Dir: Lars Klevberg. Starring: Mark Hamill (voice), Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Gabriel Bateman. Cert 15, 90 mins
Child’s Play is of a different breed to the rest of Hollywood’s horror reboots. The original, released in 1988, was never idolised in the same way as Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a fun film, but hardly a revolutionary entry into the genre. It’s Chucky himself – in all his wisecracking, knife-wielding killer doll glory – that’s become the icon. Even for those completely unaware of the seven-film franchise he stars in, there’s something oddly loveable about that shock of red hair, mischievous grin and tiny denim-dungaree outfit. All in all, it’s a pretty ideal situation for the new film to be in: it can play around with a character that’s instantly recognisable to audiences, without having to worry about destroying the sanctity of some horror masterpiece. For director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith, the new Child’s Play offers a chance to indulge in some of the hottest cultural trends, no matter how unrelated they may be to the original. What we get is a collision of tones: it’s Black Mirror-style technophobia meets the 1980s nostalgia of Stranger Things, where constant deference must be paid to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg.
While the 1988 film focused on a doll possessed by the spirit of a notorious serial killer, this new version envisions him as a high-tech toy gone wrong, after a disgruntled factory worker in Vietnam shuts off all his safety protocols. Eventually, he ends up in the hands of a young boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman), after his mother (Aubrey Plaza) brings him home as an early birthday present. While Chucky (as he insists on being called) is meant to be a walking, talking, self-learning robot who can control your appliances, offer you helpful reminders and even order you a cab, Andy soon discovers that he’s absorbing a lot more of his surroundings than he’s supposed to: the boy’s annoyance at his misbehaving cat, his resentment towards his mother’s new boyfriend (David Lewis), and the violent scenes of 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Soon, Chucky’s little robot heart becomes corrupted beyond repair.
It comes down to Andy and the local kids to end Chucky’s reign of terror. Admittedly, the film needed a few scenes of them all riding around on bicycles to really play up the Stranger Things/It allusions, but Child’s Play does chuck in an odd (and not necessarily called for) reference to Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: Chucky has a remote in his fingertip that lights up and glows, while Andy is often spotted wearing a red hoodie.
The film does, at least, retain some essence of the original, namely its humour and gore. It’s Mark Hamill who takes on the voice of Chucky, stepping into the shoes of Brad Dourif, who’s voiced every iteration of the character so far. The actor, when he isn’t waving lightsabers around, has forged an impressive career as a voiceover artist, becoming the go-to Joker for DC’s animated shows and movies. And he certainly delivers here, having a ball with the character’s corrupted innocence. In the middle of the night, Chucky likes to watch Andy sleep and gently whisper: “You’re my best friend.” It’s the perfect blend of funny and creepy. Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Andy’s cop neighbour, are also two skilled comedic performers who bring a wry sense of modernity to the film. Plus, there are enough gross-out moments that the film doesn’t feel entirely unconnected to the original and the absolute excess of the 1980s.
Admittedly, it’s a little odd this film exists when Chucky’s original creator, Don Mancini, was still happily churning out sequels as recently as 2017’s direct-to-DVD release Cult of Chucky. The franchise may no longer be a moneyspinner (the latest made $2m in sales), but there was always something to be said about its longevity, with its small but enthusiastic fanbase embracing in equal measure its experiments in camp comedy (namely 1998’s Bride of Chucky) and its return to full-fledged horror (in 2013’s Curse of Chucky). Why resuscitate a franchise that was never really dead in the first place? The new Child’s Play might not answer that question in a way that feels truly satisfying but, at the very least, it achieves the baseline desire of a horror reboot: it’s fun, it’s scary, and it doesn’t trample all over a legacy.
Child’s Play is released in UK cinemas on 21 June
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