Come with me back to 1988. I mean that in a particularly literal way: over the years, one of the things that I've come to love about shitty horror pictures from the '70s and '80s is the way that they seem to capture the essential Zeitgeist of the moment of their creation in a way that no other movies from any other period can match, and yet I don't know that I have ever seen a shitty horror picture that is so overwhelmingly Of The Moment, visually and iconographically and conceptually, as Child's Play is a film that pins the year of our Lord 1988 to a board and studies it in the fullest possible flush of entomological zeal. That I was, in late 1988, less than one year older that the six-year-old at the center of Child's Play has absolutely nothing to with this perception, you can be sure - for I am after all a film reviewer and therefore infallible.

The film opens with a bedraggled man with crazy person hair running through a darkened city street under el tracks (we'll later find it's Chicago, where the film was shot, and that kind of location shooting seems like quite an indulgence for a horror film in the late '80s, n'est-ce pas?), pursued by the police. This ragged gentleman is identified by the following cops as "The Lake Shore Strangler", but his given name is Charles Lee Ray (a portmanteau of three famous murderers: Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Ray Romano*), his friends call him Chucky, and any doubt we have that he's really and truly a madman and psychopathic killer is dispelled when we finally steps into decent light and we find that he's being played by Brad Dourif, one of the great crazy-looking motherfuckers in his generation of character actors.

The Strangler is shot, and struggles into a toy store that is incongruously nicer-looking than the run-down buildings around it, and as he scrapes himself through the aisles, leaving a trail of blood, this was my thought process: "Dizzy Dizzy Dinosaur! I remember that. Oh wow, and Fireball Island. I bet it's been twenty years since I've even seen that board." Plot was going on throughout all of this reverie, but I quickly found myself paying more attention to the games and dolls and the like placed on all the shelves in the store that were just sufficiently in the way of the action that I never quite did make up my mind whether they were product placement or just unusually aggressive production design. Also, the majority of what is seen onscreen comes from Milton Bradley or Mattel, which doesn't really resolve things either way, but it surely noteworthy.

This gauzy trip through a late-'80s commercial break slams right into the most pointed signifier of the whole era that the movie ever pulls out, when Ray finally drags himself to a stack of boy-shaped dolls, all wearing cartoon-bedazzled overalls with a shock of red hair, named "Good Guys". Screenwriter Don Mancini has claimed since then that the Good Guy dolls were based on the indescribably enormous Cabbage Patch Kids fad of the early-'80s, and if this were merely the case, the film would still be stuck in the decade something fierce; but given what we later see of the dolls - they are meant to act as surrogate best friend, they're designed specifically to make a doll that's "okay" for boys to play with, they wear overalls and striped shirts - Mancini's intentions being well and good, the Good Guys are in fact clear and obvious riffs on the "My Buddy" dolls of that era, which may or may not have been as ubiquitous as my memory makes them out to be; but I can say this much, I remember every inch of that goddamn jingle even now, and when I have lost the faces of my dearest loved ones and friends to senilty and time, I will still be able to hum, quite casually,
"My buddy, my buddy
Wherever I go, heeeee goes
My buddy, my buddy
I'll teach him ev'rything that Iiiii know
My buddy, my buddy
My buddy and me!"
The Cabbage Patch thing does, of a certainty, hold water - Good Guys had their own cartoon, which My Buddy did not, for a start. And Good Guys talk and move their mouths and eyes, something neither Cabbage Patch Kids nor My Buddies could do - the likely source for this detail, I ween, is Teddy Ruxpin, a toy almost as staggeringly popular in the middle of the decade as the Cabbage Patch Kids were in the beginning, though as many children that I knew shared my belief that the talking bear's dead eyes and clattering mouth signified not that he was a fun friend for storytime, but some kind of nightmarish imp out of Lovecraft. He also had his own cartoon, because that's what you did in the '80s. Incidentally, I've always harbored a suspicion that Teddy the super-toy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence might have been in some fashion a commentary on Teddy Ruxpin, but that oughtn't concern us now, because I think, somewhere back in there, I was talking about a horror picture of some sort.

Right so Ray pulls one of the Good Guys out of its box and places his hand over it, and does some voodoo - and if this strikes you, as it struck me, as a big sack of horseshit, fear not! it will be addressed before the movie ends, though not in a way that makes it all that much less horseshit - and then dies. Right then, the store is struck by lightning, exploding the store and leaving Charles Lee Ray a pile of ash, to the satisfaction of his nemesis, Det. Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon).

Sometime later - presumably the next morning, since this explosion shows up on the news - little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) celebrates his sixth birthday by watching the insipid-looking Good Guys TV show (it appears to be a smarmy Care Bears knockoff), and getting some crappy Good Guys accessory, but not a Good Guy doll of his own, since his mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks) is but a put-upon clerk at the Carson Pirie Scott over by there on State. Which is why she ends up buying a black market Good Guy for a third of its retail value from a shady hobo (Juan Ramírez), which we intuit rather easily is the very same one in which Ray hid his soul. Oops, I'm sorry, the movie wants to hide that fact for a while. But you'd have to be pretty damn bone-stupid not to get pretty much from the first moment that this particular Good Guy is something more than just a good friend for a disturbingly lonely boy.

Karen brings the doll home, it announces itself as being named "Chucky", and she then darts back to work so that she doesn't get fired by her incredibly awful boss (Alan Wilder). Andy stays with Karen's best friend, Maggie (Dinah Manoff), and before the night is out, Maggie is hit in the face with a hammer, causing her to fall out of a high window onto a parked car, and if you turned on this one scene and then turned off the movie, it's edited in a way that might make you think that Andy did it, but even then you'd have to be unaware that you were watching Child's Play.

For the next little while, Andy insists that Chucky is alive, and everybody ignores him; then Karen finds that the doll's batteries were never installed (to my mind, this moment, and that subsquently in which Chucky reveals himself to Karen and begins to speak in Dourif's voice, replete with a shrill laugh, instead of the chirpy warble of Edan Gross, are the indisputable highlight of the film); shortly thereafter, Det. Norris has his own run-in with the reincarnated soul of his great foe. And then it's just a matter of watching as two fully grown adults and a child somehow manage to be menaced by a two-foot tall latex man.

Many people, I know, have deep affection for Child's Play, and I will leave them to it. Myself, I spent most of the movie bored out of my skull when I wasn't actively annoyed by the huge leaps in story logic the film hopes that we don't notice (the biggie: Chucky doesn't want to kill Andy until he does except he needs Andy alive so he stops trying to kill him when it would otherwise be impossible for the script to come up with a good excuse for the boy not to be dead). Or distracted by the cavalcade of '80s: the toys, the hair, the clothes, the music, the fact that this is a painful hybrid of a slasher movie with a cop picture all built on the foundation of "killer doll". I suspect if Mancini had gotten his way, it would have been even more about the '80s than it is, for in this state, the movie is just a routine "stop the killer" picture with lots and lots and lots of visual signifiers of the period. But there are little pieces that keep peeking through: Karen's economic woes drive a lot more of the first act than you'd expect from this kind of movie, and it's not hard to feel the outline of a much cannier satire of late'80s consumer culture than the film even daydreams about being buried somewhere inside, a laceration of materialism in the Age of Reagan that would undoubtedly have been stronger if the film had stuck closer to its alleged original conception, in which we actually couldn't tell if the killer was Chucky or Andy, if the boy had just been driven to insanity by the hectoring toy commercials masquerading as television entertainment that made up nearly all of a child's media diet in those days. Thank God those days are over, amiright?

That is not, however, the Child's Play we got from director Tom Holland, who took a swipe at the script himself (in between Mancini and Holland came John Lafia, the future auteur of beloved TV movie 10.5). In his hands, Child's Play lurched awkardly in the direction of a routine slasher film, though too much of Mancini's narrative spine simply could not be crammed into that mold, and the finished product plays, ultimately, as a procedural interrupted by slasher movie killing scenes, which, since this was after all 1988, were not terribly imaginative, bloody, or scary.

Two things manage to keep Child's Play interesting enough that its reptuation, if oversized, isn't completely inexplicable, and both of them are Chucky. Oh, there are a few other compensations - Sarandon and Hicks, though never bound to win an Oscar, did better as the leads in a horror movie than you could possibly assume would be the case, given the film's vintage, and there was quite a lot of money thrown here, seemingly, resulting in some nice photography from DP Bill Butler, and I'm enough of a sentimentalist that the location shots of Chicago, circa 1987, warm my soul a little bit.

But mostly, the things that redeem the film, at least slightly, are Dourif's nasty, insinuating vocal performance and Kevin Yagher's design of the Chucky doll itself - both of these things only appearing right around the half-way mark, which just so happens to be the point where the movie starts to completely disintegrate as a narrative, so it's good timing. Let's face it, plenty of incompetent horror movies have managed to enter the pantheon on the back of a good villain, and Child's Play is at least as good as one of the better Friday the 13th movies. The Chucky effect could be a bit smoother, sure, but the sight of an already slightly creepy doll abruptly snarling and staring with hateful little latex eyes... it's works, is the thing, and Dourif brings it home, and all told, Chucky is more than a good enough killer to launch a franchise, if only because of the continuing hope that, maybe this time, he'd get a vehicle worthy of his menacing little stature.

Body Count: Chucky kills 4 people, and he dies himself twice: once as human, once as doll. But given the fact that there are four other Child's Play movies, and none of them prequels, I see no reason to count those any more than we would count the apparent demise of Jason Voorhees in any given Friday.

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)

*Okay, fine, James Earl Ray.