While most of the big horror franchises of the decade were getting the sequel treatment in 1988—a year that saw the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, Phantasm II, Poltergeist III, The Howling IV and even Critters 2: The Main Course—one of the biggest and most lasting franchises of the next three decades was just getting its start. Yes, the 1988 release of Tom Holland’s Child’s Play kicked off 30 years of murderous antics from Charles Lee Ray, the serial killer who had his soul transferred into a Good Guys doll named Chucky. Seven movies, one recently announced remake, and another recently announced TV series later, the Child’s Play series is as strong as ever, even outlasting many of its ’80s franchise contemporaries. It’s hard to keep a Good Guy down.
Drawing inspiration from both the “Talky Tina” episode of The Twilight Zone and the “Zuni fetish doll” segment of 1975’s Trilogy of Terror, the original Child’s Play is the first and best of the long-running franchise for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is just what a surprise it was upon release. There’s no way the movie should be as good as it is. Given where horror was in the 1980s, the image that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a “killer children’s doll” movie is something goofy and more than a little campy. There’s nothing wrong with either of those qualities, and the longer the franchise continued, the more it would lean into both for both better and worse. But the original Child’s Play is downright classy in the way it takes the premise seriously, treats the characters and their predicament with thoughtfulness, and aims for suspense over shocks or outrageousness. Holland, who already had a successful career as a screenwriter (having written Psycho II and Cloak & Dagger, among others), took a pass at Don Mancini’s original script and found ways to layer real humanity into this killer doll movie. The humanity is actually what’s best about Child’s Play. Don’t tell the toy.
There’s a widely accepted maxim that a slasher movie is only as good as its killer. That’s true to a point: it’s the slasher who’s going to make the movie memorable in the minds of horror fans, and, perhaps more importantly, becomes the marketable element that can lead to a franchise. But I’d like to a make a case that a truly great slasher movie is only as good as its victims—that we have to care about the people fighting for their lives in order to invest in them and for the question of who lives or who dies to carry any suspense.
We care immediately in Child’s Play thanks to the smart script, Holland’s grounded direction, and deeply committed performances from an amazing ensemble of actors. The threat of Chucky is a very real one, as established by a bloody prologue in which we get to see just what a psychopath Dourif’s Charles Lee Ray is, but he’s not the only threat of Child’s Play. There are economic threats, as single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) tries to raise her son, Andy (Alex Vincent), on her own, unable to buy him the toy he wants for his birthday because he needs new clothes more. There’s the threat of Karen losing her job if she doesn’t work her shift at the department store on Andy’s birthday. There’s the threat of Karen and Andy being torn away from each other when Andy is nearly institutionalized. These are real-world threats, and it’s the stuff that gives the movie humanity. The whole of Child’s Play feels like Andy and his mom against the world; it’s how they begin the film, and it’s especially how they progress as no one will believe their story about a killer doll who is talking to Andy and attacking Karen without any batteries. Karen Barclay’s determination to do whatever she must to provide for her son, to keep him safe, and to raise him well gives Child’s Play more emotional weight than practically any other ’80s slasher to come before or after.
As good as Catherine Hicks is as the put-upon single mother, as much fun as it is seeing Chris Sarandon play a jaded Chicago cop, as iconic as Brad Dourif’s performance of Chucky has become, my favorite performance in Child’s Play belongs to young Alex Vincent as Andy Barclay. Just six years old at the time of filming, Vincent creates our emotional connection to the movie in his very first scene, in which he prepares breakfast in bed for his mom on his birthday. Disregard the fact that a little boy making his mom breakfast on his own birthday is the sweetest thing ever. Disregard the number of completely adorable touches in the scene, like the enormous hunk of butter he attempts to spread on some burnt-black toast, or the half cup of sugar he dumps onto a bowl of already sugary cereal (I’m not positive Andy has ever seen a person prepare or eat breakfast before). Disregard them because there's a ton of important information that's conveyed in this scene, too. Andy is seen wearing a full Good Guys outfit (striped shirt, overalls, standard issue Good Guys sneakers). He's watching the Good Guys cartoon and pouring Good Guys cereal. He loves the Good Guys, not wanting to break his eye contact with the TV even as he prepares breakfast. My favorite moment is when he sees the commercial for a Good Guys doll and looks over longingly at the wrapped gift waiting for him in his living room. Through purely visual storytelling and Vincent's performance, Child's Play establishes that what Andy wants more than anything in the world is a Good Guys doll—not just because he's a six-year-old who wants the popular new toy, but because he's lonely and wants a best friend.
That's the sequence that sets everything up. Andy and his mom are clearly on their own, which establishes the "us against the world" dynamic that's put to the test through the events of the movie. Andy has had to learn to be independent, adding credibility to the later sequences in which he's navigating the city of Chicago on his own, helping his new friend Chucky get around and (unbeknownst to Andy) exact his revenge. Most importantly, though, it establishes that Andy loves the Good Guys. He loves Chucky before he even gets him as a gift. He desperately wants a best friend, which Chucky is able to exploit in his favor. It also makes the movie much more upsetting on a psychological level: being hunted or attacked by a random stranger is scary, but having something you love turn on you is even scarier.
I like that Chucky is genuinely menacing and scary in the first movie, too. He may be a toy, but Tom Holland wisely never condescends to the conceit, never makes a joke of the premise. There would be plenty of time for that in the subsequent entries. Like Freddy Krueger, Chucky’s impact would be dulled over the course of several sequels, turning him into a wisecracking commodity, a killer children’s toy that became sold and marketed as an actual children’s toy. Through first-person POV photography by Bill Butler and a clever use of low angles (shot the way Andy—or Chucky—might see the world), as well as a mix of little person stunt doubles, puppetry, and animatronics, Child’s Play breathes reality into the illusion of Chucky being a living thing. It’s so clear that everyone involved didn’t want to just make a cheap ’80s horror cash-in. They wanted to make the best possible version of this movie, and they succeeded.
As a fan of all of the Child’s Play films save for one (I have never been able to get into Child’s Play 3, mostly because it could have been any horror movie and doesn’t really need or know what to do with Chucky), I might make a case that, as good and entertaining and interesting as many of them are, the sequels have diminished the impact of just what a special film the original movie is. It’s easy to see why it launched such a long-lasting franchise, even if none of the films that followed it managed the magic alchemy this movie achieves. It works beautifully as a suspense thriller and as an ’80s-style slasher, but what makes it stand out all these years later is its emotional resonance. Chucky is fun and all, but I love Child’s Play as much as I do because I love the Barclays and I want them to be safe and happy, and I want Andy to get the toy that he wants—one that isn’t trying to kill his mom and take over his body, preferably. Several of my favorite horror movies came out in 1988, many of which have been covered this month. Child’s Play absolutely belongs on that list. It’s one of the best films of a very good year and a true classic. I’ll be its friend till the end.
Check here all month long for more special features celebrating the Class of 1988!