By standard critical terms, a horror movie about a voodoo-possessed Cabbage Patch/Teddy Ruxpin-style doll shouldn’t have worked… and yet Child’s Play was not only a hit but spawned a dynasty of sequels that continued for decades. The reason for all this is simple: the original is a really good movie, one that uses clever storytelling to get the audience to find the popcorn-munching fun in accepting the unbelievable.
Child’s Play is built around the duo of an adorable tyke and his loving single mother: Andy (Alex Vincent) wants a “Good Guys” doll more than anything in the world but mom Karen (Catherine Hicks) is struggling to get by on a shop clerk’s salary. However, she lucks out and nabs a doll from a homeless guy hawking them in an alley.
What she doesn’t know is that said doll was stolen from the scene of shootout that claimed the life of murderer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). Before dying, he used some voodoo skills he learned in prison to put his spirit in the doll’s little body. In short order, Chucky is alienating child from mom and bumping off anyone in his way as he plots to move his spirit into Andy’s body. Will Karen and inquisitive detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) figure out this odd state of affairs in time?
Child’s Play remains a potent little slab of pop horror because it makes the most of its outré concept while taking the time to gradually bring the audience into it. The script, originated by series regular Don Mancini and rewritten by John Lafia and director Tom Holland, doesn’t rush the viewer into the killer doll concept. Instead, it establishes with mother/son relationship before the child falls under the doll’s spell, then shows the mom struggling with the idea before believing, then the cop struggling with the idea before accceptance. This progression allows us to accept the concept through the eyes of the characters and sympathetically be drawn how they fight Chucky’s attack on their reality.
The attention to characterization that the script shows is further drawn out by quality performances from a cast that plays it for real. Vincent is a fantastic child actor, cute enough to win over an audience but surprisingly low-key and naturalistic in a way that kid actors rarely are. As a result, he’s easy to believe: a scene where he bursts into tears after realizing Chucky has him cornered is heartbreaking.
Hicks is excellent as the devoted mom, bringing a maternal warmth that gets the viewer in her corner but also delivering convincing scream queen theatrics in her battles with Chucky. Elsewhere, Sarandon clearly enjoys getting to play against type as a straight-arrow hero… and Dourif’s voice work brings both a vicious edge and a darkly amusing glee to the film’s pint-sized villain.
Finally, the filmmaking seals the deal with Child’s Play. Holland’s slick, confident direction keeps the story rolling out at a nice clip and gradually builds up the visual of Chucky as a doll-size predator in a way similar to how Jaws gradually showed more of its shark (interestingly, both films share the same cinematographer, Bill Butler). Once Chucky is shown as an on-screen attacker, Kevin Yagher’s special effects mix latex and animatronic puppetry to convincing effect: it’s interesting to notice how the doll’s cutesy features gradually mutate into something monstrous as the film moves along.
Holland and Yagher work together beautifully, leading to some great setpieces like a scene where Chucky attacks Mike while he’s driving his car and a finale that plays like a burlesque of The Terminator.
In short, Child’s Play is a top-flight popcorn horror movie, the kind of film that draws you into the fun of its outrageous concept while using its full bag of tricks to give you the rollercoaster ride you were hoping for.