I'll get to the historical context in due course, but I didn't want to bury the lede, especially because I am myself very surprised by the lede and feel obliged foreground it, on account of it being one of the bolder statements I have made of late. Here it is: I kind of love Bride of Chucky a little. Not, like, "this movie was better than I expected it to be and I had fun watching it", but full-on "this movie is actually sort of great and I can't wait to see it again". This altogether not how I expected to feel about it, not just given that very few smart people other than Dennis Cozzalio have ever had much in particular to say about it that was even a little bit nice, but because it is a prime example of a type of horror film for which I have historically had absolutely no use whatsoever: the late-'90s, post-Scream "it's funny if we point out how ridiculous the tropes of horror pictures are while in the same breath indulging in a particularly lazy recapitulation of those tropes" breed of self-mocking "funny" horror movies. Typically, these kinds of pictures drive me right up the wall, beginning with Scream itself; and yet I was smitten with Bride of Chucky like no other horror film from the years 1996-2004 that I have seen.

Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is the subject of the satire in this particular case. You see, Bride of Chucky is the movie in which series writer Don Mancini finally owned up to something that had been fairly obvious from the moment the first film landed: the murderous talking doll Chucky, he of Brad Dourif's excellent vocal performance and Kevin Yagher and David Kirschner's fantastic design, is really not in any conceivable way a credible threat. He is about 24 inches feet tall, he cannot possibly weigh more than about twelve pounds, and his little arms are short enough that you'd be able to kick him before he could get a knife within a foot of any of your important arteries. Even as the original Child's Play managed to be legitimately, decently creepy, it was never able to disguise that basic fact, except by desperately cloaking the whole affair in a thick layer of formulaic contrivance about how so many people turning their back to Chucky in dark rooms on account of his being just a doll - and as Child's Play 2 and Child's Play 3 marched on, the character's inherent limitations as an effective psychopath only became more pronounced.

I do not know, and I suppose it doesn't matter, if the idea for resurrecting Chucky after seven years dormancy was inspired by Scream and the slasher renaissance it kicked off, or if Mancini simply took his cues from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson as a means of breathing fresh life into the thin premise of the franchise, or if Bride of Chucky was always going to look basically the way it does, and the timing is just a happy accident. What's important is that it's one of the few projects to use the new freedoms of the postmodern horror style in a way that seems new and clever and right, as though this were the picture that the Child's Play franchise was always heading towards. Perhaps, at that, it was. Chucky always seemed to be a bit of a joke, after all, this time he manages to be in on the joke.

Ten years after the events of Child's Play - which indicates that Bride of Chucky takes place at most a few months after Child's Play 3 - a cop steals something from an evidence room. And not just any evidence room: it is the slasher movie evidence room to end all evidence rooms, containing a hockey mask, a chainsaw, a glove with knives on the fingers, and a William Shatner mask painted white. Mancini and director Ronny Yu (a Hong Kong action director who would later unite two other classic horror franchises in Freddy vs. Jason) are not anxious to make us wait for the tone of their movie, plainly, and the little winking aside here is going to be presented over and over again for basically the entire movie.

Anyway, the cop has been bribed to steal this one particular bundle by Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), a black leather-clad woman who looks kind of deranged just standing there, and even before the hand-off, she's cut his throat and taken the bag he's carrying, which, to the surprise of nobody who didn't wander into this movie by accident, contains the broken, chopped-up remains of Chucky the Good Guy doll, and in fairly short order we're able to figure out that Tiffany was the lover and accomplice of Charles Lee Ray before he was shot and hid his soul inside the small chunk of plastic that she now holds.

After Tiffany resurrects Chucky in the expected voodoo manner (while holding the book Voodoo for Dummies), watching in delight as he murders her tedious Goth boyfriend Damien (Alexis Arquette), the lovers fall into their familiar quarrels. Tiffany wants to settle down; Chucky just wants to find a human body and keep raising hell. This particular fight hits a low ebb when Chucky electrocutes Tiffany in the bathtub, transferring her soul into a bride doll she purchased to mock him, just so she could see how much it sucked. United by their current straits, but still rather tetchy about the whole "you're clingy!"/"you murdered me!" thing, the dolls plot to travel to New Jersey, where Ray's body was buried, along with a medallion called the Heart of Damballa, a magic doohickey that was the key to all of Chucky's soul-transferring all along, and the reason he has been unable to steal any bodies since. That this is entirely incompatible with the mythology of the first three movies, starting with the notable absence of any medallion in Ray's possession in Child's Play, I take to be part of the joke.

All that I've just recapped takes us a pretty good way into the movie: Tiffany dies at the 31-minute mark of an 89-minute feature. That leaves a lot of space for other plot, and it gets filled; my, does it ever get filled, and not in a nice way. While Chucky and Tiffany are bickering and arguing and torturing, we spend a healthy amount of time with a pair of lovestruck teens: Jade (Katherine Heigl) and Jesse (Nick Stabile). Jade's parents are dead, and as a result, she's been obliged to live with her uncle, Police Chief Warren Kincaid (John Ritter). Warren disapproves of Jesse (class issues, you know), and the couple has been obliged to use Jade's gay friend David (Gordon Michael Woolvett) - in a satisfying departure from generic convention, David's homosexuality is tossed-off in one scene, and never made a big deal again - as a go-between and decoy. It just so happens that Jesse lives right next to Tiffany's trailer, and when he gets an odd call from the friendly local cougar asking if he wants a job carting two dolls to New Jersey, he jumps at the $1000 and a chance to spirit Jade away right under her uncle's nose. Things go poorly, of course, given that the kids' cargo has a penchant for murdering anybody who gets in their way, which starts to look suspiciously like Jade and Jesse are themselves on a murder spree, not to mention that Chucky and Tiffany figure out pretty quickly that a pair of pretty young teenagers are just about the best possible candidates for their new bodies.

The stuff with the kids drags (though Yu generally pushes the movie ahead fast enough that it still feels much shorter than its running time). There's no two ways about it: it's the only part of Bride of Chucky that's played completely straight, despite being a total clichรฉ, and there's quite a lot of it, and whenever I start to get a little bit too enthusiastic about the movie, that's what I use to pull myself back. For deep in its heart of hearts, the film is a crudgy slasher picture, and for all that the doll action happening around that is a complete blast, the actual matter of watching Jade (which is a crappy name) and Jesse freaking out and wondering why all the dead bodies are happening is certainly not very diverting or fun, not least because Heigl is only a little bit charming in a role that wants a much more "bad girl" than she can manage, and because Stabile, whose chief claim to fame appears to be the deathless NBC daytime soap opera Sunset Beach, is perilously bland and wooden. Wolvett manages to out-act them both, and he's not even very good; hell, John Ritter makes a better asshole fascist cop.

And as much as this leaves the movie a damn sight weaker than it could be, it's not ultimately the murderous plot that drives the film, a fact that the script is unduly eager to state and reiterate. It's the dangerously self-aware dialogue ("Chucky? He's so '80s. He isn't even scary" complains Damien at one point; and if I were to catalogue even a small number of the lines Chucky or Tiffany deliver that demonstrate an awareness that they are stuck in a third sequel to a dodgy horror franchise, I would have no time to do anything else), which is both blunter and more pointedly absurd than similar jokes in Scream, and thus manages to be funnier, even if it is objectively less "clever". Even more than that, it's the exemplary performances by Dourif and Tilly, two of the most instantly recognisable voices in character actordom being given free reign to play everything as sarcastically as they know how - which for both of them is pretty damn sarcastic. Besides, the actors have a hell of a lot of vocal chemistry and their bloody-minded Honeymooners routine remains peculiar enough throughout that it never wears out its welcome. For this, undoubtedly, some more credit must go to Mancini, who mixes psychotic reveries with disarmingly everyday speech and pop cultural references with just enough awkward tension that it's funny and not broken (there's a Martha Stewart joke that is brilliantly funny both because of how it is written into the script, and because of Dourif's hate-twisted pronunciation of the words "Martha Stewart"), but it's really the combination of inspired performance and bent writing that give the film its great effect.

Now, in amongst all this, comes the question: but is it scary? And the answer is no, and it's this above all that gives me a lingering feeling of guilt, like I'm really not supposed to like any horror comedy that tips so far in favor of comedy. But then I am heartened by the knowledge that, of the three preceding Child's Play features, only the first was even creepy; the second had a few isolated moments that were comfortably uncanny, and by the third there was nothing but added gore. Bride of Chucky increases the gore even more than that: it's still tame in the grand scheme of R-rated horror, but there are a few moments of bloody death and mayhem that keep the film just far enough into genre territory that it doesn't completely run into comedy: a trap involving nails that leaves the victim looking like Pinhead from Hellraiser, a fairly specific depiction of what might happen if you dump a lot of broken glass on a couple making out on a waterbed. Personally, I find that the blend of gross-out scenes to laughs is about right, though at times the gore feels just excessive enough that it almost comes across as though Mancini and Yu were hedging their bets a little bit; adding enough viscera to justify calling their snotty-minded satire a "horror" film, though even at its most violent, it is damn hard to take the horror very seriously, particularly given the amount of energy given over to slapstick humor involving the dolls getting thrown about.

Better, maybe, if it had gone all the way and just given up on real violence at all, moving straight into Monty Python territory with cartoonishly robust gore, and committed fully to being a comedy. The title demonstrates that Mancini was aware of the traditions he was working in - and it so happens that Universal's first horror comedy with "Bride" in its name even gets a big shout-out, as Tiffany comes to a moment of clarity while watching the final scene of Bride of Frankenstein. The difference, though, is that the first Frankenstein is worth taking seriously, and when James Whale made his lunge into comedy, it wasn't because he was mocking his own work. Mancini is, and not being terribly subtle about it; the better model would be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and why Mancini, with his obvious, encyclopedic awareness of horror history, didn't take that plunge, is anybody's guess. The result is a film of rich fascination that just barely misses out on being completely great: mercilessly making fun of its own idiocy, while indulging in just a bit too much of the same idiocy to work as well as it constantly feels like it should. But it has a high enough hit-to-miss ratio compared to something like Scream that it's still the best of the self-aware slasher satires of the late 1990s.

Body Count: 10 even, with another one that likely happens just a couple of minutes after the film ends. It is the highest in the series thus far, and nicely reflects the film's overall tendency towards spirited excess. Once again, I'm not counting the "deaths" of the killers, not even though Tiffany dies not once, but twice.

Reviews in this series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)
Cult of Chucky (Mancini, 2017)