a critiQal film review Child’s Play (1988)

Plot: Gunned down by Detective Mike Norris (Sarandon), dying murderer Charles Lee Ray (Dourif) uses black magic to put his soul inside a doll named Chucky - which Karen Barclay (Hicks) then buys for her young son, Andy (Vincent). When Chucky kills Andy's baby sitter, the boy realizes the doll is alive and tries to warn people, but he's institutionalized. Now Karen must convince the detective of the murderous doll's intentions, before Andy becomes Chucky's next victim.

Reviewed
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  • ...decent acting, effects that have fared well over time, and a killer idea make the film entertaining, even if the villainous doll isn't as scary as it wants to be.

To kick off our October Month of Horror, we decided to go back and look at one of the films that spawned a series of horror flicks. In this case, that was Child’s Play. Since Chucky spawned a series, just like his fellow slasher flick villains Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, would this first look at this murderous doll be just as good as their first entries? Or is there just something about a freaky doll that keeps viewers coming back for more?

Catherine Hicks stars in Child’s Play and does a decent, if not spectacular job in her role. She’s mainly there to be the disbelieving adult at first, then the champion of proving the doll’s villainous intentions. Surprisingly, for a while, she takes backstage to Alex Vincent, who actually gives a solid performance as a 6-year-old. Chris Sarandon, meanwhile, was better as a villainous prince in The Princess Bride (1987) than in his cop persona here.

Chucky, however, is the main star of Child’s Play. Brad Dourif lends his voice to the doll. While it’s nigh unrecognizable (which is probably why they had his face prominent in the opening action sequence), it seems like the perfect choice. He manages to deliver a stellar voice performance, oozing homicidal intent. Sure, some of the dialogue is laughable (making the doll seem more like a kid throwing a tantrum), but viewers will never mistake the intentions thanks to that voice.

The killer doll is obviously what draws viewers in to Child’s Play, as it’s such an interesting idea. While the setup for this first film occasionally delves into the hokey, once the creation of Chucky is established, the film improves. Combining the whodunit of the first half into the second half slasher flick that viewers have been waiting for, director Tom Holland gives viewers both the tension building and the full-on attack modes fans of horror films clamor for.

Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to take Chucky seriously. Sure he’s a demented serial killer, but he’s also a doll that’s very reminiscent of the silly My Buddy dolls from the 80’s (in fact, those dolls were an inspiration for Chucky). While the dolls themselves were rather ridiculously big for the age group they were aiming at (as is Chucky), that stupid jingle (“My Buddy. My Buddy and Me!”) worms its way into your head so easily that it’s hard not to hear that even as Child’s Play plays out on the screen.

And for the most part, the first half of the film doesn’t help make him any more menacing. It’s not until his face contorts from rage to kick off the second half that the viewer is even sure it can do that in this first film. Even then, half the sequences show a 3 1/2 foot doll attacking people in the face while they try to fend him off. And that just looks implausible. How difficult is it to hold this thrashing tiny maniac away from your body so he can’t, say, bite you? It doesn’t seem difficult, and yet it’s utterly impossible for any of the characters in this film – even the grown-ups.

While the villainous doll isn’t that scary as a concept, the special effects do help him come to life in Child’s Play. That contorted face of rage, for example, brings this plastic doll to vivid life, and viewers can easily see the demented soul trapped inside. It’s pretty impressive, especially considering how many special effects laden film from the same era have not managed to hold together with the passage of time. Focusing all of their considerable efforts on making the doll come to life, the filmmakers used various methods (including putting little people in costume) to create the effects. And, as usual, the non-CGI techniques have stood up better over time. They even used a motion capture-like system for the facial characteristics (albeit using stop motion to re-create those expressions), the advance of which eventually would make up almost the entirety of Andy Serkis’ career.

With some strong effects still holding together, and some decent acting, Child’s Play has the makings of a decent horror pic. While the villainous doll doesn’t quite ever inspire the fear the filmmakers were looking for, the viewer still should enjoy this first film, if with a little more laughter than one would expect in a horror film.

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