Child’s Play, the horror franchise starring Chucky, the doll possessed by the wise-cracking serial killer Charles Lee Ray, holds an interesting distinction. It’s one of the rare film series that’s been consistently helmed by its original creator — Don Mancini has written all seven films in the franchise, as well as directed the last three. Its many sequels can change drastically in tone and style — and mileage may vary on how well Mancini and company pull it off — but you can’t really accuse the franchise of being one-note, and there’s no denying its protagonist has star power. Chucky may not have hit the peaks of slashers like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, but he has staying power and longevity. For my money, this is largely due to Mancini’s awareness of the character’s human malleability, often changing tonally with the times but always keeping the same sardonically sadistic voice.
Now, Mancini’s brought his favorite playmate back again with a new series from Syfy and the USA Network, simply titled Chucky. In it, the demonic doll returns to his hometown of Hackensack, New Jersey, and befriends 14-year-old Jake Wheeler, a lonely queer teenager who picks him up at a yard sale. As the series creator and showrunner, Mancini categorizes it as a “coming-of-rage story,” with Chucky helping Jake get revenge on the abusive individuals and bullies in his life while also trying to mold the young boy into a killer.
It’s startling and refreshing how overt Chucky is with its queer subject matter, which is clearly influenced by Mancini’s own adolescence as a gay man. Jake (Zackary Arthur) isn’t discovering who he is, and he isn’t keeping his queerness a secret, much to the drunken chagrin of his father (Devon Sawa). He’s already fully aware of his sexuality, his artistic bent (he builds avant-garde sculptures out of repurposed doll parts) and who he has feelings for (a true-crime podcaster in his class). No, the real challenge for Jake isn’t his sexuality; it’s figuring out how to stand up for himself. That and keeping his new stab-happy playmate from violently killing everyone he knows.
This isn’t the first time the Child’s Play franchise has engaged with queerness, however. Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) says as much in a scene that’s now gone viral, making it clear that despite his stabby proclivities and reputation as a consummate asshole, he’s accepting toward the LGBT community. “You know, I have a queer kid. Genderfluid,” he tells Jake in a matter-of-fact tone, attempting to connect with the young man and earn his trust. When the teen puzzledly asks if he’s okay with it, the possessed doll replies in a perfect deadpan, “I’m not a monster, Jake.”
But who is Chucky talking about in this scene? For that answer, you have to go back to 2004’s Seed of Chucky, which though largely (and in my view, completely incorrectly) considered to be the series’ worst entry, is actually a misunderstood franchise high point as well as a sadistically silly queer horror classic.
At the end of 1998’s Bride of Chucky, our possessed plastic protagonist and his bloodthirsty, battery-powered bride Tiffany (voiced by the always effervescent Jennifer Tilly) have been killed, but not before giving birth to their child, another ensouled doll. Six years later, the orphaned doll sees Tiffany and Chucky’s doll corpses being used as animatronic puppets in a movie, so they rush to Hollywood to resurrect their parents. Now a family united for the first time, there are only three problems.
First, their child has no genitals, so nobody can figure out what gender their child is. Chucky calls him Glen, and Tiffany calls her Glenda (an homage to Ed Wood’s first movie). Second, Glen/da is a pacifist and wants the family to stop committing brutal murders. Lastly, they all want to have human bodies, so Tiffany comes up with a plan to possess and impregnate the body of her favorite actress — Jennifer Tilly. These three separate plot threads come together to create the bloodiest, most irreverent family drama.
After Child’s Play 3, Mancini recognized that with extended familiarity, slashers lose their scare potency. So, with Bride of Chucky, his writing shifted from the straight-up horror of the earlier movies into a horror-comedy about serial killers on a romantic road trip. Mancini went three steps further with Seed (his directorial debut), turning it into a bizarre domestic drama like Marriage Story with evil dolls and celebrities playing themselves (or Kramer vs. Kramer, with more cum jokes and disembowelings). This, of course, alienated more hardcore horror fans.
Glen/da is the heart of Seed and its de facto protagonist, feeling confused and pulled in multiple directions (all of which are gory and psychotic) by his/her parents. Eventually, the genders become distinct, with the peace-loving male personality Glen being occasionally overcome by the sadistic female personality, Glenda. And while the crossdressing killer was nothing new or progressive on its own in the world of horror, it was used here to express genuine gender dysphoria. “Sometimes I feel like a boy; sometimes I feel like a girl. Can’t I be both?” Glen asks his parents. And while Chucky treats it as “touchy-feely crap” at first, he begins to accept and speak lovingly about his “multi-talented kid” after he sees Glenda murder someone for the first time.
Seed of Chucky is a movie that’s been intentionally pushed down by studios and fans since before it even came out. When Mancini originally turned in the script for Seed to Universal Pictures, it came back rejected with the note that it was “too gay.” In fact, it almost feels as if the last two Chucky movies in the primary continuity, Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky, have worked to erase the memory of Seed with the character of Nica Pierce (played by Chucky actor Dourif’s real life daughter, Fiona Dourif), the daughter Chucky conceived just before his human body was gunned down. That said, it’s worth noting that Mancini himself has consistently said how much he loves the character of Glen/da, how much he stands by Seed and that he simply isn’t a filmmaker that gets final cut on his movies.
But now, with the advent of the Chucky series and the warm reception of its gay themes, it feels clear that Seed is a queer classic that was ahead of its time. Like the TV show, it’s an irreverent and gory look at what’s its like to grow up queer, and personally, I just don’t understand how anyone could be mad about a movie with that much Jennifer Tilly in it.