The Child's Play franchise fascinates me: not because it is especially consistent or good (thought it has a great batting average compared to something like Friday the 13th or even A Nightmare on Elm Street), but because it has been able to reinvent itself so many times, with such success. After three increasingly ludicrous paranormal slasher films around the dawn of the '90s, the series came back from a seven-year slumber with 1998's Bride of Chucky, which in keeping with the state of horror in the late '90s, was a winking self-parody aware of the ridiculousness of seven-years-later sequels to movies about killer dolls. Then, after six more years, series godfather Don Mancini made his directorial debut with Seed of Chucky, pushing the movies out of the realm of horror entirely and into the world of gross-out satire, because why ever not? I don't know that history has yet come around to regarding Seed (easily my favorite of the five) as anything but sheer unmitigated jokey crap, but anyway, another nine years down the road, Mancini took another sharp bend, with Curse of Chucky - a film unfathomably released direct-to-video, despite a budget that it could have easily made back in its opening weekend on brand-name alone - which not only restores the series to its roots in comedy-free horror, it is by far the best of the whole lot of them on that level. It finds a way to make the central conceptual liability of these movies - a plastic doll isn't a remotely plausible threat for a fully ambulatory adult - into a real strength, and isn't just the most atmospheric and scary Chucky film, it's one of the most confident and successful American horror movies of the 2010s.

Not least of this is because of its purity: as far as narrative goes, this is a straightforward exercise in gathing a group of people into a building and letting them die one by one; it's a slasher film all right, but one whose resolute, budget-saving narrowness of scope draws out the lineage by which the slasher model connects to yet older horror forms. There's a bit of a '30s "old dark house" thriller in its DNA, and the use of offscreen activity to drive the tone, along with some pretty inky dark cinematography by Michael Marshall, starts to encourage one to think about using words like "Lewton-esque" to describe its minimalistic effect (not for nothing, but Val Lewton's horror unit was also devoted to finding ways to stretch a buck and still make top-notch horror).

It is, top to bottom, a horror movie for horror fans, not necessarily a Child's Play movie for Child's Play fans. Indeed, the almost complete absence of the plastic murderer Chucky (voiced, as ever, by the indispensible Brad Dourif) for the 97-minute film's first hour sets this far apart from every movie except for maybe the 1988 original, which was at least partially trying to ape the function of a mystery. Curse of Chucky isn't a mystery in the slightest, except to the characters; it's a film that intelligently and skillfully uses the audience's knowledge to drive the mood and scares. Since nobody is likely to stumble into the film without knowing that Chucky is a living, vengeful, violent little beast - and the doll's creepy touch-up job since 2004, leaving him looking like he went on a little doll-sized bender for several days and was interrupted in the middle of sleeping it off, should be enough to clarify for anybody who might be confused - Mancini jumps right into manipulations of our expectations that are in technique, if not in skill level, Hitchcockian in their conception. It's seriously kind of amazing how depicting nothing, with just a little flicker of sound effects to suggest something small walking in another room, is enough to raise the tension higher than any Chucky vehicle has yet raised them.

The scenario is simple as hell: wheelchair-bound Nica (Fiona Dourif, Brad's daughter), is living with her mother Sarah (Chantal Quesnelle), who has just received a vintage Good Guy talking doll from the '80s from an unknown source. The next day, Sarah is dead. This brings down Nica's brittle, passive-aggressive sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti), who comes with a small entourage of husband Ian (Brennan Elliott), preteen daughter Alice (Summer Howell), and sexy nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell); at the same time, parish priest Father Frank (A Martinez) shows up to offer whatever help he can. With Alice insistently dragging the doll around, he's in prime position to poison a dish at the supper table, with Father Frank the unwitting victim; this leaves him forced to use more direct methods to take out members of the family, one by one, till he can transfer his soul in to Alice's body and become human again. The particular reasons Chucky has for targeting this family in particular are explained, which is useful on the face of it (the film would be irritatingly arbitrary otherwise), and even somewhat cleverly squared with the events of Child's Play, though not necessarily with those of Bride of Chucky. But mostly, all we need to know is that several people are bumbling around in a dark house, and there's somebody trying to murder them so methodically that for the most part, nobody even realises that anyone else is dead till the very end.

Imaginative it's not. But it doesn't need to be creative to work like gangbusters, and for every hoary conceit that doesn't land (secret lesbianism), there's a hoary conceit that works (meanspirited family dynamics, presented with uncomfortable authenticity), or an interesting wrinkle like a paraplegic Final Girl, a creative way to use a snippet of found-footage material to greater effect than any found-footage horror movie has done in years (I don't know if it was commentary or serendipity, but it feels like Mancini going out of his way to one-up all the disposable trash that format has given us) or the unexpectedly spare use of Chucky. Mostly, though, what puts it over is good old-fashioned craftsmanship: the way that low camera angles and lighting make a big house seem terrifying and spooky; the crawling dread instilled by a well-designed soundtrack; the disorienting madness of the score, anchored by twinkly, nightmare-funhouse xylophone theme. The acting is just solid enough not to distract from the movie (the Dourifs are clearly the best in show), which is really all one needs from a well-honed formulaic horror picture. I will frankly confess that even enjoying Seed of Chucky as much as I did, I had no real hopes for this movie to be anything but a diversion; that it would be such a rock-solid execution of the genre at its best blew me away a little bit. And the cavalcade of well-earned, witty fan service in the last few minutes and after the end credits promises a follow-up that, at this point, seems to be as full of promise as any horror sequel ever has.

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)