Someone, somewhere, I don’t know who, once said that instead of Hollywood choosing to remake movies that were considered classics or were fondly remembered, they should do the exact opposite and remake the movies that failed to work the first time around but still had some considerable promise to their premises. Great idea, and an even better sentiment. It would surely improve the reception around remakes to some degree, since I’m of the belief that a concept that doesn’t work once has just as much potential to flounder the second time around.
But Hollywood is a business after all, and business-wise, it doesn’t make any sense to remake something that crashed and burned the first time. In order for the production money to be assured, the studio needs to be certain they’re tapping into some sort of promised zeitgeist that’ll reward them handsomely for their investment. Or, you know, sometimes. They’ll still remake the weirdest stuff. But what is Hollywood if not a contradiction? Horror is popular, either way, and many of its familiar faces, like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, remain relevant and recognizable even in today’s pop culture pantheon. So it only makes some sort of business sense to resurrect these notable rogues for modern audiences. Child’s Play, based off director Tom Holland’s strange slasher-cum-procedural from 1988, is the latest of such remakes.
The announcement of the remake was a source of contention. The biggest reason? The original franchise that started in 1988 is still ongoing, with the most recent installment, Cult of Chucky, having been released in late 2017. Those films are of varying quality, but thirty years on, they’ve still got some sense of tight continuity to one another. Original Chucky creator Don Mancini has been the glue for the franchise, having had a hand in every single outing before eventually becoming the sole writer and director of the franchise, starting with 2004’s proactively weird meta outing Seed of Chucky. There’s even a TV series, with Don Mancini at the helm, expected to arrive soon. So how does it make sense to remake or reboot a franchise that’s still on-going?
Well, turns out the newly reformed Orion Pictures and United Artists co-joint only had legal access to the first film of the franchise. The original 1988 film was distributed by United Artists, while the others have all been released by Universal Pictures in subsequent years. Looking to fill their small starter library with some kind of horror credential, I’m not too surprised that Orion/UA turned to a remake of Child’s Play as the answer. But only having access to one film in the franchise posed several limitations. Legally speaking, the film couldn’t have any content that was similar to or culled from any of the latter Child’s Play or Chucky films, which inevitably affected both the screenplay and subsequent production in some pretty frustrating ways for director Lars Klevberg. Fans lamented that the film jettisoned key elements of the original, but it makes total sense that Orion/UA would go an alternative route at this point.
The story follows the broad strokes of the original film, but makes some key deviations, particularly around the identity of Chucky himself and his murderous motivations. Single mom Karen (Plaza) works at a large-scale convenience store that sells the new hi-tech Buddi dolls (like the i in WiFi, you see). A defective toy is returned to the store, and Karen convinces her manager to let her take it home instead of having it tossed. She gifts it to her incredibly shy, socially anxious thirteen year-old son, Andy (Bateman). The doll, which possesses incredible A.I. capabilities and the voice of Mark Hamill, names itself Chucky and quickly becomes Andy’s surrogate friend. But soon, Chucky becomes possessive of Andy, and even dangerous if he feels that his best friend is being threatened. All of Andy’s repressed angers and fears about the world become Chucky’s mission, and soon Andy realizes he needs to stop his monstrous robotic toy before it hurts the people he loves.
The robotic angle is clearly new. In the original film, Chucky is actually serial killer Charles Lee Ray (played to perfection by Brad Dourif), who uses voodoo magic to place his soul within a toy store doll in order to evade the cops. But he becomes trapped within the doll, unless he transfers his soul into another body, that of the person he first told his secret to: six year-old Andy. Both characterizations of Chucky are very peculiar, and both are used to very different effect. Technology and horror don’t usually blend well, but the latest Child’s Play does enough with the concept to make it work. And yet, it loses out on some of the remarkably weird innovation of the original’s premise, which came at the tail end of the ’80s slasher craze. In fact, these two versions of Child’s Play really only share similarities in plot, and are both doing completely different things thematically. They coexist perfectly fine. Many uphold the original film as one of the premiere horror ventures of the 1980s, whereas I’ve always found it to be a curiously uneven film that doesn’t balance its tone or multiple genres with as much skill as you’d expect from the same man who directed Fright Night (which is, unabashedly, one of the best horror films of the 1980s). And the remake is, against all odds, reasonably well done. Sometimes it’s even great.
Part of the reason the original film feels so disjointed is because of conflicting creative perspectives. Tom Holland wanted the film to play as some sort of psychologically-fueled procedural, where the audience was never sure if Chucky was alive or Andy was just using him as an alibi; Don Mancini wanted it to be a manic, darkly funny sendup of 1980s consumerism culture. These don’t blend together especially well, or at least Holland’s take isn’t quite successful. The consumerist details are there, and often pretty successful and adroit. But Andy as the possible culprit doesn’t work. It’s too obvious that Chucky’s alive, even if you’ve never seen the film or don’t know anything about Chucky. Charles Lee Ray’s thunderstorm-driven voodoo ritual from the beginning already signals that there’s something abnormal at play, and the film never successfully frames its action in a way that makes Andy culpable.
Conversely, the new film tries this approach again, but in a totally new, much more successful way. No, Andy is not the killer, nor does the film try to stage itself in a way that makes you think, even for a second, that he might be psychotic. Instead, the remake links every single one of Chucky’s actions to Andy’s psychosis. If Andy doesn’t like Karen’s abusive new boyfriend, then Chucky will just have to kill that awful man if it means making Andy happy again. In this way, Chucky becomes Andy’s Jungian shadow of sorts, an id that begins as playful and childish, but becomes dangerous and monstrous when it starts to channel Andy’s inner turmoil in an outwardly violent way.
Here lies the film’s secret weapon that elevates it far beyond a simple reimagining. It’s an interesting, arresting, and often distressing look at the inner conflict within a child in the final throes of adolescence. The film subtly establishes Andy’s psychosis, painting him as a kid with abandonment issues who is afraid of reaching out and making friends for fear that they’ll only leave him somewhere down the road. Then along comes Chucky, who promises Andy that he’ll be his “best friend until the end.” The filmmakers use a lighter, more playful tone in the early passages of the film, which does an admirable job of selling that Andy has established some sort of bond with Chucky, who is always listening and learning. But Andy is still a kid, and he still views the world with the emotional fragility of a kid.
So when Andy becomes upset or angry towards people, or if Chucky feels that his relationship with Andy has been put in jeopardy, that’s when Chucky acts out in violence. It’s always framed as if Chucky’s playing “games” with his victims. When he kills Karen’s awful boyfriend, who’s revealed to have a secret family of his own, he brings the man’s facial skin pulled over a watermelon back to Andy as a genuinely well-meant present. Of course Andy and his newfound friends, whom Chucky helped him find, don’t find it to be all that funny. But Chucky’s weird, maintained innocence and growing aggression make him a genuinely dangerous, frightening threat. He’s not the glib, trash-talking huckster Dourif’s interpretation made him out to be, but something more misguided and methodical: the id of a very scared, very hurt child. The film’s been called out for its tonal issues, but they didn’t bother me very much. The clash of lighthearted whimsy and comedy from the first half and the dark, violent terror of the second half feels very intentional. It’s doing what good horror movies should do, showing us the clean before slowly making everything unclean in the process. A toy gets to be a toy, as it should be; then the toy becomes monstrous, as it should never be. The A.I. angle even helps here, as it gives an inhuman object some sense of humanlike rationale and intellect.
The rest of the film is fine. Some of it feels too beholden to imitating other recent horror projects that heavily feature younger protagonists, like It (2017) and Stranger Things; other parts of the film feel a little too derivative and familiar, which is certainly better than needlessly hashing up the formula, but is nevertheless a little disappointing in comparison to how the film decides to wield Chucky this time around. And the animatronic is pretty bad. It’s been proposed that it looks uncanny and silly on purpose, as if it’s supposed to be some riff on consumerism… but this film isn’t as good at that angle as Don Mancini’s original script was, so the effort feels in vain. The film’s thankfully short and paced extremely well, and Bear McCreary’s score is downright excellent. If the whole film is not so much an improvement on the source material, it at least exists as a good companion piece, and is a much better remake than anybody was probably expecting. Dare I say, it might be better than the original. Time will have to tell, so maybe we’ll unbox that claim later.