Tom Holland’s “Child’s Play” (1988) starts like a genuinely bad movie, the kind of cop movie you’ve seen dozens of times, then becomes something special.
It opens with Mike Norris, a handsome cop (Chris Sarandon), chasing a long-haired villain named Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). Ray is a serial killer and exchanging gunfire with Mike, who wounds him as he stumbles into a toy store.
While hiding behind an aisle of Good Guy dolls, bleeding as Mike closes in, Ray suddenly yells out an incantation that is powerful enough to cause storm clouds to roar above the store. These magical words are also enough to make Ray’s soul transfer into “Chucky,” one of the Good Guy dolls.
The store is hit by lightning and a massive explosion occurs. It’s pretty stupid.
Once we get to the central plot, in which Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) buys this possessed doll as a gift for her son Andy, “Child’s Play” really takes off. There are missteps here and there, but this is not simply the first but still best in the entire Chucky the Doll franchise.
The scene of Karen desperately buying the doll from a peddler outside the store where she works will bring to mind the insane shopping spree of hoarding, buying and selling Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 1980s.
Even “Jingle All the Way” (1996) was wise to lampoon this bit of consumerist mass insanity.
A missed opportunity is that the screenplay never commits to the plausible idea that Andy, who watches a lot of television, is simply imagining that Ray’s soul is inside Chucky and blaming his dirty work on the doll.
No, we’re meant to be fully invested in the absurd possession, but Holland makes that work.
For most of the running time, we don’t see Chucky in close-up. The first act has lots of jolting shots of the doll either vanishing from frame or running away in the distance. The suggestion of the evil living inside this Teddy Ruxpin knockoff is chilling.
Once we get to the animatronic effects where Chucky behaves like a serial killer in plain sight, the illusion is handled skillfully but less is more with this character.
“Child’s Play” has an ill-considered scene where Andy takes Chucky on an excursion to the city where he commits revenge by blowing up a house. There’s also the bit with the voodoo witch doctor and another sequence where Chucky applies electrodes to a character’s head – the pulpy qualities of Holland’s film are obvious and horror fans will relish how nasty this gets.
Yet, the film works best when Holland layers the suspense and makes us question when or if Chucky will strike.
There are lots of explosions, some car smash ups and Chucky attacks that are well staged, but the film’s best scene is quiet, sneaky and terrifying: after Karen has accused Andy for the last time that he’s blaming Chucky for yet another misdeed, she finds herself alone in her apartment with the doll.
The way she discovers definitively that Chucky is both alive and possessed by Ray is the scariest scene in the film and this entire franchise.
FAST FACT: The original 1988 film “Child’s Play” earned $33 million at the U.S. box office. The first two sequels earned $28 million and $14.9 million, respectively.
The wild attack from the back seat of a car and the extended climax demonstrate real horror movie showmanship from Holland, who was coming off the surprise success of the still enjoyable “Fright Night” (1985), and the misstep of the ill-considered Whoopi Goldberg vehicle of “Fatal Beauty” from the prior year.
Holland, the author of the wonderful “Psycho II” (1983), knows how to craft a good horror movie.
The eerie final freeze frame suggests possibilities that the sequels never approached. From the initial follow ups, “Child’s Play 2” (1990) and “Child’s Play 3” (1991), which are awful, to the tacky “Bride of Chucky” (1998) and the lame spinoffs it inspired, to the so-so 2019 remake, none of the movies ever nailed the concept as well as the original.
I love Dourif and the glee he takes in playing Ray/Chucky but he (and, for that matter, Jennifer Tilly) deserve far better than what the sequels offered them and the fans.
The world building in Holland’s film was mostly left untouched in the sequels – how cool is it that we see the Good Guys live-action and animated series that Andy is addicted to? Why didn’t the series creators ever consider going the “Gremlins” route and having an army of Chucky dolls on the attack?
How about addressing that creepy closing shot or even transferring Ray’s soul into a different toy?
I’m unconvinced that “Child’s Play” has ever worked as a franchise and liked the mystery MGM/UA brought to the original (Chucky wasn’t visible in the poster art). With the success of the ongoing Syfy “Chucky” series that launched in 2021, the character is clearly never going out of fashion and Dourif will undoubtedly continue to invest his all in the character.
Yet, for the best of Chucky and Charles Lee Ray in human and doll form, it doesn’t get any better than the first “Child’s Play.”