Monday, September 21, 2015

Fetish Dolls

Year: 1998
Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Katherine Heigl
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Child’s Play series has always been kinda funny. Even the straight-faced original film had a couple comic moments, like when Chucky is insulted by an elderly couple on the elevator. And while I hold the fervent belief that a good director can make anything scary (hell, The Ring and The Babadook make videotapes and children’s books terrifying – it can be done), the “killer doll menaces people five times his size” thing is a little tough to take seriously.

So when 1998’s Bride of Chucky made the leap into full-on horror comedy, I accepted it with open arms. By acknowledging and embracing the fact that Chucky as a villain is more than a little campy, the film opened itself up to a world of twisted humor that ended up being even darker than the staunchly horrific entries.

What allowed Chucky to enter this territory (aside from Don Manicini’s slow drift across genre lines), was the release of Scream in 1996. Following the success of that slasher satire, a tidal wave of postmodern self-referential killfests crashed into theaters, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Halloween: H20, and the inevitable Scream 2. While Bride of Chucky is a banner-waving member of this crowd, it’s also one of the very best because it largely eschews the temptation to carve up a gaggle of airbrushed teens in favor of a dazzling tragicomic love story.

It’s the Weekend of slashers.

In Bride of Chucky, Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) is a serial killer groupie. Over the past ten years, she has dated a series of quasi-murderous nutcases, but none can hold a séance candle to her ex, the Lakeshore Strangler Charles Lee Ray. Since his death in 1988 (and the Child’s Play franchise’s ignominious death in 1991), she has been searching for the doll into which he transferred his soul. After bribing a cop to steal the doll from an evidence depository (which includes a razor-tipped glove and a hockey mask, because 1998) and killing him, she stitches him back together for a slick, creepy new makeover, and resurrects him. Chucky (Brad Dourif) just got lucky.

They immediately start arguing, of course, because relationships that begin with homicide are not exemplars of calm debate, and Tiffany winds up dead, with her soul transferred into a doll. They decide to find new bodies using an amulet buried in Chucky’s grave (one that could have really come in handy three films ago, no?) and hitch a ride with eloping teens Jade (Katherine Heigl, who likes to pretend this movie doesn’t exist) and Jesse (Nick Stabile, who likes to pretend we know he exists), killing anybody who gets in their way. On the road, they rekindle their romance over a shared love of assaulting people with sharp objects.

I think these two are gonna make it.

What sets Bride of Chucky apart from the rest of the post-Scream fodder is that it’s actually funny. While its dark, uncouth sense of humor may not be palatable to all viewers, the film is a modern success story of combining big guffaws and gruesome murder in a wholly organic way. The self-referential gags are likewise incisive and not too overbearing, enthusiastically lampooning itself by playing with the idea that, since he went dormant in 1991, the horror genre has left Chucky and his traditional slice ‘n dice antics behind. There’s perhaps a tad too much emphasis on name-dropping the 80’s considering that only one Child’s Play entry was actually released during that decade, but the film knows where it stands in the new wave of horror, and by embracing that it perfectly adapts to the postmodern trend.

It’s perhaps not as beefy in the scare department, but what the film lacks in genuine terror it makes up for with an atmosphere so perilously dark that Christopher Nolan could happily shoot a Batman film in it. Think early Tim Burton: grand gothic silliness that relentlessly retains that elusive creep factor while still allowing you to sleep at night. It’s as if they slapped Dracula’s favorite Instagram filter over everything, turning outsized suburban abodes into imposing cathedrals and seedy motels into Eurosleaze abysses of doom.

Really, it’s the road trip comedy Charles Manson has been waiting for.

Of course, the seven years advanced effects likewise had major influence over the film’s quality. Finally, Chucky’s lips actually have a semblance of orchestrating his dialogue. Praise be to Kevin Yagher Productions! And although the sight of Chucky running in his adorable little booties will never ever scrape up a scream, the enhanced animatronic work prevents the interactions between two dolls that drive the film from looking like a Punch and Judy puppet show. No, these dolls are capable of genuine emotional expression (well, mostly homicidal rage) and personality, and their love story never feels like anything less than two absolutely real people. Maybe with a bit of extensive plastic surgery, but still. They steal the show and they deserve to have it.

It also doesn’t hurt that the overarching story of Bride of Chucky is the most coherent, developed, and emotionally satisfying of the franchise. With the motivation for killing each victim firmly set in a narratively satisfying capacity, this streamlines the obligatory bloody mayhem and allows four-time screenwriter Don Mancini plenty of slack to explore beyond the shallow slasher mold.

Pitting two couples against each other in a showdown for survival, he indicts both distrust within relationships (Jade and Jesses both think that the other is the killer) and the self-deception and blind optimism that allows people to stay with a poisonous partner (à la Tiffany’s lament, “Why can’t I be with one of the real Good Guys?). Both couples become committed (either through marriage or voodoo possession of a plastic object - which is legally binding in several states) over the course of the film, but the one that survives is the one where their love for each other trumps their love for themselves.

I wasn’t kidding when I called Bride of Chucky a romance. Hell, it’s a tighter rom-com than My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Typically the driving force behind these films is the pedal-to-the-metal performance by Brad Dourif. He’s just as good as ever, but he’s met his match in Jennifer Tilly. Her disarming helium voice, her effortless sensuality, and her dippy charm make her perfect for the new direction of the franchise. She utterly inhabits the in-person comedy bits, allowing her amateur murderer side to show cracks beneath her calm, cool exterior. And when her work transfers to voiceover only, she’s equal parts sweet and wicked, making an indelible mark on an already terrific film.

Bride of Chucky is a couple notches short of a masterpiece, especially with the fact that the entire plot centers around a MacGuffin that’s uneasily shoved into the franchise formula. But it’s the magnum opus of a series that was never perfect yet always consistently entertaining. If you only have the stomach for one killer doll picture, I urge you to pick this one. You won’t regret it. And at the very least, you can make Katherine Heigl rom-com jokes the whole time.

Body Count: 12; including the killers because damn does this series not care about mortality.
  1. Cop is stabbed through the back of the throat.
  2. Damien is smothered with a pillow.
  3. Warren is shot in the face with nails and stabbed.
  4. Needlenose dies in a car explosion.
  5. Alex and
  6. Russ are pierced with shards of falling mirror.
  7. David is hit by a truck.
  8. Motorhome Guy and
  9. Motorhome Lady are killed offscreen.
  10. Gravedigger is shot.
  11. Tiffany is stabbed in the chest.
  12. Chucky is shot to death.
TL;DR: Bride of Chucky is a beautifully silly, creepy romance for the ages.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1309
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)

1 comment:

  1. This one was so much better than Halloween H20, at least this film acknowledged that its sequels actually happened, unlike H20, which ignores every sequel, except the first one.