chucky yet? It's on Netflix). All of these things have created the strangest tapestry of mixed results, and somehow Chucky lives on. Not a decade has gone by since his inception when he first graced the screen. What say ye, Freddy Kruger?
And I think it's the vicious nature subverting something so wholesome, and innocent that's made him stick. You could search the series for deeper meaning, tell me how it attacks consumerism, the way hollow marketing will target kids, the desensitization of the youth, how adults don't truly listen to their kids, or the deep seeded rage of childhood, the destruction of the family unit, whatever. You'd probably write something better than this diatribe you just wasted your time reading. You could probably connect all kinds of dots and site sources; really think it out. Good for you! Start a podcast or something. Chucky has lasted, and will last, because of the entrance he made. The My Buddy Doll, truly inescapable Christmas sales trample worthy toy, never recovered from the creation of Child's Play. That's not because a slew of adults were terrified the dolls would come to life (though, then again, I don't know, maybe?), but instead the children who somehow were exposed in the tiniest ways to Chucky's cruelty and wanted nothing to do with it. And that's Chucky.
Myers kills babysitters in Haddonfield. Jason chops up campers boning down at Crystal Lake. Krueger is out for revenge in dreams on every town's Elm Street. They're all mowing down teenagers and adults that should know better. Chucky is as schticky and predictable as the rest, but there is that little something else. The little bastard is gas-lighting children, asking them to make sense of the adult world by exposing them to the worst of it in potent, razor sharp “fucks,” and a terrifying chuckle. He's glommed himself onto a portion of our psyche that the rest of his contemporaries never did. He's this fully realized character, with layers like Shrek. There is nothing scarier than questioning your surroundings, to being all alone, being called crazy, losing your bearings on the ups and downs of the world. There is nothing worse that being a kid. That Pee Wee nightmare was terrifying from its imagery sure, but it was the sense of wrong that was truly scary. The perversion of something I truly loved, that seemed to be made for me, is what really left dents in my psyche. That's Chucky. That's why he's still around. That's why he'll never die.
Brian Bernard Murnane
A freelance writer, modern explorer, and he drinks grapefruit juice. His work can be found sometimes in the pages of SpongeBob Comics or on stage at IO West in Los Angeles as part of the soon to be infamous improv team FRAN. Twitter: @GogBrianBernard