Child’s Play, directed by Lars Klevberg
The new Child’s Play, directed by Lars Klevberg, is a simple movie, mercifully lean and swift, and its intentions to simply entertain are so humble, so earnest, that the whole thing seems almost to come at its audience on one knee. As well it might - because for all the fervor we associate with the nostalgic fandoms of Star Wars and comic book adaptations, caricatured usually as vulgar dudes teeming with venom about even the slightest departure from canon, there’s a shadowy cult of movie elitists on the Web who, though low in profile, wield a good bit of influence over the box office. They’re reserved, off in their corner of the movie forums, but they know what they like and they’re notoriously hard to please.
I’m talking about horror movie fans—who, you might be surprised to know it, comprise what’s generally a jolly, articulate, even-tempered coterie (mostly of men) whose inclinations seem strange, at first, when you see them giving measured praise to low-budget slasher movies while at the same time throwing scorn on the higher-budgeted, equally hollow, but decidedly cleaner Hollywood sequel to, say, something like Annabel.
What all these fandoms have in common is that they worship figures who cast their most effective magic upon us as children. Freddy Krueger and Han Solo and Superman aren’t bound together by much of anything, except the fact that they exercise a ton of power over the children of their generation.
Child’s Play is a remake of the 1988 movie by Tom Holland (not that one) and is easily the Citizen Kane of evil doll movies (I’m talking about the original, incidentally: it’s less than 90 minutes long, a clean and simple thriller without an ounce of fat—and its immediate sequel, Child’s Play 2, isn’t bad either), which is often mistakenly referred to by the name of its antagonist, Chucky: an evil doll whose name is shorthand for Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), the voodoo-savvy criminal who, in the moment before his death (during a toy store shootout with police), transfers his soul into a Good Guy Doll—a plush brand of white, freckled, cherub-cheeked gingers.
That Chucky, born of the ‘80s and soldiering through six sequels, was essentially a person. He shouted profanity, had a sex drive and a sense of humor and opinions, and it was Chucky’s personality that made him iconic. He also eventually flaunted the Scream-era awareness of the fact that he was in a horror movie.
Halloween is probably the only major slasher movie franchise of its era to leave the fourth wall totally intact. Freddy Krueger seems to’ve lost all interest in even trying to be scary once the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise hit its fourth installment, The Dream Master; but that was fine, in a way; the Krueger series kept earning tons of money because Krueger himself (played with take-my-career! zealotry by Robert Englund) had become a similar kind of vulgar, rebellious, self-conscious slasher icon who basically said, after a certain point, that he was here to have fun with you, not to scare you, and that you should be here for the same reason. The fans were down to see Krueger occupy the same pop cultural post as Pauly Shore. It only became muddy because the later sequels went on billing themselves as horror movies.
That angle of basically making Elm Street movies into comedies, but staying half-pregnant with the idea that this was all still supposed to be scary, pushed the franchise into weirder and weirder territory. Bad weird. Krueger gets an origin story, at one point saying that his mother was a nun who got raped by a hundred maniacs. In a row.
He opens his striped Christmas sweater during a kung-fu confrontation to reveal the souls of children pushing their faces out from his torso for release. It’s weird.
The Child’s Play franchise, on the other hand, has been overseen, throughout, by the same writer, Don Mancini, who realized, after Child’s Play 3, that there was no way to go seriously forward with the franchise. Or at least not too seriously. So in 1998 we get Bride of Chucky, in which our psychopathic voodoo-possessed doll turns his former real-life girlfriend (played by Jennifer Tilly), into a doll that he can have sex with. Why not?
With Chucky’s bloodlust supplemented by the normal kind, we get Seed of Chucky in 2004—which is basically a comedy about murderous dolls. It isn’t even pretending to be horror.
The shift is strange, and playful, but sincere. It’s the same creative sensibility behind those first three pure-horror romps—it’s just evolved. It isn’t the same as having Freddy Krueger play guitar on MTV (it happened). Bride and Seed of Chucky are naturally absurd progressions of what we can now, in retrospect, appreciate was a naturally absurd premise.
The reason I bring all that up is just to explain that the biggest obstacle faced by this 2019 Child’s Play remake is the same thing that plagued the disastrous 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street: the antagonist is at this point better-cemented in popular culture as a jester than as a boogeyman. How do you make him scary again?
Director Klevberg has landed on the answer: you don’t make him scary again. You make him interesting. And the way you make a monster interesting is to make it sympathetic. Director John Landis argues that every great monster is really a victim of something, and James Whale gave us our best and most enduring cinematic example of that with Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (to which Bride of Chucky owes a self-conscious debt).
Chucky, in 2019, isn’t a doll possessed by the soul of a murderer. He’s a malfunctioning piece of artificial intelligence. A home-helper robot for children (voiced, to grievous underuse, by Mark Hamill). Chucky imprints on the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and lives to be a friend, and to serve. But, again, he’s malfunctioning; so when, for instance, he tries to bring Andy his science book, but hands him, with a loving smile, something that is clearly not a science book, all we register are his good intentions, and those big sympathetic eyes. He keeps getting things wrong, but he only wants to help.
The doll, hearing Andy’s problems and responding with attentiveness and affection, becomes the only person in whom the lonely teenager can confide his anger, his fear. We like this Chucky. We pity him, and we’re thankful that he’s here to lend the boy some emotional support.
When Chucky starts hurting animals, and then people, it’s only because Andy has confided, in moments of loneliness and rage, that he dislikes those animals or people. He complains, for instance, that his cat is “a total asshole.” Then, when Chucky sees the cat snap at Andy, and draw blood, he goes for the throat. Andy steps out for a Band-Aid and walks back into his bedroom to find Chucky strangling the cat with a strange vehemence that…kinda seems like it’s supposed to be funny, given how suddenly and absurdly it shatters a montage of boy-n-bot bonding.
So the movie invites us to laugh, if we’d like to, but it’s also a decidedly shocking image.
Later, when Andy is physically assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend and made to crumple into sobs, we see Chucky’s eyes register the scene with something like genuine concern. Sympathy. Vengeance. When, eventually, Chucky’s got a knife poised over that boyfriend’s face, he starts slamming it down with shrill declarations of allegiance to Andy. Chucky hurts people in defense of this Andy, his young master, who doesn’t realize that he’s inspiring violence with the things he says.
Now. Whether or not Klevberg aspires toward some kind of political commentary with this story about a man who makes impulsively hostile remarks to a digital entity, an entity that then distorts and magnifies those remarks into violent directives, is…anyone’s guess (a Trump thing, in case that’s coy). The #MeToo movement did come to mind, though, in thinking that here’s a young man, post-Millennial, finding now, as he comes of age in a digital world, that his angry impulses (perhaps sexual ones too) manifest as something pretty terrible and unfixable when submitted to—and subsequently distorted by—the digital world.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke comes to mind, and how he’s now having to contend with some illicit stuff he wrote on the Internet as a teenager. The Parkland kid who was denied entry to Harvard because of racist remarks online. Anthony Weiner.
The movie kinda goes off the rails in its third act, with some nifty callbacks to the original. But, alas, the sprawling carnage (though fun in parts) feels like a betrayal of the movie’s simplicity up to that point. The first Child’s Play sees most of its action unfold in a low-rent apartment. Then it ends there in simple, small-scale, gory domestic chaos. Like mom used to make.
It’s sad to see that Klevberg succumb to this 21st century Hollywood mandate that every movie needs a climactic scene involving forty characters and an impossible orgy of over-coordinated action—but who knows. Maybe it wasn’t his call.
When the inevitable sequel comes, I’d be happy to see Klevberg back for it. With maybe a little more authority. And a smaller scale.
—Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.