What a drama queen Chucky is. There are probably a hundred thoughts that the filmmakers behind the new Child’s Play want dancing through our head while watching this blah remake of the 1988 horror film, but I’m guessing that’s not one of them. Nevertheless, that’s what kept occurring to me while watching this initially intriguing, ultimately brain-dead reboot. The original was about a murderer whose dark soul enters the body of an adorable child’s toy. But in the new film, Chucky is a super-advanced doll that’s programmed to be its owner’s best friend. Unfortunately, one particular doll has its fail-safes disconnected, and when that happens, the robot’s urge to be loyal turns twisted. That new plot wrinkle is meant to be social commentary, but instead, we’re just trapped with the neediest horror monster ever.
When you think of cinema’s most frightening bogeymen — Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers — they tend to be savage killing machines, devoid of emotion as they drain the life from their victims. Maybe they have some traumatic backstory, but on the whole, they’re assertive, resourceful and upsettingly confident in their abilities. As a rule, they don’t walk around with crippling insecurity.
Chucky in the 1988 Child’s Play was of that ilk, blissfully slaying helpless bystanders and spewing menace in all directions. Nobody had to worry about the guy’s feelings. But director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith have other ideas for their reboot. Here, the doll, named Buddi, has been designed to make your kid feel special — and because he’s part of a fictitious high-tech corporation, Kaslan, which specializes in interactive products, Buddi can remotely hook up to your stereo, television or smart home. (Basically, he’s Alexa in doll form.)
However, when a lowly worker in Vietnam gets fired at the Buddi plant, he snaps and sends out one of the dolls into the world without the programming that keeps it obedient. That livewire Buddi finds its way to Andy (Gabriel Bateman), a lonely, sensitive young teen and his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza), who have just moved to a new town. Andy thinks he’s too old for a Buddi, but the doll, who names himself Chucky, is such a warm, supportive presence that Andy soon falls for the toy. But because Chucky wasn’t programmed properly, he takes his desire to be Andy’s best friend literally — killing anyone who annoys the kid and trying to eliminate those who might threaten their close bond. Chucky isn’t inherently malicious — he just wants to do everything in his power to make sure Andy loves him as much as he loves Andy.
In its early going, this new Child’s Play shows promise. It doesn’t take much to scare viewers about the prospect that their interconnected home devices will one day rise up and kill them. (One of the film’s supporting characters even makes an oblique Skynet reference.) And there’s something darkly comical about the Buddi doll’s uncanny-valley, creepily enthusiastic responses to everything. (Mark Hamill, who provides Chucky’s voice, leans into the eerily inhuman humanness of the character’s demeanor.) At first, it seems like this reboot will smartly skewer our willingness to just give our lives over to our A.I. overlords.
Unfortunately, the movie quickly grows increasingly inane and predictable. The characters do dopey things to further the plot, and the kill scenes are more and more elaborate/ridiculous. This is a bad horror movie that unsuccessfully tries to split the difference between being campy and gory. But the big problem is this new iteration of Chucky. I don’t object to him being all stab-y and homicidal. It’s the character’s endless anxiety over being replaced as Andy’s best friend that’s so off-putting. Before this new Child’s Play, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror movie and just felt … embarrassed for the villain.
We’re used to our cinematic serial killers doing all sorts of unspeakable things to their victims, but at least they have the decency not to be passive-aggressive about it. I don’t want to spoil who Chucky kills in Child’s Play, but suffice it to say that he almost always does it because he wants to prove his fidelity to Andy — and each time after he kills, he gleefully reports back to the kid, constantly shocked and dismayed that Andy isn’t happy about it. Chucky starts to get all whiny because, as he sees it, Andy just doesn’t appreciate his love. Andy tries to lock him in the closet, throw him down the apartment complex trash shoot or otherwise deactivate him, but none of those tactics work — and wouldn’t you know it, Chucky just keeps coming back, pissier than before. How could Andy do that to him? Doesn’t he understand how much he loves Andy? He’s not mad at Andy — he’s just very disappointed in him. Chucky is basically like that one ex who won’t get over you but also won’t shut up about it.
While suffering through Child’s Play, I tried to think of other thrillers or horror films in which the bad guy is so chronically needy. And interestingly, it tends to be a bad gal. My mind drifted to Single White Female, about an unhappy woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who becomes disturbingly drawn to her female roommate (Bridget Fonda), or garbage like Obsessed, in which Ali Larter plays an unhinged temp determined to steal her married boss (Idris Elba) away from his wife (Beyoncé).
In these films, the killer often has an unhealthy fixation with the object of her affection that makes her seem “crazy” — from there, it’s a short trip to becoming a full-blown psychopath. There’s something awfully sexist about this construction, positioning the woman’s neediness as pathetic and deranged, beyond the pale. It’s not that male characters don’t do something similar — the superb 1999 thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley starred Matt Damon as a con artist consumed with becoming the glamorous, handsome Dickie (Jude Law) — and here as well, it’s treated as abhorrent. (Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, the film strongly hints that Damon’s damaged Tom Ripley is also closeted.) Where other movie bogeymen keep their emotions close to the chest — which makes them seem scarier and more mysterious — this crop of killers erupts with shameful, thwarted desire. Their behavior isn’t steely, but pitiful.
You could argue that this new Child’s Play is trying to say something meaningful about our fraught relationship with playthings, whether they’re our iPhones or a homicidal doll with Luke Skywalker’s voice. We treat them like our slaves, demanding their obedience without ever giving anything back in return — when their battery dies or they become obsolete, we ditch them for a newer model. Well, this doll is tired of that arrangement, and Andy will discover the consequences of earning a neurotic, needy machine’s undying devotion. Look, Chucky, I’m totally cool with you killing cats, old ladies and asshole boyfriends. But at least have some dignity while you do it.
Here are three other takeaways from Child’s Play…
#1. It’s lame when one movie’s marketing campaign parodies another.
Of course, Child’s Play isn’t the only movie out this weekend about an anxiety-fueled toy. There’s also Toy Story 4, which also deals with a doll that’s scared that its human owner doesn’t love him anymore. (Woody, however, doesn’t kill nearly as many people as Chucky does.) Most everyone was aware that Toy Story 4 would be hitting theaters soon. But the low-budget, lower-profile Child’s Play had to build awareness. And one way to do so is to take shots at a far more beloved and popular franchise:
On the one hand, this is a clever marketing strategy — the backdrops are impressively similar, and it’s amusing how the Child’s Play poster plays as a follow-up of what happens in the Toy Story 4 poster. But on the other, these kinds of campaigns always feel a little desperate. The ad is basically a snotty joke that reminds you that Child’s Play can’t compare to Pixar.
You see this kind of marketing strategy every once in a while. 2011’s Madea’s Big Happy Family went with a series of posters that cast Tyler Perry’s titular grandma as the star of different iconic movies, everything from The Godfather to Black Swan. And those really unfunny-looking A Haunted House comedies utilized parody posters of horror classics.
From Family Guy to bad kids’ movies, too much humor nowadays is based on the concept of “Hey, look, we’re referencing that thing you know!” Parody posters fall into that category. At least with Child’s Play, the unlikely thematic connection to Toy Story makes a little bit of sense. But you’ll probably think a lot about Toy Story 4 after you see it — whereas this lame reboot (and its poster) will evaporate from memory by next week.
#2. Just imagine if Lucille Bluth had been the voice of the original Chucky.
In preparing for the new Child’s Play, horror aficionado Brett Arnold rewatched the original, including the DVD commentary track. And he hit gold:
Naturally, the internet lost its collective mind, with fans of Child’s Play and/or Arrested Development wondering what it would sound like if Lucille Bluth voiced Chucky. But The A.V. Club’s Randall Colburn soon pointed out that, a few years earlier, Mental Floss had run an oral history of the 1988 film, which included director Tom Holland and screenwriter Don Mancini reminiscing about approaching Walter to play Chucky.
Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].
Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.
Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.
All due respect to Brad Dourif, who made Chucky come to life in the original films, but I’d love to hear that audio of Walter playing Chucky. And the idea that she can’t make threats funny? Those original seasons of Arrested Development beg to differ.
#3. Are a drone’s propellers as deadly as they’re depicted in Child’s Play?
During the remake’s big finale, set in a Walmart-like box store, Chucky rains death down on a bunch of prospective Buddi shoppers by remotely controlling a group of drones, their sharp propellers causing all kinds of bloodshed. Since I don’t own a drone, that seemed dubious. Are drones really that deadly?
Best I can tell, it looks like Child’s Play overstated commercial drones’ killing ability. But only slightly.
In 2015, Mythbusters’ Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman decided to investigate what the damage would be to the human body if a flying drone hit it. To do this, they took a whole uncooked chicken, attached it to a stick, and then attacked it with a rotating propeller. This doesn’t look fatal, but it sure doesn’t look fun, either.
Other such videos show propellers slicing into, say, pork, but even so, they don’t resemble the hellfire death machines that are shown in Child’s Play. Obviously, basic common sense is a must when operating a drone, although you can find stories of people talking about their painful mishaps. Some even commit their stupidity to video:
This Chucky is actually a big fan of killer blades. A lawnmower, a table saw and drone propellers are all used to dispense of victims. (A chainsaw also makes a cameo in the film.) And, of course, he’s still really into just straight-up stabbing people with knives. If you suffer from aichmophobia, avoid Child’s Play. Even if you don’t, feel free to avoid it.