When you’re attempting to reboot a franchise that just released a sequel two years prior, you have to make yourself stand out.
So how did 2019’s reboot of the 1988 cult classic Child’s Play manage this? Or did it at all?
Child’s Play, which just released in theaters this weekend, is the first film of the franchise that was produced without the help of creator Don Mancini or actor Brad Dourif (who traditionally voices the Chucky doll). Mancini took personal offense to the studio moving on with the franchise without him, especially considering he is producing a Child’s Play television show. Mancini lashed out at the new Child’s Play movie on Twitter, as did Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly, who has also starred in several Child’s Play films.
“The people who are making that movie, they don’t know how that’s going to affect my livelihood,” Mancini explained. “It’s not just a pay cheque. It’s very personal. MGM’s screwing with that, potentially.”
What Mancini refers to here is the fact that not only is he intending to produce a Chucky television show, but that there are also potential feature film sequels in the works. MGM’s decision to reboot the series obviously complicates Mancini’s plans.
So can 2019’s Child’s Play set itself apart from the Chucky universe created by Mancini? And is there room for both? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The answer to the second question? Eh, maybe?
Let’s start by talking about the biggest change in this new Child’s Play reboot. In case you missed it (or just forgot), in the 1988 version, the evil Chucky doll is actually possessed by the ghost of a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray. Ray uses a voodoo spell to transfer his soul into the body of a doll in an effort to escape the police and avoid death.
Is this creepy? Sure. But some of these things aren’t as scary to 2019 audiences as they were back in the day. For one, we now have the Annabelle franchise which is attempting to do possessed doll without the camp factor (the ridiculousness of that concept should be saved for a future post, perhaps). And with all of the true crime podcasts and television series that are highly popular right now, serial killers have become more fascinating than they are scary. Even more troubling, when Netflix released Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile earlier this year, there was genuine concern that perhaps too many people thought of serial killers like Ted Bundy as sexy. Yikes.
So what’s scarier to viewers in 2019? For that, we have to return once again to Netflix and its popular show Black Mirror, which, whether you like it or not, just released three new episodes that are getting a lot of attention. What makes Black Mirror so popular with viewers is also what makes it so unsettling: it realizes humanity’s deepest fears about technology. How does technology deconstruct what it means to be human? How is it changing us in irreversible ways?
Whether or not the latest installments of Black Mirror are successful in posing these questions to its audience is something we’ll be discussing in our next podcast episode (shameless plug). But I will say that Child’s Play is at least attempting to explore technology in a similar way. The new Chucky doll is a smart doll who is sort of like Alexa on steroids. He can control all of the electronics in your house AND be your best friend. Instead of being possessed by a serial killer, this Chucky is reprogrammed by a disgruntled factory worker. He isn’t necessarily evil when he enters the home of Karen and her son Andy (played by Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Batemen). But the capability for evil is there.
As Chucky spends more time with Andy, Karen, and the other human beings they associate with, he learns violence and cruelty from them and so he becomes a violent and evil doll in part because of what he observes through interactions with people and what he sees on TV. Certainly Child’s Play is using this to reflect on humanity’s fascination with violence (see the thing about sexy serial killers from earlier).
Without giving everything away, what follows after Chucky goes full-blown evil is a robot uprising that shows just how at the mercy of technology we truly are.
Are these new ideas? No. But they’re new ideas for the Child’s Play franchise that take the story in a completely different direction, thematically. And perhaps these ideas are more nuanced than the ideas about technology presented in the latest episodes of Black Mirror (more on this in our podcast episode—shameless plug again).
The second way Child’s Play works to modernize itself is through nostalgia.
At this point, it’s almost as if nostalgia has become a necessary component of the horror genre. Despite the fact that the setting of this reboot is clearly in a not so distant future where Uber has been replaced with cars that drive themselves, nostalgia is everywhere. And apparently Netflix is everywhere as well, because the nostalgia in this world harkens back to the 1980’s in much the same way that Stranger Things does.
Just check out at Andy’s look in the above image: extremely reminiscent of Elliott from E.T. — I’m talking about the red hoodie and the hairstyle. Even the way Andy interacts with Chucky at the beginning of the movie is much like the way Elliott tries to teach E.T. about being on Earth. Chucky’s fingertip even glows, just like our favorite cute little alien, when he’s controlling electronics around the house. The only thing that was missing was Reese’s Pieces. Sad.
Aside from the blatant E.T. connections, however, there are tons of easter eggs for other 1980’s pop culture sprinkled throughout the movie, some more obvious than others. Just check out the 80’s movies posters on the wall, or how gleeful all the kids are as they sit around the television to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The juxtaposition of futuristic technology with 1980’s nostalgia makes this movie an almost by-the-number perfect horror film for contemporary audiences and separates it from the original Chucky series. It’s almost so on the nose that it shouldn’t work, but the earnestness of this reboot mixed with just the right amount of camp makes it somehow work.
Add in stellar performances by all the leads, including Bryan Tyree Henry as a police officer and Mark Hamill as Chucky (yes, the movie throws in a Star Wars joke at the beginning) and you’ve got yourself a pretty fun movie. I was actually surprised by how entertaining this was.
Now where does that put Mancini and his version of the franchise? Hard to say. The box office returns for 2019’s Chucky suggest that viewers are more interested in this contemporary version of the story. How will Mancini answer that in his upcoming television show and future films? We’ll just have to wait and see.