I’ve written before about how scary dolls can be – most notably my review of Dolls a week ago – and I’ll reiterate that there’s something inherently terrifying about animated an otherwise inanimate object. It can be played in a touching and amusing way, as the Toy Story franchise reminds us with the splendid 4th installment out this summer, but it can also be scary as heck, as Annabelle keeps trying to demonstrate. That gets even more upsetting when the animated doll remains a child’s toy even as its evil intention becomes clear.
This is such a trope in the horror genre that we might just create a new sub-genre of “evil dolls” movies. Fun, right? I mean, we all have something at home with a painted face or a simulacrum that suggests the universe is not passively sitting aside while we live but actually watching, perhaps judging and even influencing what transpires. Now that I think about it, I have a stuffed shark in my bedroom. What if he’s not as quiescent as he seems, and one night he’s going to fall on me and, well, that’s all she wrote. Yikes.
Which beget one of my favorite cheesy horror films, Child’s Play. The original came out in 1988 and tapped into the ‘talking doll’ toy trend with a 3-foot tall red-headed toddler doll named “Chucky”. Except in the original a nefarious and violent criminal transferred his soul into one of the Chucky dolls. That demonic Chucky ended up the beloved toy of troubled boy Andy (Alex Vincent), with much mayhem and violence to follow. It also spawned no less than six sequels of varying quality and stupidity. Still, a very successful franchise that’s spanned decades, so a franchise worthy of a reboot.
We live in an era where a hijacked smart home is almost as terrifying as an evil, animated doll. It’s been explored in cinema (arguably starting with Colossus: The Forbin Project back in 1970) but the juxtaposition of creepy doll and doll-controlled home is a pretty dark bit of genius. Indeed, the new Child’s Play left me wondering when Amazon will release a female doll called “Alexa” who will essentially personify the entire smart home ecosystem. Until the singularity, at least, when she’ll inevitably turn evil and we will oohhh so regret inviting her into our homes.
The problem with the new Child’s Play, however, is that neither the development or production team had the storytelling chops to really run with this pretty solid premise and turn it into a good horror film. Instead we have this mess of ideas that sprawl across the script and sometimes work well together, but other times produce scenes that come and go without much rhyme or reason.
Child’s Play 2019 again focuses on lonely boy Andy (this time played by an older actor, Gabriel Bateman) who has moved into a pretty inner-city neighborhood with his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza). She’s working two jobs to make ends meet, one of which is at “Zed Mart”. Down the hall is the surrogate grandma Doreen (Carlease Burke) whose son Mike (Brian Tyree Henry) visits frequently. Oh, Mike is a police detective, a handy plot point.
When a customer brings back a “Buddi” doll because it’s not working right, mom grabs it as a sort of gag gift for Andy’s upcoming birthday. But Andy actually kind of likes the chatty little (and yes, creepy) doll, who announces its name is “Chucky”, surprising exactly no-one in the theater. Chucky is voiced by Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) and even has a signature song about being your best friend and your “friend to the end”.
Director Las Klevberg knows that everyone who heads into the theater to see this film already knows the original story and is familiar with the “Chucky mythos” (if you’ll permit me to call it that), so he has some fun with sly commentary and dialog poking fun at the original. It’s when he’s showing his light touch with the sporadically gory material that the new Child’s Play is at its best. The creepy maintenance guy who lives in the basement? An obvious trope but still satisfying when he gets his comeuppance after messing with Chucky. The jerk of a boyfriend who harasses Andy? Of course he’s going to end up on the cutting room floor – and I don’t mean his footage in the film.
But there’s too much that doesn’t quite work and even as a sort of high budget B movie, there’s only so much us viewers will grant a director and cast in a film. Child’s Play goes too far, and it’s ultimately just a sloppy mess that has some laughs and wry, blood-drenched scenes, but disappointingly misses being a much smarter and more provocative film about our “connected” lives and what could happen if it decided that, well, our smart home, self-driving car and computer-controlled environment actually didn’t like us any more.
Still, if you’re a genre completist, it’s possibly worth seeing anyway. Certainly once it’s on cable or a streaming service, there are a lot worse ways to spend 100 minutes. Just don’t expect much beyond an ultimately superficial update to a horror classic.
Parent Note: If your child enjoys horror, they’ll love this. Most of the main characters are misunderstood tweens and teens who never seem to go to school or do anything other than hang out and be distrustful of any and all authority figures. Like adolescents everywhere, really.