On a winter night in Chicago, there aren’t just snowflakes filling the air, there’s also the sounds of sirens, gunshots, and screams. Police detective Mike Norris has finally caught up with Charles Lee Ray, a serial killer known as the Lakeshore Strangler, and is chasing him through the streets of the city. Ray attempts to escape in a van driven by his partner Eddie… but the frightened Eddie takes off without him.
Norris chases Ray into a store that’s closed for the night. Playland Toys. Mortally wounded by the detective’s bullets, Ray stumbles through the aisles of the store, and strangely starts mumbling to himself, “I gotta find somebody.” But he’s in no condition to find anybody, collapsing into a stack of the year’s hottest toy item – Good Guy Dolls.
Good Guy Dolls are basically mini-me versions of the little boys who they’ll be bought for, each doll has its own name and can speak simple pre-recorded sentences like “I’m your friend ’til the end!” and “Wanna play?” There are a bunch of tie-ins for this toy; a cartoon designed to fuel children’s desire to have a doll and accessories to go with them like toolboxes.
As he dies, Charles Lee Ray reaches out and pulls the nearest Good Guy Doll out of its package, places his hands on it, and starts reciting a voodoo spell. Storm clouds gather in the sky, lightning flashes, Ray raises his voice as the recitation gets more intense… A lightning bolt smashes through the store’s skylight, striking the Good Guy display, setting off a massive explosion and igniting a fire that will burn Playland Toys to the ground.
Celebrating his sixth birthday dressed in full Good Guy regalia, Andy Barclay is disappointed to find that a Good Guy Doll is not among his gifts. His single mother Karen just can’t afford the doll, with its ridiculous $100 price tag. But fortune, at least it appears to be at first, smiles upon Karen that afternoon when she encounters a homeless man who has a Good Guy up for offer for just $30. He doesn’t mention that he pulled it out of the rubble of Playland Toys, where he got it from is irrelevant. Karen excitedly buys the doll and takes it home to Andy.
Andy’s not quite up on the limits of reality at this point in his life, so he fully accepts that his doll – which introduces itself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chucky!” – is a living being that can move around on his own and say things beyond the usual pre-recorded sentences. When Andy’s babysitter ends up dead that night, smashed in the head with a hammer and knocked through a window, Andy points suspicion toward his new pal Chucky. Being rational, responding detective Norris reserves more suspicion for Andy himself.
That night, Andy confides in his mother that Chucky has told him things like a story of how he was sent down from Heaven by his deceased father to play with him and, shockingly, that his babysitter “was a real bitch and got what she deserved”… These are stories Andy recants when he sees they’re upsetting his mother. But when Andy skips school the next day to take a train ride with Chucky to a dilapidated house that explodes with Charles Lee Ray’s friend Eddie inside of it, his insistence that Chucky is alive and causing these deadly events leads to him being taken away from Karen and placed in a hospital mental ward for observation and examination.
Although we haven’t clearly seen Chucky in action yet, it has been pretty obvious to the audience up to this point that the doll is indeed the guilty party. 45 minutes into the film, Karen confirms that Chucky is alive and evil, the doll’s body possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray, when she realizes that the doll has been moving and speaking without batteries. Chucky has only been speaking in the sweet, child-like voice of the pre-recorded messages, but with his cover blown, he finally starts speaking in the voice of Charles Lee Ray himself, with actor Brad Dourif delivering an incredible and intense vocal performance. Viciously attacking Karen, the doll lets out a stream of profanity as its first lines in the voice of Dourif. Chucky is a nasty, hateful little guy.
From that point on, Chucky is openly on a mission of murder, with Norris the next on his kill list. He believes that he’s unstoppable now that he’s in the doll body – he’s just plastic and stuffing, he can’t be killed. But when he gets injured and bleeds, he seeks out his voodoo mentor for more information on his condition and finds out that life after death isn’t as simple as he thought – the more time Charles Lee Ray remains in the body of the Good Guy Doll, the more human he’ll become. Eventually he’ll be trapped inside the doll’s body for good. The only way around this fate is to transfer his soul into the first person he revealed his dark secret to – little Andy.
When screenwriter Don Mancini first came up with the concept for a killer doll movie – initially titled Blood Buddy – his idea was to make it more of a mystery as to whether the doll was really killing people or if the little boy it belonged to was a deranged little murderer. We have dolls that pee, and in Mancini’s original idea the toy line was called Blood Buddies because they were dolls that could bleed and be patched up with your handy dandy Blood Buddy adhesive strip. By doing an innocent “blood brother” blood swap, the little boy accidentally brought the doll to life, and when he slept the doll would rise up to kill people that had bothered the kid, like his babysitter or his school teacher.
A writer named John Lafia (who would go on to direct this film’s sequel) developed Mancini’s story further, but it was when Tom Holland, writer of 1983’s Psycho II and writer/director of the 1985 vampire movie Fright Night, came aboard to do a rewrite and direct the film that Child’s Play evolved into the story as we know it.
It was Holland’s idea to add in the voodoo angle and the set-up of a serial killer possessing the doll’s body to seek revenge after his death. He came up with the name Charles Lee Ray by combining the names of Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray. Holland’s approach was more up front than Mancini’s, but it’s an approach that gave us one of the last horror icons of the 1980s.
The ’80s were, in my book, one of the greatest, most fun periods in the history of horror. The films that came out of that decade established a new group of genre icons that can stand proudly alongside the monsters who preceded them; Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Gill Man. The ’80s gave us Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, and further cemented the ’70s-rooted Michael Myers and Leatherface in the pop culture consciousness. Chucky arrived and joined their ranks in November of 1988.
He may just be a little doll, but the way he’s presented by Holland and cinematographer Bill Butler (the man who shot Jaws), the way he’s so fantastically brought to life by the special effects of Kevin Yagher (who would go on to marry the film’s star, Catherine Hicks), and with Brad Dourif speaking his lines, Chucky manages to come off as a real threat, a badass little slasher, and when he’s relentlessly going after people he’s even effectively, unnervingly creepy.
I was slightly younger than the character of Andy when I first saw this movie, catching it on VHS when I was five years old, but I was totally into it when I saw it. I have lots of memories of watching this movie when I was young, watching it with my nephew when he was a kid, my older brother allowing me to stay up late on a school night to watch Child’s Play on one of the movie channels, following the franchise intently throughout my youth…
One of my favorite things about watching slasher movies has always been seeing how much damage can be inflicted on the killer before he’s finally stopped for good. These guys can take a hellacious beating and keep on ticking, and Child’s Play certainly delivers in that area, as Chucky is put through the wringer in the final act. He’s shot, burnt to a crisp, loses limbs… He keeps on coming.
Child’s Play was a great success, and twenty-five years later Chucky is still on the rampage, as the sixth film in the series – Curse of Chucky – was just recently released. The final version of the original film may not be exactly what Don Mancini envisioned when he started writing Blood Buddy, but it has worked out quite well for him – Mancini has written every one of the sequels that have followed, and has directed the last two of them. I’ve enjoyed the sequels to varying degrees, but the first remains my favorite of the bunch overall.
Chucky first came into my life when I was a little kid playing with toys just like the film’s Andy Barclay, and although I’ve since put my toys away, the viewings of Child’s Play continue on.