Child’s Play

The other night I went to see Child’s Play in the theater. Originally released in 1988, it took me 22 years to finally check it out. The print exhibited was the first one made from the master copy and had never been shown before, which is a nice treat. In addition to this little tidbit, I enjoyed Child’s Play. It’s not the best horror film I’ve ever seen and I’m not sure it deserves a long line of sequels or an upcoming remake, but it’s a decent, low-budget horror flick with solid acting and a few genuinely suspenseful moments.

The story follows Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), known as the Lakeshore Strangler, who uses a magical incantation to inhabit a Good Guy doll named Chucky after homicide detective Norris (Chris Sarandon) fatally shoot him in a toy store. The Good Guy doll ends up in adolescent Andy’s (Alex Vincent) possession, which leads to a string of murders. Initially blaming Alex for the murders, Andy’s mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) and Norris eventually realize it’s the Ray, living on through the doll. Violence ensues; a few intense moments pepper the film, and in the end Norris and Karen thwart Chucky’s reign of terror.

The film, produced for around $9 million dollars, incorporates a good deal of first person perspective and partially revealing shots to not only save money but to keep Chucky’s image mysterious – a tactic that works for the film. For example, when Chucky goes after his former partner Eddie – now living in an abandoned house in a Chicago ghetto – the camera moves towards the house’s front stairs, coupling the visual with the sound of footsteps. At this point the audience hasn’t seen Chucky in action, building up anticipation to the eventuality of seeing Chucky’s true persona. Since I’m certain a good deal of the budget went towards Chucky’s animatronics, implementing shot like these (the one mentioned above reminiscent of the Evil Dead films) is smart; it forwards the film’s plot, saves cash, and builds up tension for when Chucky finally does something the audience can see.

Visually the film is well crafted. The lighting, cinematography, and editing are excellent, not revealing the film’s limited budget. The score, composed by Joe Renzetti, isn’t dated and is genuinely creepy at times. The acting is fantastic – Sarandon performs well as a detective, Hicks portrays a single mother trying to survive with conviction, Vincent comes across as a legitimately frightened child, and Dourif’s routine as Chucky/Ray is both funny and fearsome. While Chucky’s language and sentiments are psychotic and highly sexist, Dourif conveys this perfectly; Chucky’s statements are teeming with vigor and vehemence. When he calls Karen a “stupid bitch,” the timing and force of the line takes you by surprise. For a low-budget horror film, the casting shines and makes Child’s Play more than a run-of-the-mill horror film.

I like what the film says about the decline of the nuclear family and how the odds are stacked against a single mother in a male dominated society. Nobody mentions Andy’s father throughout the film and the only possible clue that he isn’t a deadbeat father is a photograph on Karen’s nightstand of an unidentified man. Is he Andy’s father? Is he dead? Did he abandon his family? These questions are left unanswered but Karen’s struggle to support her son is obvious. Karen works in the jewelry section at a department store and her boss is an uncompassionate man, uncaring about Karen’s familial obligations or financial woes. To him she’s exploitable; a person he can project his angers and somewhat sadistic whim onto. Her labor is replaceable and although she needs a job he could care less. When Karen purchases Chucky from a hobo behind the department store her boss chastises her. Never mind it’s her son’s birthday and the quick deviation from her job only took a moment, she’s an unwed mother – a flaw in American society.

Andy’s attachment to the Good Guy doll is also interesting. He’s a single child with no male influence and even though Child’s Play doesn’t provide a reason for this, it’s definitely commenting on the notion of the latchkey kid in the latter half of the 20th century. Critics of single mothers, children born out of wedlock, or anything along these lines cite a decline in America’s moral fabric, but I think this foolish. It’s not like this is a phenomenon exclusive to contemporary times; human history is filled with this. However, it’s possible our society is more accommodating to this situation. While social stigmas still exist, women aren’t exiled or physically punished for these situations. Personally I believe this is a positive, since procreation is a two person act and placing the blame solely on a female is shortsighted. Child’s Play explores this, even when discussing the effects of a single parent family on a child. It doesn’t necessarily take sides – Karen is a loving mother, possessing a tight bond with Andy. Her desire to procure a Good Guy doll for Andy is proof of this.

Yet a child without companions or a two parent household does take its toll, especially when our society condemns those living with only one parent. The social norm in the media is a two parent household; politicians constantly discuss family values (especially in the ‘80s) and the orientation of entertainment for children speaks positively towards the nuclear family. Child’s Play suggests Andy’s regular companion is the television, which isn’t a substitute for a parent. Because Karen works long hours to make ends meet, Andy spends time with the various characters on-screen. It shapes his desires while confusing him, telling him the way to happiness is a two parent family. The next best thing is consumerism, which is a key critique of Child’s Play. Why does Andy want the Good Guy? Before I suggested companionship, but I think it’s more than that.

The Good Guy doll represents a hybrid of camaraderie and consumerism. Obtaining the doll will elevate his status at school in addition to providing a proxy for Andy to project his inner feelings. Chucky is nothing more than an imaginary friend in plastic form. In the ‘80s a variety of these kinds of dolls were quite popular: Cabbage Patch Kids, My Buddy, Kid Sister, Teddy Ruxpin, and so forth. In a time when the traditional American family’s breaking down, highly advanced dolls targeting a latchkey kids’ isolation hit the market. The company’s manufacturing these toys – multinational conglomerates – are responsible for the lack of economic stability for the American worker and instead of fixing the situation, they create surrogates; dolls and other consumable devices to avoid the true problem: outsourcing jobs, anti-union organization, and other methods these companies employed to lower costs while driving up profit when their companies were already in the black. These companies created an employment crisis and instead of addressing the problem directly, they create phony solutions, aimed at furthering a consumerist mentality. Is this wrong? Are Andy’s issues, stemming from a non-nuclear family, and the result of economic forces beyond his control?

I’m not sure if the filmmakers truly intended on exploring these issues in their script, but regardless their movie does ask such questions. I’m a firm believer in the Reader Response theory and while it’s quite possible Tom Holland and Don Mancini were using Child’s Play as a vehicle for social commentary (as is the case with a good deal of horror and science fiction), once their work reaches the audience it ceases to solely contain their intended message. Ultimately I see Child’s Play saying that television isn’t good for America’s youth, an early adherence to capitalism and consumerism isn’t healthy for children, and substituting plastic toys for people isn’t healthy.

I’m sure there’s more to Child’s Play but I’ve only seen it once. Aside from what it says about these various social, political, and economic issues, it’s a quality horror flick. The special effects are great, especially for a horror film costing less than $10 million dollars. My only complaint with the film’s narrative is that it’s a bit confused. Sometimes it wants to be scary; sometimes it wants to be funny. I’m not against a decent mix of comedy and horror, but Child’s Play has a hard time deciding what it wants to be. Ultimately it wants to be a horror film, but the sequels – like Bride or Seed of Chucky – are dark comedies, where the horror comes second to a good laugh (See Child’s Play III, where Chucky says, “I’m going to be a bro,” when trying to possess a young black child). Child’s Play displays a humorous streak, well before the comedic sequels. If the film knew what it wanted I’m sure Child’s Play would be a better film, but as it stands it’s a good ‘80s horror flick.

Here is the trailer.

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