Thursday, August 20, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Valley Of The Dolls

Year: 1988
Director: Tom Holland
Cast: Catherine Hicks, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In what is shaping up to be a summer’s end tradition (thanks to the close proximity of my birthday), I am once again finding myself exploring a horror franchise that’s totally new to me. Last year, it was Saw, an agreeably unpleasant marathon that led to some of my most hilariously sardonic reviews, if I do say so myself. This year is much more enjoyable for me, though the jury’s still out for you guys: the Child’s Play franchise.

Chucky the serial-killing doll isn’t quite as iconic a presence in the horror market as your Freddys or your Jasons (hence his not unrespectable 6 films as opposed to the Big League numbers like 9, 10, and –shudder – 12), but considering the context, he’s lucky to be alive at all, let alone a considerably well-respected member of the second-tier horror pantheon. Tom Holland’s Child’s Play came out in 1988, long after the slasher dynasty had begun to flake and crumble. The subgenre still had some juice during that year (in fact, its most profitable film – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master – came out in ’88), but that well quickly dried up by 1989, long before Chucky could even squeeze out a measly sequel. 

He was abandoned to the cinematic wasteland of the early 90’s after just one entry, an entry that came out in a year by which the MPAA had already picked every scrap of meat clean off the carcass of the slasher, leaving it a clean, toothless version of what it once as. Without the genre staples of boobs and gore, filmmakers had to get creative, and by nothing short of a miracle, that’s exactly what Child’s Play did.

The secret is that literally nobody in the world likes dolls.

Child’s Play is set in an alternate universe where large talking plasticine dolls known as “Good Guys are incredibly popular. I know it’s an alternate universe, because in the one I live in, any sane person who happened upon one of these dolls in the Target toy aisle would immediately call the cops and try to light it on fire. Young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) reeeally wants one of these dolls for his birthday because maybe he’s a sociopath, but his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) can’t afford it. In an effort to appease him, she buys a doll from a vagrant in an alley, not realizing that just last night the notorious serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) used a voodoo curse to pass his soul into the doll after being gunned down at a toy store by Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon).

After a few select murders (including his ex-partner, who abandoned him), Chucky learns that in order to regain human form, he must possess the body of the first person he revealed his secret to – Andy. Of course, by this point Andy has been blamed for the killings because nobody believes his story that “the creepy doll did it.” Alternate universe, remember? Karen and Detective Norris must team up to stop Chucky from reaching Andy in his room at the psych ward… before it’s too late.

And because this is 1988, they don’t get to bang. Disappointing.

The reason Child’s Play was such a relatively resounding success was that it worked around its limitations to bring something new to the table. Not allowed to show boobs? Bam! Set it in a family. MPAA is cracking down on gore? Kazaam! Creative kills don’t have to be bloody. World getting tired of an endless rigmarole of silent, masked killers? Kalamazoo! Killer dolls had been seen before (Talking Tina anyone? If you know what I’m referring to, I’ll give you a moment to unclench your buttocks), but effects had advanced to a point that Chucky was able to gain an autonomy that couldn’t have been dreamt of a decade before.

Mind you, these are the reasons why Child’s Play is a successful and clever slasher film. The question of whether it’s a particularly good slasher film is another story. There’s a reason that the name “Chucky” has gained pop culture longevity, but the title itself has faded into the four winds. You’re not exactly hearing people go, “Now who was that short ginger from the Child’s Play movie?” While I’m legally obligated as a horror fan not to speak ill against any Tom Holland project, Child’s Play is good more in terms of how it was created and the legacy it inspired than its actual content.

In the manner of nearly all slashers with a heavy urban crime element, Child’s Play is somewhat of a letdown when it comes to the scare department. If I wanted to see hardnosed criminals hanging around police substations and wasting guys named Eddie, I’d rent a Scorsese movie. Or My Cousin Vinny. And while, yes, creepy dolls are creepy, Chucky hadn’t quite come into his own yet.

With so many of the early intrigue scenes committed to prolonging the mystery of whether or not he’s a real doll, they forget to provide a genuine sense of danger and he ends up looking rather silly as he toddles around in his chubby little booties. A moment where he threatens the Detective in his car with a knife is terrifically menacing, but there’s so many moving parts at work in that scene, it’s hard to give him full credit. There are scraps of tension scattered throughout the film, but they’re mostly thanks to Holland’s reliable atmosphere rather than (save one instance) Chucky himself.

Frankly, he’s scarier when he’s not moving at all.

When the film finally does slam full tilt into things, it’s a healthy helping of late 80’s fun. And the effects extravaganza of the final 20 minutes is pretty much beyond compare, though they never do figure out how to fit Dourif’s dialogue into Chucky’s stiff little mouth, bless their hearts. The kills (sparse as they are, this being a “story slasher” – gag me with a spoon, right?) are so unique that it’s hard to notice they’re completely ungory – hammers, ovens, electroshock machines… It’s like the Fisher Price playset from Hell. Chucky’s doll identity is only incorporated into one of the kills, which is a real missed opportunity, but the wicked gusto with which he dispatches his victims is captivating enough.

I could do without the vicious underacting from Sarandon and human Brad Dourif (“Oh God… I’m dying.”), both of whom are outpaced by even Alex Vincent, who’s a pretty credible kid lead but does have that child actor habit of sounding like he’s on sedatives half the times. However, once Dourif is wrested from his corporeal form, he Emerils it up a notch and effortlessly reaches his pernicious peak.

At the end of the day, you’ll never waste your time or money by sitting down for a screening of Child’s Play. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t find it to be everything you dreamed it would be, especially if you didn’t grow up with Chucky. Nostalgia is an important factor with this one. In fact, if possible, get in a time machine and show this movie to yourself at six years old, then get back to me. I’ll wait.

Killer: Chucky (Brad Dourif)
Final Girl: Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) feat. Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks)
Best Kill: A doctor’s brain is fried with an electroshock helmet. This effect can also be achieved by marathoning both seasons of Twin Peaks back to back.
Sign of the Times: Nobody bats an eye wen a six-year-old rides the train alone.
Scariest Moment: A six-year-old rides the train alone.
Weirdest Moment: The fact that anybody could possibly think Chucky is cute, even before he tries to stab them.
Champion Dialogue: “I gotta go. I have a date with a six-year-old boy.”
Body Count: 5; including Chucky, because why the hell not – they didn’t know there’d be sequels yet.
  1. Maggie is hit in the face with a toy hammer and falls out a window.
  2. Eddie perishes in a gas explosion.
  3. John is stabbed in the heart via a voodoo doll.
  4. Doctor is electrocuted via an electroshock therapy helmet.
  5. Chucky is shot in the heart.
TL;DR: Child's Play is an underwhelming beginning to a semi-classic franchise.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1396
Reviews In This Series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)

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