by Judson Cade Pedigo
As Justice League opened with a less than heroic debut, (I dunno, I still think 96 million is a lot of money. If I get a hundred bucks in my wallet I feel like Scrooge McDuck) people are already speculating how Warner can reboot their entire cinematic universe. What world are we living in where a reboot is the only answer? A world gone mad, mad with reboots. Used to be when we got say, a Star Trek the Motion Picture, they didn’t just scrap the entire “enterprise”, we just had to wait a little while until we got a Wrath of Khan. If something doesn’t work, I don’t think that throwing all that time and money away for a fresh start is the answer. What happened to taking a little extra time to fix what didn’t work and make something worthwhile instead? In this new world where Spiderman gets two reboots in 15 years, this is clearly not the case. Horror fans have been hit especially hard by this trend. They are cheap to produce and, if done right, can yield high profits. There have been sequels to remakes, prequels to remakes, sequels to prequels of remakes, sequels to earlier entries, creating such a mess that you really need a manual to figure out what you’re about to see. This is why Wikipedia was invented. Leatherface was the first to fall, then Michael Myers, Jason, and then they did the unthinkable, they recast Freddy Krueger. That last outing didn’t do so well for them so guess what word we heard next: reboot. While we’re waiting for the reboot of the reboot of A Nightmare On Elm Street, we can look to one of the last remaining horror icons still continuing their original story from the 80’s, Chucky the killer doll. Somehow, Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky, is responsible for writing every installment of the series about a Good Guy doll gone bad. What makes Mancini a rare breed in this day and age is that he embraces something that’s become a dirty word in Hollywood, continuity. It’s become increasingly easy to just rewind the clock and hit the reset button, but Mancini not only embraces what’s come before, he celebrates it.
“We want to take it back to the basics”, says every producer remaking a horror movie ever. Well you know what Mr. Big Shot? Maybe we don’t wanna go back to the basics; maybe we just want to watch another entry with our favorite slasher. Sure, send Jason back to camp, but do we really have to forget about that time he went to hell, or took Manhattan? We’ve stuck with our horror heroes through trips to space, Cults of Thorn, Dream Children, and Hellraiser: Hellworld (shudder). You really want to tell us that all that time and effort suddenly doesn’t count because you want to sell a few more tickets? I’m reminded of an old issue of Wizard (the comics magazine, guys) where Jeph Loeb was interviewed about a Superman project he was working on with artist Tim Sale. It was another retelling of Superman’s formative years (how many times do we have to do this DC? Krypton go boom, Kansas, red white and blue, bricka bracka firecracker, sis boom bah, we get it.). Loeb explained that Tim Sale hated that a young Clark Kent was a football star. He went on to say that he knew that some fans loved that aspect and rather than outright retcon it away they just didn’t bring it up. Selective continuity. See Hollywood, it’s not that hard.
Let’s take a quick look at the Halloween franchise to see how muddy things can get. This is a series that’s been chasing the tail of the original since the very beginning (the only entry that even comes close to matching the tone of the original is Part 3, Season of the Witch. That’s right. Come at me bro.). With the threat of a new “requel” right around the corner, we’re looking at no less than seven timelines in the series. There’s Part 1 which begins with a six-year-old Michael killing his sister and ends with him “still out there” possibly waiting to stab you in the neck when you get home from the theater. That’s it. Self-contained story. Then there’s the Part 1 and 2 combo, which was supposed to be the end of the Myers storyline. Part III is its own thing. When 4 comes along, it picks up after 2 and begins the Jamie Lloyd trilogy, which runs through 4, 5, and 6. You still follow? There’s Part 1, Part 1 & 2, Part 3, Parts 1,2,4,5,6. When they got to Part 7 they said “Shit, the last one revealed that Michael was the pawn of the old people cult from Rosemary’s Baby and then he got beat up by Paul Rudd. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” Now the timeline goes Part 1, Part 2, Part 7, and ends with Busta Rhymes karate chopping Michael Myers in Part 8. How sad is that? Then there’s the Zombie continuity where we find out that Michael is super bummed that William Forsythe yelled at him as a kid and that his mom is a stripper who can’t take him trick or treating? Yeah. After Zombie burned all bridges out of town and torched the series where else is left to go? Back to the beginning of course! Although we don’t know much about the upcoming movie, we do know that it’s a direct sequel to Part 1 and once again we’re told to forget the rest. But we’re bringing back Jamie Lee! Can’t Care™, David Gordon Green. What a mess. You know who doesn’t have this problem? Chucky.
Right now, we’re living in the third age of Chucky and it’s a great time to be alive. Since Chucky has been guided by the hand of Don Mancini from the beginning, he’s had an advantage over most of his peers. I can’t think of another series with more than two sequels that has had that benefit. (Wait a minute, there’s Phantasm, all written by Don Coscarelli. Another Don! Man, guys named Don get shit done!) The golden age of Chucky begins in 1988 and the first three were pretty straightforward. You know, as straightforward as a movie about a serial killer who has his soul transferred into the body of a doll and needs to perform a voodoo ritual in order to become human again can be. The first film is a great concept and is executed better than most of the genre films of the time. Its sequels got a little sillier and were marketed mainly to the Fango crowd. By the time the credits rolled on the third movie, it seemed that the concept had worn itself out and Chucky was laid to rest for most of the nineties. Which was fine. Mainstream horror really didn’t know what to do with itself for most of that decade until a little movie called Scream came along and woke the studios up. The upside was that horror movies were back, the downside was that most of them weren’t very good. While Scream was an homage to slasher movies of the eighties, most of the movies that came in its wake were just an homage to Scream and missed the point. This brings us to the silver age of Chucky. With every studio looking to dust off its old horror properties, Bride of Chucky was born, which I maintain is the best slasher to come out of the post-Scream era. It tricked the audience into thinking it was getting another Scream clone (the poster was even a parody of the Scream 2 one sheet) but what they got instead was a full-on horror comedy in which Chucky and his Bride were the stars! For once, the self-referential teens were in the background and the monsters were running the show! It also brought Jennifer Tilly into the fold, playing the titular bride and whose enthusiasm for the role is infectious. This movie seems to be a point of contention for Chucky purists, but I love it. Humor was always a part of the series and if they were going to bring Chucky back why not make it bigger, louder, and funnier than ever?
If Bride was a comedy, then Seed of Chucky went full-on camp taking the original premise and turning it on its head. While it’s not my favorite in the series, I do appreciate it for its ambitiousness in going full-on bananas without looking back. This movie is insane. I’ll just give you some of the highlights. You’ve got the long-lost child of Chucky and Tiffany searching, not only for the parents they never knew but also, for gender identity, going by Glen or Glenda (get it?) You’ve got Chucky masturbating to an issue of Fangoria in order to artificially inseminate Jennifer Tilly (who returns, not only, as the killer bride but she plays herself who is starring in a movie about Chucky). You’ve got Tiffany enrolling in a 12-step program in order to stop killing and be a good parent. You’ve got Chucky murdering Britney Spears by running her sports car off the road (“Oops I did it again”, he quips). Just in case you were confused about what tone they were going for, John Waters pops up as sleazy paparazzi Pete Peters to underline the proceedings. This isn’t just a Chucky movie, this is a Chucky movie wrapped in an angora sweater and wearing stilettos. Gone is any pretense of being scary but that doesn’t mean the movie can’t still shock. This is the fifth entry in the series and Mancini uses every tool in his arsenal to make it as different as possible, subverting the very genre that allowed Chucky to become a star. Mancini essentially hijacked his own series to make the first “queer” Chucky movie and why not? Five movies in, if Mancini wants to make the ultimate mainstream sleaze, glam-trash, horror, art-punk movie, he can. I’m just surprised that it even got made, let alone released! Equal parts Warhol, Waters, and Troma, Seed of Chucky challenges the viewer every chance it gets. There are dolls in drag, innuendos about “the closet”, and deconstruction of the American ideal of marriage and what exactly it means to be normal. As Pete Peters puts it, “Get it, mini-me!” While the audience may be uncomfortable with Glen or Glenda’s androgynous sexuality, Chucky isn’t. He’s just proud to have a family. Things get sleazy, sexy, and just plain wrong but it’s oh so right. The insanity just builds on itself until even Chucky can’t help but comment “Look around you! This is nuts, and I have a very high tolerance for nuts. If this is what it takes to be human, then I would rather take my chances as a supernaturally possessed doll. It’s less complicated….I am Chucky the killer doll and I dig it!” What do you know? You get some growth from the lead character and a message beneath all the blood and madness; be who you are. When things get this far out of hand it, usually becomes a franchise killer (just look at the equally-gay Batman and Robin) With the tone having swung so far into the direction of camp and saddling the series with so much continuity baggage, it seemed like there was no going back. In 2013, Don Mancini proved us wrong, bringing us to the modern age of the Chuckster.
Curse of Chucky was the first of the series to go directly to video (or straight to streaming as I guess it is now) and it allowed Don Mancini the freedom to continue the series how he wanted. This is a prime example on how to bring a franchise back to its roots without ignoring all that came before. Everybody needs to take notes, because this is how it’s done. In this installment, we are given a new protagonist Nica, a young woman with a heavy burden bound to a wheelchair, and what appears to be a fresh start for the series. In a brilliant bit of stunt casting Nica is played by Fiona Dourif, the real life daughter of Brad Dourif, who’s been voicing Chucky since the beginning. Nica is a great character, providing us with a formidable adversary for the first time since the original series. When a familiar looking Good Guy doll arrives in the mail we know it is only a matter of time before the bodies start piling up. However, Mancini keeps things a mystery. Who sent the doll? Why doesn’t Chucky sport the look that we’re used to seeing on T-shirts at Hot Topic? Why does he have an emo haircut? Part of the fun here is seeing it all unfold. We have what, at first, seems like a tonal reboot to the series. Chucky is returned to the shadows. There is a child in peril. A smaller cast. For the most part it, all takes place in one location. It’s basically a haunted house movie with Chucky doing the haunting. It also made Chucky someone to be feared again. After making us laugh for two sequels, we are reminded what a mean sonuvabitch he really is. Once again, Mancini subverts expectations and, in a scene I don’t want to spoil, manages to tie the entire series together, even the excesses of Seed, into a cohesive whole. Not only does he make Seed count but it becomes an essential part of the Chucky mythos. It is an amazing trick Mancini pulled off and it made me respect and love this story about a killer doll even more.
Continuity can be treated as a burden or it can be embraced. And this movie embraces everything, warts and all. The latest chapter, Cult of Chucky, continues the story of Nica and brings along a few familiar faces. Taking place in a mental asylum where Nica has been committed, Chucky’s motives here still remain a mystery for most of the proceedings. While the previous film served as an exercise in clearing the decks and a jumping-on point, this one is so inside baseball it’s crazy. My wife tried to watch this with me and I had to constantly try to explain what was going on. “No, that’s Jennifer Tilly the actress except her body is possessed by Tiffany the killer doll, after Jennifer gave birth to Chucky’s twins”. She eventually gave up and just went with it. Sure it might be considered fan service, but it makes a lot more sense than having Darth Vader show up out of nowhere to play some old Death Star construction foreman. I’d say that it’s less fan service and more rewarding the fans that have followed the series since the beginning. The tone of the movie is interesting because it coexists in the restrained world of the original and the broader comedic world of the later sequels. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other; it can contain elements from the entire spectrum of Chucky. In one scene, a sedated patient watches in horror, unable to move, while Chucky plots her demise, weeping silently as she realizes that she’s going to die. It is chilling to watch and reminds us how sadistic the character really is. Meanwhile, Chucky comically laments the cancellation of the show Hannibal (which Mancini happened to be a writer on). With a deft hand, Mancini guides us once again through the world he has created, all the while hinting that there are bigger things still to come. Chucky is lucky to have Don Mancini and we are lucky to have them both.