A few months ago, I rewatched the original 1988 Child’s Play.
I have to say that I was surprised by just how well the film held up. Today, of course, everyone knows about Chucky. Everyone know that Chucky was originally Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer who was chased into a toy store by police detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). Knowing that he had little chance of escaping and not wanting to go to back to prison or face the electric chair, Charles Lee Ray performed a quick occult ceremony. While lighting crashed all around the store, Charles transported his soul into a “Good Guy” doll.
That doll was later purchased by a hard-working, single mom named Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks). She gave the doll to her six year-old son, Andy (Alex Vincent). There was nothing that Andy wanted more for his birthday than a talking Good Guy doll. Unfortunately, Good Guy dolls were also very expensive and Karen wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to afford to buy one. But, when she ran into a homeless guy who happened to be selling stolen merchandise out of his shopping cart, Karen was able to make Andy’s birthday a happy one! Andy unwrapped the doll and smiled as the doll introduced himself as being “Chucky” and asked if he wanted to play.
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that Charles Lee Ray wasn’t going to stop killing people just because he was now trapped inside the doll. If anything, being trapped in the doll made Ray even more homicidal. It makes sense if you think about it. I’m sure that Charles Lee Ray didn’t realize that performing that voodoo curse would cause him to wake up as a plastic toy wearing overalls and being expected to be a 6 year-old’s best friend.
Anyway, Chucky went on a rampage, killed several people, and everyone blamed Andy. Not even Karen believed Andy when Andy explained that Chucky was the one killing people with toy hammers and blowing up houses. Or, at least, Karen didn’t believe Andy until she herself was attacked by Chucky. With Chucky freaking out about the prospect of being stuck in the doll’s body for the rest of his existence and wanting to possess his new owner instead, Karen and Mike teamed up to protect Andy from the world’s worst birthday present.
To be honest, Child’s Play shouldn’t work as well as it does. The story is ludicrous, even by the standards of late 80s horror. There’s no way that a doll should be able to do things like throw a hammer with enough force to send someone flying out of a window. (Making the scene even stranger is the fact that it’s not even a real hammer but instead a little plastic Good Guy hammer.) And yet, the film does work and not just as an example of nostalgic camp. This is a scary and emotionally effective story, even if you already know the truth about Chucky. It helps that Alex Vincent gives a totally natural, uncutesy performance as Andy. Your heart really breaks for him as he begs the adults in his life to understand that it’s Chucky who is doing all of the bad things and not him. As well, Catherine Hicks deserves a lot of credit for taking her role seriously. And finally, the great Brad Dourif does wonders with just his voice. At first, it’s undeniably funny to hear his angry voice coming out of Chucky but Dourif delivers his lines with such unhinged conviction that it’s actually rather frightening when he suddenly drops the act and starts cursing out Karen. After all of the sequels and the subsequent television shows, Chucky himself has become a bit of a pop cultural icon. He’s almost as lovable as Freddy and Jason combined. But in the first Child’s Play, that doll is seriously scary. He may be small but he has the energy and ruthlessness of a feral beast. When he attacks, you have no doubt that he’s not going to stop until he’s gotten what he wants and what he wants is usually for someone to die.
The first Child’s Play earns its status as a horror classic by being surprisingly scary and also surprisingly emotional. You really do end up caring about Karen and Andy. When Karen finally went after that smug, murderous doll, I definitely cheered a little. Take that, Chucky!