Legends of Horror, Ranked: Child’s Play

Closing out our franchise countdowns is sort of the black sheep of the pop-culture horror icons. Friday the 13th and Halloween both stick to fairly standard slasher tropes, with a stray exception here and there, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, while having a slightly more surreal and fantastical premise, still mostly feels stuck squarely in the same camp. You see one movie in these three legendary properties, and you’ve basically seen them all.

Except for Jason X. That one is… special.

But there’s one more series, one more iconic franchise, that despite always seeming to lag behind the big three in terms of popularity and influence, has actually survived far longer into the present than its more well-known contemporaries. One that chose to carve out its own, weird little path, rather than stick to the comfortable, familiar grooves that other slashers seem perfectly fine to adhere to. No hockey masks, no silent, faceless killers, and no dream demons.

Only an adorable pair of overalls, some wild, crimson hair, and two D batteries.

I’m talking, of course, about everyone’s favorite killer doll, Chucky. The star of the cult classic Child’s Play series, and my own personal favorite of the major slasher properties (which is ironic, because Chucky was my absolute worst fear as a kid). Akin to Freddy Krueger, Chucky has style, he has personality, and most importantly, he has a sense of humor. And unlike stealthy, silent brutes Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Chucky will mouth off to you even as he’s cutting the tendons in your heels or pushing you down the stairs. A Good Guy with a bad attitude. He’s a snarky little plastic asshole, and his lore is so interesting and bizarre that it makes for a far more entertaining watch than the vast majority of other films of the same subgenre.

The Child’s Play franchise may have initially started as your standard, run-of-the-mill horror series (only, you know, with a freaking plastic doll), yet quickly evolved into one of the most unique and creatively divergent mainstream horror properties out there. Where else can you see a doll get possessed by a serial killer via voodoo magic, stalk a child for a decade, eventually get bored and transform his ex-girlfriend into a doll as well, have a little doll baby after a gratuitous plastic sex scene, and eventually end up holding actress Jennifer Tilly hostage as a surrogate for twins because the aforementioned doll child is a gender-confused bipolar voiced by Pippin from The Lord of the Rings?

And that’s just the first half of the franchise. While the past couple of entries have gone straight to video, they still offer up more inventive storylines than the other major players combined.

That, coupled with the fact that the entire series (minus the remake) has been spearheaded by the same writer, series creator Don Mancini, and same fantastic voiceover performance from the always-great Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue’s got range), makes Child’s Play one of the most consistent and enduring franchises of all time. It’s also my personal favorite slasher series, and I absolutely love every installment, which is more than I can say for virtually any other long-running franchise.

For one last time this spooky season, let’s countdown the best of the best of this pint-sized terror’s outings.

8. Seed of Chucky

Like I said in my intro, there isn’t a single film in this increasingly-ridiculous franchise that I don’t unashamedly love. But man, Seed of Chucky really makes that hard at times. After Bride of Chucky skirted the line between horror and comedy perhaps a bit to closely to be sustainable, Seed, which is series creator and writer Don Mancini’s first film in the director’s chair, decides to abandon any notion of nuance and subtlety and just become a straight-up parody of itself. Which, when it works, works incredibly well. In this installment, we see Chucky try his hand at fatherhood, with a gender-confused plastic hellspawn along for the ride. It’s also a heavy satire of Hollywood and celebrity culture, with digs a pop stars, paparazzi (featuring a wonderful role for cult superstar filmmaker John Waters), and diva actresses. But when it misses, it misses hard. It’s way too on-the-nose with its mockery, making a lot of the humor seem juvenile and tacky. The lack of any real horror elements also feels like too drastic a tonal departure, even after the overly-jokey Bride of Chucky several years earlier. Seed may be a fun movie, but it’s far too uneven to be considered truly great in any sense. That being said, I’ve still seen it probably a dozen times, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

7. Child’s Play (2019)

Functionally, there’s not a lot wrong with this film. As a remake, it strikes a good tonal balance between the horror of the first few Child’s Play films with the satirical humor of the later sequels. It’s a sharp, snappy critique on consumer culture, particularly Apple-obsessives and the increasingly unnecessary prevalence of WIFI-enabled, “devices.” It’s funny, it’s suspenseful, and at times, it’s even a little bit touching. But the problem here lies in the fact that, besides the fact that the villain is a doll called Chucky, it really has nothing to do with the film or franchise it’s supposed to be remaking. More Terminator than anything else, there’s no serial killers, no voodoo magic, and no personality in our star killer. Just a malfunctioning toy, a glorified Alexa with arms and legs. Again, taken as a discrete, self-contained unit it largely works (thanks largely to the excellent performance by Mark Hamill as this version of Chucky), but when taken in the context of the Child’s Play franchise as a whole, it feels woefully disassociated with everything that came before it. Luckily, if you can look past the disregard for series lore and consistency, it’s a great standalone film.

6. Child’s Play 3

Definitely the weakest of the original three horror-heavy Child’s Play films, 3 follows a now-teenage version of series protagonist Andy Barclay as he’s enrolled in a military academy following a string of unsuccessful attempts to stabilize him in foster homes (turns out being constantly tormented by a supernaturally-possessed killer doll will do that to a kid). Per the formula, Chucky manages to find himself reborn yet again, and he makes a B-line to get some sweet, sweet revenge against the twerp that thwarted his plans twice before. The military setting is an interesting choice, as Chucky’s “just a regular doll” act suddenly has more glaringly dangerous consequences if he gets caught, and it’s an interesting and logical choice for a kid as messed up as Andy to end up in such an environment. The humor begins to really take a front seat here, with Chucky chewing scenery with one-liners like he was Bruce Willis in Die Hard. But it also has some of the (likely intentionally) least likable ancillary characters in the franchise, and the teen Andy isn’t quite as charming or compelling as his child counterpart. But it’s still a great time, especially given the third film is usually where a franchise begins to lose steam most of the time.

5. Bride of Chucky

Speaking of unlikable characters, Bride of Chucky has two of the most insufferable leads in horror movie history. Ditching Andy Barclay for another pair of youthful victims, Chucky and his ex-girlfriend Tiffany (also inhabiting the body of a doll, obviously) embark on a manipulative and bloody road trip with wannabe Romeo and Juliet expys Jade and Jesse as they seek a magical voodoo amulet that was buried with Chucky’s human body. While Child’s Play 3 was more obviously humorous that its two predecessors, Bride leans fully into the franchise’s comedic undertones and serves as a borderline parody of the core Child’s Play concepts. It’s outrageously self-aware and self-referential, and it’s more pop-culture and genre savvy than anything that came before it in the series. It also has a much more stylish, in-your-face approach to violence that previous films starring the iconic killer doll, thanks to Hong Kong director Ronny Yu (who would later go on to helm the similarly-slick Freddy vs Jason). This film marks a major turning point in the Chucky saga, ensuring that all the films that followed would largely lean more towards comedy that traditional horror, a shift that was probably inevitable considering the relative silliness of its central concept. Jennifer Tilly is a wonderful addition to the core cast of characters, and plays off of Brad Dourif’s gruff, abrasive Chucky fantastically. One of the most shamefully entertaining horror flicks around, so long as you know what to expect and are willing to turn off your brain for a bit.

4. Curse of Chucky

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about Curse when it was first released. One, it was once again being directed by Don Mancini, whose Seed of Chucky had been the weakest entry in the series to date. And two, it was being released straight-to-video, which as we all know, is pretty much a death sentence. It’s essentially the studio saying “We don’t expect anyone to actually pay to see this garbage in a theater, so just quietly place it directly in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.” But against all odds, Curse of Chucky is an unexpectedly triumphant return to form for the franchise. Eschewing the zany, slapstick humor of Bride and Seed in favor of the dark comedy that the original couple of films possessed, Curse is a far more straight-forward supernatural slasher film than we’d seen from Child’s Play since, arguably, the original. Newcomer Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky himself, Brad Dourif) has some seriously impressive acting chops, bringing the most nuanced and complex protagonist that the franchise had seen up until that point. The stakes are lower, and way more intimate and personal than previous entries, with a small-scale, contained murder plot that revels in its smaller budget and uses it to its advantage. For the first time in decades with Chucky, less is more. There’s some dodgy CG here and there, and I’m not a huge fan of Chucky’s new look, but Curse is really responsible for bringing the series back from the dead, and it deserves huge props for that.

3. Child’s Play (1988)

Normally in one of these lists, I tend to subscribe to the notion that the original film in a series is usually the high point, both creatively and otherwise. And while I think there’s certainly an argument to be made that the first Child’s Play film is the strongest entry in the franchise, I personally think it has a few rough spots that just barely keep it out of the winner’s circle. The pace can drag at times, and there’s a certain cheesy (if charming) 80s feel to the whole thing that perhaps may not have aged all that well. But minor gripes aside, Child’s Play is still a surprisingly solid slasher flick in an era where the genre was on its way out the door with no real sign of returning. Part of its appeal is that it doesn’t take itself deathly serious, which in fairness, would probably be difficult to do with a killer doll as the film’s main antagonist. It also has some stellar practical effects that still look phenomenal even today, especially the Chucky puppet itself. For 80s technology, he’s so expressive and so lively that you rarely, if ever, doubt that he isn’t genuinely alive. And the cast is great. Alec Vincent as the young Any Barclay is probably the cutest kid in a horror movie ever, and Catherine Kicks excels as well as his increasingly frantic mother. It’s scary in spite of its premise, and it makes an impressively economical use of its relatively small budget. It may not get as much attention as some of its peers, but Child’s Play is a strong candidate for the strongest opening entry in a horror franchise since A Nightmare on Elm Street.

2. Cult of Chucky

Following the “no-right-to-be-this-good” Curse of Chucky, I was eager to see whatever writer/director Don Mancini had in store next for the franchise. And boy, did he not disappoint. Following the story of Fiona Dourif’s heroine Nica from the previous film, Cult of Chucky is a patchwork pastiche of quite a few different cinematic influences, all working together to form a fun, focused gestalt of a horror flick. A little bit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a little Hannibal, and with just a dash of the self-aware horror-comedy of Scream, Cult follows Nica as she’s involuntarily committed to a mental institution after being blamed for the murders in the previous film. Chucky, being nothing if not a completionist, mails himself to the facility and begins the usual barrage of death and mayhem, with Nica all the while questioning her own sanity as she tries to decipher if she herself isn’t actually responsible. But even outside of this solid premise, Cult finally jumps the shark with the series mythos with the most significant update to the franchise’s lore in decades: Chucky can now exist in more than one body at once. That’s right people: Chucky has finally gone full Aliens. The on-screen interactions between all of the allied Chucky dolls is hilarious, and makes for a gleefully insane murder-mystery whodunnit before the twist is revealed. If you would have told me that the seventh sequel to an original film, never mind one that would be released directly to streaming, would be this good, I’d assume you were delusional. And yet, here we are, with a serious contender for the franchise’s best.

1. Child’s Play 2

The first sequel is a critical point in the development of a franchise. It’s easy to make one film work. It’s another thing altogether to repeat that success without A) simply rehashing the formula of the original and B) straying too far from what made the original work in the first place. It’s an incredibly precarious balance to strike, one that usually tends to tip one way or another, especially with horror sequels. Writing a sequel is always going to be challenging, because organically continuing a premise, especially one that had a definitive ending, is an inherently monumental task. Fortunately for Child’s Play, its premise was already ridiculous enough that coming up with reasons for Chucky to return from the dead in the sequel was, well, child’s play. Childs’s Play 2 is the perfect horror sequel. It knows what worked in the original film, and it knows exactly how to ramp it up and make it exciting, fresh, and new again. The stakes are higher, the scares are more intense, the violence is more over-the-top, and Chucky himself is in top-form, quipping like a sitcom character in between beating people to death with yardsticks. Alex Vincent’s returning Andy Barclay is as charming as ever, and new addition Kyle is an excellent, much-needed inclusion as an effective, badass new female protagonist. The most tightly-plotted and expertly-paced of all the Chucky films, Child’s Play feels none of the lag of 3 while also not recklessly abandoning story structure for cheap gags like Bride or Seed. It’s easily the best horror movie in the series, and one that I think sadly goes overlooked in the aftermath of the more ridiculous entries that would come later. Which is a shame, because Child’s Play 2 is a rare gem.

Like I said, I love this franchise. It’s so unashamedly goofy and fun, never getting itself stuck in the same overly-serious rut that a lot of horror franchises seem so determined to settle into. Brad Dourif’s performance as the pint-sized plastic star of these films deserves to be every bit as iconic as Robert England as Freddy Krueger. Even the worst entries in the franchise are infinitely more fun than even the best of some its other peers in the genre, especially Friday the 13th. I’d take Chucky over Jason, any day of the week.

And much like the toy terror himself, the Child’s Play franchise luckily seems to be impossible to kill for good. The move to video releases didn’t slow it down in the slightest, and the Chucky TV series, which follows the most recent films and continues the story from Cult of Chucky, indicates that the franchise still remains as fresh and alive as ever. Time will tell if the move to the small screen will neuter some of the insanity that the series has made a vital part of its DNA over the years, but I’m optimistic that the tone and humor won’t be lost in translation. As long as Don Mancini stays involved, I have faith.

As it stands now, though, Chucky isn’t going anywhere. Like the man (or doll, rather) says, you just can’t keep a Good Guy down.

Think I’m crazy, and the Child’s Play series is just a corny mess? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, Happy Halloween!

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