The killer doll subgenre was rejuvenated in 1988 when Tom Holland (Fright Night ) and United Artists unleashed sneering, red-headed Good Guy doll Chucky upon the world in Child’s Play . The film reteams director Holland (whose direction here is very solid and stylish) with Fright Night star Chris Sarandon and is based on a Don Mancini script that, like Fright Night ‘s, is scary and funny at the same time and pokes some good-natured fun at ’80s horror films in general. With a $9,000,000 budget, the film was anything but cheap to make but grossed an impressive $44,000,000 theatrically worldwide, marking it as a huge success that has spawned (to date) four direct sequels and a number of imitators like Dolly Dearest , Puppet Master , Demonic Toys and Pinocchio’s Revenge . The terrific Stuart Gordon film Dolls actually preceeded the release of Child’s Play by about a year and wasn’t a success with mainstream audiences, but I imagine both Dolls and Child’s Play (which are rather different from each other in tone and thematically) nonetheless helped to usher in the popularity of the evil doll subgenre during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Child’s Play opens with late-night chase and shootout down an empty Chicago alley, with serial strangler Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) being pursued on foot by armed cop Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), who tries valiantly to pump a few bullets into the notorious murderer from afar and misses at first, but finally manages to lodge one into Ray’s back, mortally wounding him. Bleeding Ray shoots through the door of a closed toy store with his own weapon and ducks into the building, weaving surreptitiously between the aisles of merchandise as Norris follows him inside. Knowing he’s dying, Ray grabs the nearest Good Guy doll, a popular talking battery-powered kids doll, and by reciting a macabre incantation transfers his soul into that of the plastic toy just seconds before the occult ritual causes a massive explosion in the store strong enough to bust out the windows and send toys flying in every direction. Norris is unhurt and soon finds Ray’s lifeless human body lying next to the cute doll and thinks that the so-called Lakeshore Strangler’s reign of murder has been put to rest.
Soon after Ray’s “death”, hard-working single mom Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) buys the very same doll — from a peddler in an alley behind the mall where she works — as a birthday present for her 6-year-old son Andy (Alex Vincent), who couldn’t be happier when he tears open the wrapped gift and discovers he now has the fantasy of every boy in America — a Good Guy named “Chucky”, a doll with a shock of fire engine red hair and clad in blue overalls that can walk and talk and provide hours of enjoyment for a lonely child. But after Karen has to work late one night and has friend and coworker Maggie (Dinah Manoff) babysit Andy, who winds up mysteriously falling to her death from the top-floor window of the apartment, Andy informs his worried mother and — by sheer coincidence — investigating cop Mike Norris that Chucky is alive and capable of human thought.
No one believes him, of course, and the very day after Maggie dies, Andy skips school under the direction of his new plastic friend and takes the city bus into the Chicago ghetto, to an abandoned house where Chucky knows double-crossing ex-cronie Eddie Caputo (Neil Giuntoli) squats. Andy waits outside while Chucky sneaks into the house and turns on the curiously working gas oven on in the rat-infested kitchen while Caputo sleeps upstairs … and next thing you know, the house is in flames with the homeless Caputo roasted inside. The cops find Andy and his creepy doll at the scene of the fire and take him into custody, and the boy continues babbling his mad stories about Chucky being alive and threatening to kill him if he ever tells anyone the doll is alive. Karen is devastated when Andy is promptly thrown into a psychiatric children’s hospital for observation, but she soon discovers for herself when she brings the doll home that Chucky is indeed alive … and to make matters worse, the plastic fiend is determined to transfer his soul into Andy’s body before he is trapped in the body of a Good Guy doll forever.
Veteran actress Catherine Hicks makes a smashing horror film debut as sacrificing mom Karen Barclay, and Chris Sarandon is likewise very strong as determined cop Mike Norris. Dinah Manoff proves once again she’s a great character actress playing the spirited but ill-fated Maggie. Brad Dourif was already regarded as a terrific actor by the time the film was made, but Chucky became his most famous role nevertheless. Apart from the opening scene, his performance is delivered off-screen, and his work remains some of the most impassioned voice acting in film history right up there with Mercedes McCambridge’s stunning voice work on The Exorcist . Jack Colvin of TV’s incredible Hulk fame plays Dr. Ardmore, the head psychiatrist at the mental institution where Andy is detained and gets his brains fried by Chucky via electric shock. Kevin Yagher’s puppet effects are very cutting edge for their day and breathe life into the frightening Chucky.
Child’s Play achieved instant popularity when it came out in 1988 and has since remained a favorite with horror fans. Despite the occasional hokey moment, it manages to be stylish, scary and funny and features one of the most iconic pint-sized villains in horror history. I rate it an 8 of 10 and recommend it to all fans of killer doll movies.