REVIEW: Child’s Play [1988]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 87 minutes
    Release Date: November 9th, 1988 (USA)
    Studio: United Artists
    Director(s): Tom Holland
    Writer(s): Don Mancini, John Lafia & Tom Holland / Don Mancini (story)

I’ll be your friend to the end.

The rough cut of Tom Holland‘s Child’s Play was around two hours and test audiences weren’t happy. Almost forty minutes were excised (and boy can you tell) before the film saw the light of day and eventually earned an insanely devoted cult following that’s seen six sequels (so far) with original screenwriter Don Mancini taking up the reigns for the last three. As such, it’s wild to think how different his initial draft was. Mancini first imagined a conceit that involved the transference of blood from Andy (Alex Vincent) to the doll so we as audience members would need to wonder which was truly committing the heinous acts of violence seen on-screen. John Lafia then came on-board to introduce voodoo incantations, providing Chucky (Brad Dourif) autonomy and longevity.

This addition is why the film begins with a shootout between a serial killer (Dourif’s Charles Lee Ray) and police detective (Chris Sarandon‘s Mike Norris) who stumble into a toy store after the former’s partner (Neil Giuntoli‘s Eddie) flees the scene. It’s there that Norris mortally wounds Lee with the latter falling upon a display of “My Buddy”-inspired dolls named “Good Guys”. Recognizing this battery-operated plaything could serve as a vessel for his soul (you just have to go with it since there’s zero expository explanation until the midway point), he begins to chant so a lightning strike may give him second life in plastic. Long story short: a homeless man finds the doll and sells it to a widow whose six-year old son is celebrating his birthday.

Having us jump right into the supernatural is the first sign a chunk of story hit the cutting room floor. Lee is a white man devoid of occult markings who simply goes for it when death is upon him. Is it a wild turn of events? You bet. But this is a 1980s horror film with a walking, talking toy as monster—putting someone as vile as Lee behind the possessed wheel is one of the saner decisions you could have made. He already comes with targets (Eddie and Norris) and thus only needs the means with which to seek revenge. The Barclays are the perfect cover as Karen (Catherine Hicks) works long hours at a department store and Andy proves a devoted brand-worshipper of everything “Good Guys”.

You don’t get to be a prolific murderer like Lee without enough smarts to realize you can’t just run down streets in a doll’s body. So he whispers to Andy and creates a rapport of trust that lets the boy transport him around town instead. A first unsuspecting victim gets the cops involved (Norris as fate would have it) and a second leaves them no choice but to assume the boy is at fault. Which is more believable after all? That a mentally disturbed child who believes his toy was sent from his father in Heaven to kill would commit such horrors or that a mass-produced inanimate object retailing for one hundred bucks a pop is the culprit? It’s a no-brainer until Norris fights a knife-wielding Chucky himself.

Here’s where the most egregious erasure occurs. Norris, dead-set on calling Karen delusional upon dropping her off at her apartment, goes out to investigate a lead wherein Chucky attacks. The very next scene then has him sneaking up on her the following day with dialogue that confirms they’re suddenly on the same page. No apology. No, “You’ll never believe what happened to me last night.” Just a silent agreement that they’re working together as the only two people in the city willing to accept an animatronic doll is picking up where the infamous “Strangler” left off. My complaint is less about needing connective tissue to get our bearings than a desire to not laugh as an implausible scenario has every corner cut on its way to its climax.

I won’t lie and say there isn’t a welcome simplicity to it, though. Rather than languish in dialogue, the filmmakers’ edit things into a quick-paced journey that works due to the authorities not taking the chance that Andy is deranged. And you know those forty minutes would have dragged because the pivotal scene in the Barclays’ home with Karen and Norris attempting to stop Chucky from taking over Andy’s body feels like it will never end. It becomes a pretty glaring change of pace considering how streamlined everything was previously, but it’s also pretty effective. The techniques used to bring Chucky to life are great on their own before escalating things further by turning his face into burnt metal and melting plastic. Now that’s the stuff of nightmares.

It’s also the reason this franchise continues going strong three decades later. You can talk about allusions to consumerism (a reboot using artificial intelligence gone awry instead of voodoo probably handles it better) and a growing propensity for violence in children (Child’s Play wasn’t without controversy as far as “inspiring” real-life murders) being Mancini’s original motivations, but very little of that shines through what ultimately made it into theaters. The possession plot let all that fall by the wayside and it’s okay since an R-rated film starring a children’s toy that swears and impales is more than captivating enough. This is about a random target’s struggle to survive a predicament nobody will ever believe. That sense of isolation and futility easily overshadows any remnants of allegory still present.

Watched in conjunction with Season Six of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.

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