The Chucky movies get a bad rap. Honestly, any horror film that openly embraces comedy has an uphill battle when it comes to critical recognition. Most people will simply write off Child’s Play and its six sequels because of its killer-doll premise, its parade of one-liners, or its simple longevity. How could a franchise with this much ridiculousness possibly be good?
That kind of thinking is a huge disservice to the franchise. Why? Because the Chucky films have spanned generations, outlived most of their contemporaries, and evolved into one of the most interesting franchises in horror history. Its secret weapon is the seeming contradiction of constant reinvention within remarkable consistency.
Let’s talk about the consistency first. Sure, there are a few tweaks in the voodoo mythology. Sometimes there’s an amulet. Sometimes there isn’t. In general, the soul transfer rules seem to grow less strict as the movies continue. Still, that’s only an issue if you marathon these movies in one bleary-eyed, blood-soaked binge-watch. Barring that, the series is surprisingly consistent. It doesn’t have the weird chronology of Friday the 13th or Halloween’s constant need to change things. It’s (thankfully) not a slave to its own mythology (looking at you, Saw sequels!), but it isn’t afraid to embrace its three decades of history with each new installment.
This is all a testament to Don Mancini, the writer of all seven films (and the director of the last three). He’s the real steward of the series, accompanied by producer David Kirschner and a stable of returning actors and effects guys who’ve been with the series for decades. Brad Dourif always lends his inimitable cackle, and repeat players Jennifer Tilly, Alex Vincent, and Fiona Dourif are always game to get spattered with gore.
While maintaining consistency both in front of and behind the camera, each Chucky film gets to reinvent itself in exciting new ways. The first one doubles down on the detective work, laying the groundwork for the series with a more procedural structure. Chucky himself isn’t revealed until well into the movie, making Child’s Play (1988) the most gore-light of the series.
Child’s Play 2 (1990) is its candy-colored continuation, giving the killer doll much more screen time and a bigger reliance on one-liners. With its kill-heavy structure and its introduction of a final girl (Christine Elise’s Kyle), this entry is more of a straight-up slasher than the original, and its climactic chase through the toy factory remains a highlight of the entire series.
Child’s Play 3 (1991) famously came out nine months later, and its arguably the least essential entry in the series. It swaps a foster home for a military academy, and its climax changes a toy factory into a carnival funhouse, but it’s otherwise a goofier copy of Part 2. There are some pretty great side characters—the creepy barber is a personal favorite—and Chucky’s sense of humor is further exaggerated with some delightful groaners, but the movie as a whole is a bit too familiar.
The same cannot be said for 1998’s Bride of Chucky, which reinvents the series as a dark comedy. The kills come fast and loose, the one-liners get cranked up to eleven, and the film goes into directions that you’d never see coming. (They’re not really going to have doll sex, are they? They would never kill off John Ritter, would they?) It’s surprising and breathless, a total shot in the arm for the decade-old franchise. Probably most importantly, Jennifer Tilly joins the franchise as Chucky’s partner in crime (and love), and she continues to steal the show for the next three installments.
2004’s Seed of Chucky shifts the humor into more meta territory. The story relocates to Hollywood, several actors play themselves, and the plot takes on elements of both Ed Wood’s oeuvre and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. There’s a bit of desperation with some of the gags (they try to outdo Bride’s doll-sex scene with a doll-masturbation scene, for example), and a lot of the humor doesn’t land. It has some of the best lines in the series (Jennifer Tilly’s shout-out to Bound), as well as some of the worst (the Britney Spears cameo is a series low point). Still, the craziness is invigorating, even if everything falls apart in the least satisfying climax of the series.
Curse of Chucky (2013) follows the goofiest installment with the scariest. The movie confines itself to a single spooky house, alternating between gore scenes and genuinely interesting bits of family dysfunction. It has a Southern Gothic feel with a bit of Hitchcock sprinkled throughout some of the setpieces. For much of the runtime, the film feels like a hard reboot, until elements from the previous films start to make unexpected appearances. Fiona Douriff’s wheelchair-bound Nica is the best heroine of the series, and the whole thing culminates in the most satisfying showdown since Part 2.
That leads us to Cult of Chucky, the newest installment in the franchise. Released on October 3, with an early premiere at London’s Fright Festival, it maintains the suspenseful tone of Curse, while adding even more visual flair. This might have some of the goriest moments in the series, but everything is tempered with a weird sort of beauty. There’s a glass-related death, for example, that seems like the 21st Century equivalent of vintage Dario Argento: gross and gorgeous in equal measure.
Despite its artistry, Cult openly embraces fan service and series callbacks, so much so that the last half hour is a crimson-colored parade of jaw-droppers and reappearances. It’s sexual, disgusting, and deeply satisfying precisely because the series has laid so much ground work to get here. The ending not only shifts the status quo yet again, but it hints at a brave new world of future Chucky films.
Unlike every other horror franchise from the last forty years, Child’s Play values both consistency and reinvention. It’s the only franchise where each installment justifies its own existence. Whether you’re interested in plastic dolls killing or boning, you have to respect that legacy.
Evan Purcell is a contributing writer for Silent Film Archives, which offers a wealth of information about classic films of every genre. He also writes trashy romance novels for anyone who is curious.