Recursive Chucky

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I’ve been to see the new Child’s Play. I thought about seeing it as a double bill with Toy Story 4, but then decided, no, the Missing Link/Pet Sematary twofer was enough tonal whiplash for one year.

Now, I’m not too keen on remakes. But I have to applaud the crew behind Child’s Play ’19: this is a rare remake that justifies itself. The bare-bones premise is the same – kid ends up with homicidal doll – but the film has actually taken the effort to come up with a fresh variation on the theme. The Chucky doll is no longer possessed by the ghost of a serial killer, but is instead a malfunctioning AI. And where his predecessor aimed to kill Andy by taking his body, the new Chucky has the opposite motivation: he wants to protect his new friend Andy, through any means possible. If someone makes life hard for Andy, Chucky will deal with them. And if someone gets in the way of Andy’s affection for the doll, then – like the ultimate in clingy, manipulative friends – Chucky will dispose of them too.

The original Child’s Play walked a tightrope. The idea of an animated, murderous doll has obvious potential to be unnerving, and the film was able to exploit this potential while Chucky was merely glimpsed. But the character’s wisecracking personality, gruff adult voice, and daft pseudo-Voodoo backstory made him inherently silly; whenever he took centre stage, the film worked only as horror comedy. Balancing the two tones is delicate, so it is no surprise that the sequels generally took the easier way out by using Chucky as a vehicle for grossed-out laughs; even 2013’s Curse of Chucky, which started out by placing the character in a more straight-faced horror film, ended up embracing gleefully Chucky’s inherent daftness by its close.

The remake, likewise, strikes a balance. Chucky’s antics begin as a gore-splattered farce, with plenty of sick jokes arising from Andy and his friends being saddled with the unenviable task of covering up the doll’s homicidal tendencies (the young performers show some lovely comedy chops here). But as the stories unfold, Chucky begins to target more sympathetic characters, and his methods of killing them become less cartoonish and more genuinely horrific. As this updated Chucky can manipulate other pieces of hardware through wi-fi, the film is able to playfully exploit contemporary unease about how all-pervasive our technology has become.

There is one scene I found particularly striking, despite a complete lack of gore. It has Chucky taking over the television set in Andy’s apartment; the boy, in a frenzy, smashes the TV to a mess of static and glass fragments – just as his mother walks in, hand to her mouth in shock. Although based on the same kind of awkward misunderstandings that drive the film’s comedic elements, there is nothing funny about this scene. It is a vivid, iconic portrayal of paranoia and desperation, one that taps into the fears of both children and parents.

Living in the UK, I couldn’t help but think of the controversial history that the Child’s Play series has over here. After two-year-old James Bulger was murdered by two older children in 1993, the tabloids went looking for a scapegoat and picked Child’s Play 3. Evidence that the juvenile murderers had even seen the film – let alone set out to imitate it – was so thin as to be negligible, but nonetheless the gutter press held Chucky up as the atrocity’s true culprit. The killer doll glared out of sundry tabloid covers, giving the impression that he was less a character in a horror-comedy and more some kind of demon idol that held sway over the minds of the nation’s children (for further analysis of this affair, I recommend David Kerekes and David Slater’s book See No Evil).

Interestingly, the Child’s Play remake actually works this sort of social unease into its plot, albeit indirectly. While the old Chucky was a hardened killer from the very start of the film, the new Chucky is – like Frankenstein’s creation – a blank slate who becomes corrupted (apologies for the mixed metaphor) by the world around him. His initial malfunction is the result of a harassed factory worker sabotaging him to get back at an abusive boss; later, he absorbs Andy’s adolescent anger and picks up murder methods from watching the horror films that Andy enjoys. Mark Hamill, a man with both Luke Skywalker and the Joker on his CV, was the perfect casting choice.

As with many stories, the hero and villain in the new Child’s Play are two sides of the same coin. Andy, like Chucky, gets off to a troubled start: he is disabled (wearing a hearing aid), has a single parent, and at the beginning of the film is friendless. His gleeful enjoyment of Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 suggests a certain morbid sensibility – albeit no more so than the audience watching in the cinema. But he has a moral compass that prevents him from becoming corrupted the way Chucky does.

Child’s Play, once a target for fears about the corruption of youth, has become a vehicle for the playful exploration of that very topic.

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