CHILD’S PLAY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed), Gabriel Bateman (Lights Out), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), Tim Matheson (The West Wing), Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Director: Lars Klevberg (Polaroid)

Writer: Tyler Burton Smith (Quantum Break)

Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Release Date: 21st June (US, UK)

The original Child’s Play and the Chucky series as a whole is a fascinating little piece of horror history, representing one of the weirdest and more idiosyncratic franchises the genre has ever produced. Evolving from a simple but well-executed killer doll story into a sprawling saga that varies wildly in tone, those movies are still going strong to this day still under the wing of creator Don Mancini, with not only more sequels but a television series and a potential crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street actively in the works. However, because Mancini doesn’t actually own the rights to the original film, the folks over at MGM have been able to remake it themselves without even his express permission; I’ll let you guess how he feels about that. That lack of respect from the outset is an immediate demerit for this new incarnation, so it has a real uphill battle in proving it has a right to exist. But despite itself, Child’s Play ends up being a solid little horror/comedy on its own terms, delivering more of an alternative take on the original rather than an attempt to supplant it.

Junking the supernatural premise of the original film in favour of a technophobia-fuelled angle, the film at least deserves some credit for not just being a beat-for-beat rehash of the original, whilst still having just enough threads of the original remaining to not feel completely removed. Though the new approach robs the film of some of its unique identity, it certainly hasn’t lost the tongue-in-cheek value of the original and is in many ways more overtly comedic (at least when compared to the first film). If you’ve seen any film about technology gone wrong, you won’t be particularly surprised by where Child’s Play goes, but it certainly has fun getting there and makes some witty observations about humanity at present on the way. There is some weak plotting in spots, with the whole “morally-detached tech company in control of everything” aspect feeling a bit staid, and the prologue detailing Chucky’s new origin is especially lame and meaningless; it would have been far better off giving a simpler, more matter-of-fact explanation. But getting past that, there’s a sick sense of childlike glee underneath it all as it dishes out gory kills and twisted jokes, which makes it more than clear that the filmmakers are rightly not taking this too seriously. Let me put it this way for the horror buffs out there: at one point, the characters watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. If you know that movie’s tone, you should know what to expect from the new Child’s Play.

When it comes to iconic slasher movie villains, Chucky may not be one of the most famous but he is easily one of the more distinctive, and a lot of that is rightly owed to Brad Dourif’s performance as the character. Unlike many of his peers who rely on stature and an iconic look, Chucky is a personality-driven killer in the vein of Freddy Krueger, and finding someone else to fill those shoes effectively is incredibly difficult. Thankfully, Mark Hamill is more than up to the task of making Chucky his own. Rather than an outright monster from the start, this Chucky’s descent into serial killing is more gradual and comes from a place of irreconcilable computer logic and misplaced ethics rather than simple psychopathy. Hamill’s performance is just as simultaneously scary and funny as Dourif’s, but in more of a deadpan childlike way. Rather than the shock of a foul-mouthed voice coming from an innocent toy, Hamill’s has more the eeriness of a toy saying increasingly messed-up things in a credulous manner. It’s a performance that stands up to the original whilst being its own thing, though I do question where exactly they can take this Chucky that could rival the wild evolution the original has gone through should they keep this incarnation going.

On the human end, Gabriel Bateman makes for a relatable and compelling update of Andy Barclay. Rather than an innocent 6-year-old, this Andy is a socially awkward teen whose bond with Chucky is far more nuanced and deeply fraught, and Bateman does a good job of escalating his performance from adolescent apathy to a frenzied pitch of anxiety. This version of Andy is also hearing-impaired, which at first seems like an interesting touch but unfortunately the plot doesn’t take much advantage of this. Aubrey Plaza plays to her deadpan strengths but also manages to put in some genuine profundity as Karen Barclay, and she makes the mother-son relationship with Bateman feel really sweet and unique especially given the minute age difference. Brian Tyree Henry adds some nice comedic flourishes as Detective Norris, whilst Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio are also a lot of fun as Andy’s newfound friends Falyn and Pugg.

It’s easy to generalise that all remakes these days end up gutting the more taboo elements of their source material, but this Child’s Play is not only gorier than the original but also has far more devious sense of humour. The film takes a fair bit of influence from the Saw franchise, with Chucky’s antics relying more on manipulating technology than just running around with a knife, which leads to some fun kills that’ll make you laugh and squirm in equal measure. It’s a shame there aren’t enough of them, especially in the promising climax that doesn’t go nearly as batsh*t as it clearly wants to. The new design for Chucky is a little off, making him feel like a store brand knock-off of himself, but the practical animatronics used to create him are impressive enough to overcome it. Bear McCreary’s score is also suitably moody, though there is an annoying reliance on horror music clichés and riffs; after he so ably avoided falling back on this in his score for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, that’s quite disappointing.

When you stack the two films against each other, both versions of Child’s Play are about as good as each other. This is thankfully a remake that isn’t just trying to copy its inspiration, and actually uses the premise to communicate new ideas. At the same time, even though it brings many fresh concepts to the franchise, many of those aren’t wholly original in and of themselves. More than anything, the new Child’s Play is essentially Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers with an R rating and a more vicious comedic edge, but that’s not necessarily a mark against it. The original film never hid the fact it was a homage to the cheesy horror films of the 1950s (that film and its sequels frequently pay direct tribute to Ed Wood movies after all), and so in turn it only makes sense for this film to emulate the spirit of the genre films of the 1980s. If you go into Child’s Play knowing that, you are probably going to have a good time. It’s hardly the most necessary remake, and I do fear how it will affect the future of Mancini’s still-ongoing series, but taken on its own terms it delivers a faithful throwback horror experience.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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