29 years ago, when Child's Play was young, I would have laughed and laughed and laughed if you suggested that the movie would even be remembered in a decade, let alone three; and I would laughed all the harder if you suggested that there it was going to birth the strongest movie franchise of all the '80s slashers. Even 19 years ago, when Bride of Chucky was young, I wouldn't have bet a single penny on the proposition that the very delightful self-mocking satiric horror film was going to revive the series for any longer than its own running time, and we should all be grateful that series writer and overall shepherd Don Mancini had managed to roll a natural seven in such an adverse situation, but dear God, let him not press his luck.

We live, anyway, in a world where Bride of Chucky has officially become the midway point in a seven-film franchise that we had best start thinking of as the Chucky series, given there are now four of those to three Child's Plays. And not for nothing, but the Chuckys are a hell of a lot better. I say that even with the slightly disappointed feeling that Cult of Chucky, the seventh and latest film following cinema's most indefatigable killer doll, is probably the weakest movie in this second phase of the series. But dear Christ, after seven films, the fact that "slightly disappointing weakest point" is still this good - that the seventh film in a series which includes Child's Play 3 is good at all - is nothing less than a Halloween miracle, and Mancini (directing for the third time running) is still establishing himself as some kind of wizard genius of low-budget horror with every new film.

The ...of Chucky films have been greatly pleasurable for plenty of reasons, but one of the most important is that they keep reinventing themselves. Bride of Chucky was a satiric horror-comedy that did Scream better than Scream did; Seed of Chucky was a ridiculous, tacky, magnificent lunatic parody of filmmaking and film genres entirely; Curse of Chucky was a dramatic about-face back towards unwinking horror, a haunted-house movie that was the first time in six tries that a Chucky film was actually scary. And now Cult of Chucky is a psychological thriller about survivor guilt centered around Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), the last survivor of Curse of Chucky, cross-cut with a character comedy about Chucky himself (played, as before, by wonderfully expressive dolls operated by Tony Gardner and buffed up by CGI, and the acerbic voice of Brad Dourif).

There's a lot going on, and to a certain extent, the actual plot is the least of it; the film also feels somewhat like Mancini's attempt to take stock of the whole series since 1988, and wrap it all together in the grand meta-narrative that it so far hasn't quite possessed (every single film is explicitly nodded to, though if you don't watch the unrated version,* you'll miss the Child's Play 2 moment). It's also, even more than his other two at-bats as director, an opportunity to indulge in all his love of horror cinema across its long history: everything from an explicit Psycho reference ("a boy's best friend is his mother") to a death by falling glass shards that seems to be echoing Suspiria without so loudly declaring it, to Chucky's hand bursting out of the ground at an acute angle in front of a tombstone made of sticks, which has the aura of classic Universal horror in its Gothic mode, without privileging any of of them in particular.

This sense of horror movie fandom oozing in at every edge of the film is reflected in the plot itself, which presents an utterly generic scenario, and then gently twists it back and forth. Nica ended up in a mental institution, having to all appearances murdered her family four years ago, and under the ministrations of the horrible Dr. Foley (Michael Therriault) - some of the film's very best one-liners come from Chucky's queasy amazement at finding someone even more sociopathic than he is, in the form of the bad doctor - she has finally mostly convinced herself that she did snap and kill everyone, and that the murderous little doll she thought really did it was just a concoction of her broken brain. The vast majority of the action plays out in the halls of the hospital, with Chucky come back to torment her by killing all of her acquaintances among the other patients (it would be a major overreach to call them "friends"), not for any particular reason but his delight in cruelty. This is the stuff of plenty of movies, of course; the twist is that the central question has been changed from the boilerplate of "is she really committing these murders herself?", because we know goddamn good and well that she's sane as sane can be. This is just so much more satisfying, not simply because it sidesteps cliché, but because it keeps us focused in the right place: on Chucky, who is a delightful little horrible character, and on Brad Dourif's splendid, ever-reliable performance as the sarcastic little monster.

In the ever-escalating mythology that governs this series, Cult introduces a new wrinkle: Chucky can keep splitting off his personality into multiple dolls, which means we get several different Chuckys all running rampant, and Dourif gives each of them a slightly different bent. The payoff, of course, is when we have multiple Chuckys in one scene, with Dourif playing comic one-liners off of himself, in  a scene as funny as anything in any of these films yet. And that brings me to another neat trick of Cult of Chucky: it's both a comedy and a thriller, but it's never exactly a comic-thriller. Rather, the film manages to split itself into twin plots of Nica and Chucky, leaving all the tension in the former and all the corny dark comedy in the latter - and there remains yet a third plotline, which finds Chucky's first owner, Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) racing to stop him. This mixture of tones and stories results in a fairly good chaotic pile-up of stuff near the end, setting up a sequel, but also functioning more basically to remind us that Chucky works better as a vehicle for sowing disorder than as a horror movie killer. And quite a lot of disorder it is, too, much of it funny, much of it gory, certainly none of it scary, but after Curse of Chucky, I don't suppose that Mancini still needs to prove that he can make this most ludicrous of characters scary, if he wants to. Cult of Chucky is much more about amping up the inherent absurdity of the premise without actually playing the material for kitsch, a balancing act that shouldn't work - and didn't work in the first three films in the franchise - but lands damn nearly perfectly here.

For all that, Cult of Chucky does feel like a solid step down in quality. Part of it, I am certain, is the limitation of the bright white hospital sets which dominate the film; it's very clean, sterile movie, which is okay, but this also makes it feel cheap and artificial, which is not. I don't actually know that it's a cheap movie - the Chucky puppets are superb - but it feels cheap. It also does something I'd have imagined impossible: it makes the scenes with Chucky's dead girlfriend Tiffany Valentine, now occupying the body of actress Jennifer Tilly (Jennifer Tilly), feel pretty tacked-on and rote. And Tilly herself is nowhere close to the heights she hit in the previous films, especially Seed; it's a coarser, angrier performance that lacks the splendid energy and sense of theatrical viciousness of her first two turns in the role.

That's a major disappointment, for me at least; but Cult of Chucky offers plenty of compensating qualities. It's a good movie version of a shitty horror picture, knowing in its deployment of clichés without apologising for them, and enthusiastic about its gore effects,. These latter it showcases with none of the ugly leering that typifies most horror movie violence; it's much more about appreciating the loving craftsmanship, I think, and the general This Is Moviemaking pleasure of the whole project. This is a movie besotted with horror movies, with nary a trace of irony, and if this means it ends up feeling a bit more well-worn and familiar than the last three films, it's well-worn in the fashion of a comfortable sweater or broken-in slippers. Not something one usually praises in a horror movie, but few and far between are the horror movies so full of affection for the medium and the audience as Cult of Chucky.

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)

*In other words, if you watch it on Netflix.