On the anniversary of its release, we look back at the slasher staple “Child’s Play” and the franchise it launched, celebrating the film’s enduring legacy.
Ever wonder when you were a kid what would happen if a favorite toy could come to life? I don’t think a foul-mouthed murderer ever entered our minds, but that’s exactly what we got with Chucky, the main character in the slasher film series, Child’s Play (November 9, 1988).
In the first film, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) aka The Lakeshore Strangler, is fleeing police. Ray stumbles into a toy store and is shot by detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). Ray realizes that he’s dying and performs a voodoo spell to transfer his spirit into a Good Guy doll.
Good Guy dolls happen to be THE toy on every kid’s wish list. One of those kids is 6-year-old Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent). Andy’s overworked, down-on-her-luck single mom, Karen (Catherine Hicks) thinks she’s lucked out when she manages to purchase a doll from a homeless guy. Chaos ensues once Chucky enters the picture. Being a doll hasn’t calmed Ray’s killer instinct. Not only that, Ray would prefer to live as a human and thinks starting life over as a 6-year-old is preferable to being a possessed doll.
Child’s Play (1988) spawned a franchise of seven movies chronicling the misadventures of deceased serial killer Charles Lee Ray.
Ray’s knowledge of voodoo allows him to resurrect himself time and time again in the body of a popular children’s toy. Over the years, Chucky’s left many corpses in his wake, gotten himself a doll bride, and even had a doll child.
According to Child’s Play creator, Don Mancini, it was consumerism that inspired the story. Specifically, Mancini was thinking of how the advertising industry targets children. Mancini’s father worked for a pharmaceutical company, and most of his job was in dealing with ad agencies.
Mancini is quoted as saying:
“Because of my exposure to the world of advertising and marketing through my dad, I was very aware from an early age of the cynicism inherent in that world, particularly selling products to children. Madison Avenue refers to children as ‘consumer trainees’ and I discovered that as a child. I thought, I wanted to write a dark satire about how advertising affects children.”
Mancini was also inspired by the popularity of 1980’s toys such as Cabbage Patch Kids and a Twilight Zone episode, “Living Doll.”
At the time he wrote the story, Mancini was a film major at UCLA. Eventually, his screenplay made it to producer David Kirschner who said that he was interested in making a movie about a homicidal doll after reading a book called The Dollhouse Murders (1983)
Producer and director Charles Band was the first to express interest in the film. Band is known for many cult movies such as The Puppet Master series. However, it was United Artists who eventually accepted the story. Writer John Lafia was brought inn to work on the script, and Tom Holland was tapped to direct. Holland was no stranger to the horror genre. He directed both Psycho II (1983) and Fright Night (1985).
Actor John Lithgow, best-known for his role on the sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, was first approached to play Charles Lee Ray aka Chucky. However, the part went to Brad Dourif, who plays Chucky throughout the entire original series.
Mancini would write all of the films for the original franchise. Once Lafia was brought in to do a rewrite, Mancini’s original story drastically changed.
The original story was less a slasher and more of a who-done-it murder mystery, as well as a satire about advertising and commercialism. Lafia added the voodoo ritual scene in the beginning, which took out the mystery out of the story. The anti-commercialism commentary was also taken out.
During the late 1980s, the supernatural element of Child’s Play fit in with the trend occurring in the horror genre.
At the time there was concern about the amount of violence in slasher films. In response, this period saw a new wave of slashers who were supernatural in nature such as in Hellraiser, Leprechaun and Candyman. A supernatural element was even added to the Halloween franchise. I suppose the idea was that the supernatural element would make the violence further removed from reality.
After its release in November of 1988, Child’s Play earned $44 million. And as a result, Child’s Play creators earned a sequel.
Child’s Play 2 (1990) and 3 (1991) continue the story of Andy Barclay and Chucky’s pursuit of him as well a human host body, though these films weren’t as successful as the original.
After Child’s Play 3, Chucky took a breather. But he returned to his homicidal ways in Bride of Chucky (1998).
The final movies of the series took on a slightly different theme and explored more of Chucky’s backstory. Bride of Chucky, Seed of Chucky, Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky let us see a different side of the character. We get to know relationship Chucky with the introduction of Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly) in Bride of Chucky. Tiffany is very much a match for Chucky. She has similar interests such as voodoo and homicide.
In Bride of Chucky, Tiffany recovers Chucky’s doll remains from a police officer, performs a voodoo ritual, and brings him back. After an argument over a ring Tiffany mistakenly thought was an engagement ring, she gets pretty angry. She mocks Chucky’s possessed doll state by locking him in a play pen. She then purchases a bride doll for him. Chucky kills her and uses his trusty voodoo skills to trap her spirit inside of the bride doll.
The two plan to find human hosts for their spirits. Only problem, they need an amulet which is buried with Ray’s physical remains in Hackensack, New Jersey. They manage to get a young couple to drive them to their destination. Chucky and Tiffany also think the couple will make perfect hosts for their spirits.
In Seed of Chucky (2004), Chucky and Tiffany have a child (Billy Boyd). Tiffany gives birth to an animated doll baby as she lays dying at the end of Bride.
Chucky and Tiffany are technically dead. Their child, who we later find out isn’t anatomically correct, lives in the U.K. The doll sees Chucky and Tiffany on TV and realizes they are her/his parents. Meanwhile, Chucky and Tiffany manage to return in the bodies of the prop dolls. Their child, who they name eventually name Glen/Glenda, manages to find them. Needless to say that once their estranged child finds them, they make a toxic, dysfunctional family.
Besides the dysfunctional homicidal doll family dynamic, there are many other campy components to this movie. Tilly parodies herself, playing herself and Tiffany. Seed is also a movie about making a movie about the murders surrounding the dolls.
Curse of Chucky (2013) has a different feel than the other movies in the franchise.
Mancini seems to have returned to his original idea for the Chucky story. Curse is a written as a gothic-style murder mystery.
The story revolves around Nica Pierce (played by Brad Dourif’s daughter, Fiona Dourif), a disabled woman living in a large, old house with a dysfunctional family. Chucky arrives by mail from an unknown sender. Members of the family begin dying one by one. Chucky isn’t shown being active during most of the movie. Another unique part of this movie is that we get to see Chucky as a human in flashbacks. Through the flashbacks, we learn why he targets Nica and her family.
In Cult of Chucky (2017), he uses his voodoo skills once again to split his spirit apart to inhabit multiple doll and human bodies. The cast of characters includes Nica from the last film, Andy Barclay (reprised by Alex Vincent from Child’s Play) and Tiffany (reprised by Jennifer Tilly in both doll form and as a human). Sadly, no Glen/Glenda.
The movie takes place in a mental institution where Nica is incarcerated for the murder of her family. Needless to say, Chucky finds his way to the institution and the fun begins.
The 2019 remake of Child’s Play completely changes Chucky’s origins. He isn’t a serial killer possessing a doll. Chucky is a doll with artificial intelligence gone awry. He’s also not a Good Guy doll but a Buddi doll, voiced by none other than Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill. Tyler Burton Smith, who wrote the reboot, was inspired by the classic 1982 movie E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
Chucky isn’t finished yet. He’s set to return in a Child’s Play TV series for the SyFy network. Child’s Play creator Don Mancini is involved in the series and Brad Dourif is set to return as the voice of Chucky.
For the past 32 years, the Child’s Play franchise has had its ups and downs but is still going strong. With the TV series scheduled, who knows how many more years Chucky will have to terrorize us.
Some Fright Fun Facts:
1. The name Charles Lee Ray came from three infamous real life people: Charles from cult leader and mass murder mastermind Charles Manson, Lee from Lee Harvey Oswald who was charged with killing former U.S. president John Kennedy, and Ray from James Earl Ray who assassinated Martin Luther King.
2. The original title was Blood Buddy.
3. Some dolls pee and some cry, but Good Guy dolls were originally supposed to bleed if injured during play. The idea behind this feature was that children would be responsible for bandaging the dolls if they were injured.
4. Tom Holland said that the My Buddy doll, a popular 1980’s toy, influenced Chucky’s look.
5. Before Holland, William Friedkin (The Exorcist) was approached to direct Child’s Play (1988).
6. There was no CGI used in early Child’s Play movies. Chucky was animated through puppetry and animatronics, and in some scenes a live actor was used. One of the stand-ins was John Franklin who starred in Children of the Corn.
7. In the novel adaptation of Child’s Play 2, Chucky was given some backstory not included in the film. Serial killer Charles Lee Ray’s first victim is his abusive mother.
8. Alex Vincent plays Andy Barclay in Child’s Play (1988), Child’s Play 2 (1990), Curse of Chucky (2013), and Cult of Chucky (2017).
9. Chucky and Tiffany’s son/daughter’ name, Glen/Glenda, was taken from cult filmmaker Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (1953) which was about transvestism.
10. Quentin Tarantino was supposed to play himself in Seed of Chucky but pulled out for some reason. Instead, rapper Redman plays the director who becomes involved with Tilly when she auditions for his upcoming movie.