Let’s talk memorable movie killers for a second. Since Mrs. Bates first slashed her way through the shower curtain in Room 1 of that roadside motel in Psycho (1960), franchise-minded murderers have had a hard time of it in the consistency department, regardless of how strong they may have lunged out of the gate. Established classics of the genre, like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street have all given birth to an array of sequels, remakes and reboots that may have extended their nasty protagonists’ shelf life, but none could approach their origins in terms of frights or filmmaking quality.
The exception to this rule of inconsistency and ever-diminishing returns in serial killer movie franchises seems to be the maniac who may have been the most unlikely to succeed, or certainly to endure, to begin with. He would be Charles Lee Ray (played with customary intensity by Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif), the madman who ends up reincarnated and reinvented, in a satiric nod to the Cabbage Patch mentality of ‘80s toy merchandising, into the body of an innocuous, mass-produced “Good Guys” doll, and thus set upon a whole new career of murderous mayhem as Chucky the Killer Doll in 1988’s Child’s Play. Directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and co-written by Holland, John Lafia and Don Mancini, from Mancini’s original story, the movie was a sizable hit and therefore, given the model of the other popular monsters of the day, a sequel was most certainly de rigueur.
Child’s Play 2 (1990), buoyed by Mancini’s inventive screenplay and John Lafia’s sprightly direction (which improves upon the efficient but occasionally inelegant work of the journeyman Holland), takes the concept of a rampaging killer doll seriously enough to render the scares while more deftly acknowledging the essential silliness of the whole concept, and the result is a sequel which not only honors its predecessor but even improves upon it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Child’s Play 3 (1991), which hit theaters only 10 months after the release of Child’s Play 2 and seemed born not only to capitalize on what was now clearly a potential cash cow (or dollar doll), but also to fulfill the widely held perception that the longer a movie serial killer sticks around, the more tepid the terror becomes. The movie did underwhelming business in the US, with grosses only slightly exceeding its modest budget, and it seemed that Chucky’s brief reign as America’s most purposely plastic psychopath might be at an end.
But, as Chucky himself might say, not so fast. After a seven-year hiatus, Mancini took a page from the James Whale playbook and made the move to rather boldly refashion his franchise. (And by this time, it really was Mancini’s franchise—along with Brad Dourif’s voice and the influence of producer David Kirschner, credited with the Chucky doll’s original design, Mancini’s writing was and still is the most important creative element to remain consistent throughout the Chucky series, lending the whole enterprise a degree of personal investment that no other horror franchise can claim.) Mancini chose to more openly reference the humorous and satiric possibilities of his basic premise, its implicit connection to the very history of horror, and, like Whale before him, even began to hint at the gay sensibility that informed it. (Mancini himself is out and proud.) Bride of Chucky (1998), not only introduced those elements, very much making it to Child’s Play what The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was to its landmark predecessor, but it also brought Jennifer Tilly into the Chucky family as Tiffany Valentine, Charles Lee Ray’s still-human and equally antisocial girlfriend who, through an escalating and baroque set of circumstances, finds her own soul also trapped in the body of an appropriately voluptuous doll.
The resulting film, an engaging hybrid of horror thriller, road movie and satire of middle-class domesticity, was directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) and shot by Peter Pau, whose next project, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, would win him the Academy Award, and it’s a visual feast, especially compared to the previous three pictures. Bride was also a Chucky-universe game-changer, its embrace of the comic potential of the franchise premise (and its strong box-office numbers) setting the stage, after another relatively lengthy hiatus, for the series’ most controversial and divisive movie, 2004’s Seed of Chucky, a no-holds-barred, blood-soaked farce that confused and put off a good portion of the built-in Chucky audience who would have had little objection to continuing the march toward the formulaic that Child’s Play 3 seemed to promise.
Few, in fact, were ready for the relatively radical departure from formula that Mancini served up, a blistering lampoon of insular Hollywood culture featuring a spectacular turn by Tilly not only as Tiffany but also as “Jennifer Tilly,” a grandly entertaining act of diva character self-assassination which may have no equal in the history of any movie genre. And that’s not all, folks. Seed also casts Chucky and Tiffany as conflicted parents in a Hardly-Ordinary People scenario involving their gender-conflicted son Glen (or Glenda), voiced in impossibly touching, comically dexterous fashion by Billy Boyd (Pippin in The Lord of the Rings), right alongside the expected cornucopia of eviscerations, roasted corpses, death by acid bath and assorted voodoo-induced soul transferences.
Seed of Chucky was also Mancini’s directorial debut, the official handing over of the Chucky franchise to the one creative force who seemed best positioned to shepherd it forward, and it saw him at serious work developing the visual acuity that Yu seemed to inspire. More than anything, Seed found Mancini working out the influence of Brian De Palma’s insouciant pictorial wit, and it even features a rousing score by Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out). But audiences didn’t bite, and even some of the Chucky faithful felt betrayed by Mancini’s unapologetic dive into the deep end of viscera-smeared burlesque at the expense of more familiar, conventionally mounted thrills.
Nine years later, writer-director Mancini rebounded with Curse of Chucky (2013), which in part served as a response to those who complained that Chucky wasn’t scary anymore, a chance to prove that a more straightforward approach to the material could still deliver the jolts. The movie sidestepped the dread of a simple Child’s Play reboot, extending instead to a story that incorporates the history of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif appearing bodily for the first time) and a strong new character, the wheelchair-bound Nica Pierce (played by Dourif’s daughter, Fiona), set against the evil of Chucky amidst the confines of a shadow-rich, very old, dark house. Mancini didn’t entirely eschew humor in Curse, but it’s clear that the film represents a distinct move to reestablish Chucky’s dominance as a figure of fear, and the result is that while the tone is much less overtly comic, the laughs that do arrive are more integrated to the pitch-black tone of the entire piece. (Chucky was always on some level a quipster, so any attempt to avoid the laugh lines would be as much a betrayal of the Chucky legacy as some purported Seed to be; and of course, some did complain that the new movie wasn’t funny enough.) Curse was also the first film of the franchise to be released straight to Blu-ray and digital downloads, and the financial success which followed, combined with the strongest reviews of any Chucky film to date, did much to dispel the perceived stigma of direct-to-video releases as a wasteland bereft of quality or prestige, at around the same time that Netflix (and later Amazon) were doing the same thing.
But as Bride and Seed have proved, Mancini turned out to be a filmmaker not entirely comfortable with the notion of resting on the few laurels that might come his way while working in such a “disreputable” genre as horror. In the wake of the successful premiere of Curse, Mancini served as a producer and wrote two episodes of the critically acclaimed Hannibal during its third (and final?) 2015 season, and as a writer and supervising producer for the first two seasons of SyFy’s sensational horror anthology series Channel Zero, all while concocting and shooting the seventh film in the Chucky series, which drops, presumably from horror heaven, on Blu-ray and digital download this Tuesday, October 3.
The movie Chucky fans have waited four years to see is called Cult of Chucky (2017), and I’m guessing it’s going to be the one to unite, in this profoundly fractured age in which we live, those who pine for the straight-up gory days with the audiences who have always enthusiastically embraced the series’ envelope-bursting exploration of its own satiric potential, as most vividly expressed in Bride and especially Seed. The simple fact is, the through-line of Don Mancini’s role as chief creative force in the Chucky series has ensured its standing, improbable as such a thing may have seemed in 1988, as the inarguable best and most consistently provocative series of its kind.
Mrs. Bates, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger all got groundbreaking classics, then a dribbling run of increasingly useless “sequels” and reboots and remakes for their trouble (though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was a hoot and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare proved a fascinating, franchise-capping experiment in meta-awareness); Michael Myers had one good Halloween night; Pinhead disappeared into the hellraising wilderness of Blockbuster Video shelf filler; and Jason’s adventures at Camp Crystal Lake were never any good to begin with, which I suppose would qualify the Friday the 13th series as the most consistent slasher franchise of all. But somehow the Chucky saga just keeps getting better, crazier, more inventive. Cult of Chucky is packed to the cackling rafters with surprises, jolts, laughs—none of which will be spoiled here— and serves as a smashing showcase for Mancini’s continuing growth as a director of considerable finesse and visual expressiveness.
When we last left Nica (Fiona Dourif), she had been handily framed by her battery-operated bête noire and convicted of the murders that, of course, Chucky committed. And speaking of commitment, Curse ended with one for Nica, into a maximum-security mental hospital where her future could only be deemed unpromising. But the movie was also tagged with a last-minute surprise appearance by Chucky’s original BFF, Andy Barclay (played by original Child’s Play child-actor-turned-grownup Alex Vincent), who has spent his journey toward adulthood perpetually tortured by the memory of his redheaded, two-foot-tall tormentor. In Curse’s final images, Andy takes violent steps to begin exacting a systematic torture-revenge on Chucky which is extended, in satisfyingly surreal fashion, into the opening action of Cult.
Nica, having been sedated by her attending psychiatrist (Michael Therriault) into accepting responsibility for the murders in the last film, is transferred to a minimum-security facility, where her attempts to salvage her sanity are undermined not only by some of the patients in her therapy group, but also by her doctor’s introduction into therapy of a vintage Chucky doll (“I got it at Hot Topic.”) to ostensibly help her erase her lingering belief in Chucky’s malevolent bent and face her own guilt. This development, which for all the world looks, in the movie’s trailer, like just another (strained) attempt to get Chucky inside the locked doors of the facility, all the better for the lunatic to really take over the asylum, is slowly turned on its head—the doll is adopted instead by another patient, Madeleine (Elizabeth Rosen, channeling a young Lilli Taylor), whose own mental fragility may have something to do with a past history of infanticide.
But it turns out, Chucky having been a mass-produced toy, after all, that there are plenty of killer dolls to go around. When more than one Chucky shows up inside the walls of Harrogate Hospital, Mancini starts cranking up the guessing game. Just which one is the real murderous moppet? Or maybe, somehow, they all are. And what about that mutilated object of torture locked up in Andy’s den, the one who looks not like a Good Guys toy but instead like the evolved Bride/Seed/Curse-era Chucky and who cackles and cracks wise just like Brad Dourif? Maybe we’re all as crazy as Nica is supposed to be.
Not to worry. Mancini has concocted a clever and involving scenario that, if the crowd I saw it with last week is any indication, successfully thwarts just about every attempt at audience second-guessing and fulfills, with plenty of pleasurably assured filmmaking bravado, the giddy and genuinely shocking implications of the movie’s alliterative title.
What’s most exciting about this latest chapter, beside its confident extension of the Chucky saga well beyond the lazy, regurgitative storytelling that has earmarked so many other horror movie sequels, is the manner in which Mancini honorably delivers the goods, replacing cynicism with the desire to surprise and delight his audience with an imaginative jolt of a tale that by now has also taken on, for Chucky’s fans as well as his creator, a very personal resonance.
But the movie is memorable not just for the gory spectacle of Chucky’s kills which, back in the day, might have been enough. Director Mancini has considerably upped his game, and our experience, by capitalizing on the lessons learned from all those De Palma allusions—split diopter effects, split-screens, overhead tracking shots and the like—which have informed every Chucky film since Bride. With Cult of Chucky, in the way the movie extracts so much teasing visual and aural delight from its giddily nightmarish circumstances, Mancini moves beyond allusion and reveals himself to be a legitimate heir to De Palma in his prime. If Bride, Seed and Curse were movies that were clearly informed by De Palma’s expressive use of editing and the camera, then Cult of Chucky is the first movie in the series so drunk on its own premise that it feels as if it might have actually been directed by the artist who so pleasurably choreographed movies like Sisters, Raising Cain and The Fury, pictures which charge ahead in their conviction that they’ve got what it takes to rattle and excite an audience through pure movie love alone. The way Mancini adapts and improves on what was a perfectly satisfying murder-by-shattered-overhead-mirror sequence from Bride for a bravura sequence in Cult—a gorgeous diorama of death staged in a sky-lit hospital room in which shards of glass slow-motion mingle with falling snow before the execution of a shocking (and shockingly emotional) finish—is all the evidence you’d need to suspect that there might just be a Carrie or a Dressed to Kill in this director’s future.
Also included in the Cult’s company, a return appearance by the series’ guardian/avenging angel Jennifer Tilly, which ends up feeling, perhaps improbably, less important than the presence of Fiona Dourif, who battles deliciously with her dad (in fine form here yet again) for the title of Heart of the Franchise. Mancini clearly loves what Dourif brings to the party so much that he manages to reward Nica with a fate that would feel inevitable if we’d only the imaginative capacity to anticipate it. (That audiences won’t is as much a tribute to Dourif’s conviction as to Mancini’s cleverness.)
There are plenty of organically welcome twists and turns in this episode, and even a clunky expository moment or two which are quickly forgiven through the abundance of shivers and laughs. But the ultimate trajectory of this Cult will not be ruined by this writer, and it’s my advice that you avoid any review which looks to be any more than 10% plot recitation before seeing for yourself this terrific new addition to the legacy of the movies’ shortest, most defiantly plasticine maniac. Cult of Chucky finds the sweet spot where humor and horror coexist better than any of the previous entries, and in the process happily, with demonic relish, cements the status of the Chucky franchise as the most durable, elastic and creatively deranged horror series since the heyday of the Universal monster classics of the ’30s and ‘40s. Now, there’s a cult worth joining, and Mancini can rest easy in the knowledge, as his Cult is unleashed upon the public this coming Tuesday, that he’s honorably earned a lifetime charter membership among the scariest in the business.
FOR FURTHER READING (AND LISTENING):
On Seed of Chucky: “The Little Redheaded Killer Who Could”
On Curse of Chucky: “With Six You Get Screaming”
On Jennifer Tilly:“The High Spirit, Sharp Wit and Sexy Self-Deprecation of Jennifer Tilly”
Shock Waves Podcast Episode #67: Don Mancini talks Cult of Chucky