Saturday, October 12, 2013

Killer Toy Stories: CURSE OF CHUCKY

When Chucky, a chirpy red-haired doll possessed by the dead soul of a cold-blooded killer, was introduced in the 1988 horror film Child’s Play, I’ll bet no one would’ve guessed he’d be around for at least 25 years, let alone spawn a franchise that would last six films. Yet here we are. That first film is surprisingly entertaining and holds up well. The doll scampers about in a darkly funny, genuinely scary movie that builds up to one of the greatest pre-kill one-liners of the 80s, or any decade for that matter. (Having it spoken by a darling little kid, his hand defiantly holding the match that’ll hopefully light the killing flame, is a definite plus.) With clear inspiration from the plethora of slasher pictures floating around at the time, the movie manages to make Chucky scary in two ways. First, there’s the creeping terror of a supposedly inanimate object that slips away when your back is turned. Secondly, there’s the placid, safe, kid-friendly plastic face that suddenly screws itself into a wrinkled grimace as the killer’s personality bursts through, the cold rubbery lips spouting hurtful, violent, vulgar intensity with a chilling vocal performance by Brad Dourif.

The movies that followed tried to duplicate the mix of scarily silly kills, largely missing what made Child’s Play such an unexpected blast. The franchise’s next best idea came when Chucky got a girlfriend, Tiffany, an equally psychotic person played by Jennifer Tilly who, you guessed it, ended up stuck in a doll body of her own. Now they’re homicidal partners in what becomes the only killer doll romance that I can think of. Like so many 80s slasher villains, Chucky started out pure evil and ended up somewhere closer to the role of protagonist, creating the kind of icky cognitive dissonance wherein an audience starts to root for the killer simply because he’s our only recurring character, the most charismatic known quantity on screen, and the only reason the plot moves at all.

It wasn’t until 2004’s Seed of Chucky, the fifth in the series, that a notable movie bubbled up out of the formula. It’s a movie that’s difficult to recommend, but hard to ignore, busting down every known category and sitting confidently in several boxes at once. To call the movie outside the box is to assume writer-director Don Mancini (making his directorial debut after having written the entire franchise to date) is aware that there is a box at all. I have admiration for Seed, which finds Chucky and Tiffany in Hollywood and devotes most of the runtime to the dolls terrorizing Jennifer Tilly (playing herself as well as voicing Tiffany). It’s a slasher movie, a showbiz satire, and a fearlessly tasteless gross-out comedy. Besides, any movie that steers into territory so bonkers and meta while still finding time for a subplot involving kinky cult filmmaker John Waters playing an amused paparazzo can’t be all bad.

Now, nearly a decade later, Don Mancini is back wearing the writer-director’s hats for Curse of Chucky. The sixth in the Child’s Play series, and the first to go direct to video, Curse begins when a woman (Chantal Quesnelle) and her twenty-something wheelchair-bound daughter (Fiona Dourif) receive a mysterious package in the mail. It’s a Chucky doll, something vaguely remembered from the 80s. Neither of them ordered it, but there’s no time to ponder the mystery. The mother falls from their second floor balcony and dies that very night. In the wake of this tragedy, the girl’s older sister (Danielle Bisutti), with husband (Brennan Elliott), daughter (Summer H. Howell), and nanny (Maitland McConnell) in tow, show up at the house, marking time before the funeral mourning, reconnecting, and arguing about what to do next. Their minds are so otherwise taxed, there’s scarcely time to wonder why that Chucky doll keeps going missing and turning up in the strangest spots.

The movie is stuck in a limited space, barely stepping foot outside the house for the duration. We’re with a small number of characters over a short period of time, the stakes escalating slowly but surely over a trim runtime. That’s a sign of the budget and DTV status for sure, but Mancini is resourceful, getting great shadows and ominous creaks out of the big old house in the country. It’s the scariest of the series since the first one, effectively building up jumps and kills, grabbing a few genuine chills along the way. It turns out there are still some good scares left in Chucky. For once, he’s used sparingly, although as the plot goes on he gets chattier and Mancini can’t help but pull in the franchise’s laborious narrative history. It’s better than your average fan service, though. Cleverly thought through, Curse is respectful of what’s come before. As one with affection for the series, I found it pleasing enough. I doubt the movie’s winning over any new converts, but it’s a solid treat, rewarding long-held interest in the material.

Fiona Dourif makes a most sympathetic protagonist, while her father, returning once again as the voice of Chucky, slips easily into the little creep’s brusquely singsong tones. Mancini stages a couple clever switcheroos of scripting, a few fun sequences – an early highlight is a sort of Russian roulette chili dinner, the audience aware that one bowl has been spiked with poison, but unaware who has received it – and some creative gore. By the end I was growing a little tired of the sometimes-predictable horror hack and slash, but it’s ultimately diverting enough. It’s all a bit of a throwback, less exploitative than you’d think (for good and ill, come to think of it) and easily the least overtly goofy (again, for good and ill) the series has been in quite some time. It’s a fitting entry in this long running series and a fine mid-October surprise.

Note: For some reason, this October sees only one wide release horror film. Why Curse of Chucky didn’t get the bump to theatrical release, I don’t know. It’s bankrolled by a major studio – Universal – and seems modestly budgeted without appearing cheap. Surely it would’ve been worth the chance. 

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