"Child's Play" Review - (Non-Spoiler)
Remakes of 1980s horror movies have had something like a 0% success rate. If that's not enough to give somebody pause before green-lighting a remake of the 1988 paranormal slasher movie Child's Play, there are plenty of other red flags waving themselves. For one thing, the 31-year-old franchise is still going strong: series creator and guardian just oversaw the very solid seventh Child's Play feature, Cult of Chucky, in 2017, and he's developing a limited TV series continuing the story, set to premiere in 2020. For another, perhaps more importantly, it's not really exactly the case that Child's Play has the kind of iconography you need for a successful remake. The concept - a doll kills people - is neither original nor, if I may say so, terribly compelling; the look of the killer doll isn't a good synecdoche for the series as Jason Voorhees of Michael Myers's masks are, given how reliant it is on the puppeteers, and any remake would have to redesign the doll anyway. Insofar as the first film works, it works mostly because of the vocal performance of Brad Dourif, and of course, he's still sticking with Mancini. Take away all of that, and what even could be appealing about a new Child's Play for 2019?
Consider me suitably amazed and chagrined, then, that the selfsame new "Child's Play" for 2019 turns out to be a heck of a lot of fun, a more than worthy modernization of the original film that understands what slasher films are all about as well as any film from the 2010s has. As written by Tyler Burton Smith, it's a pretty thorough revision to the original movie: honestly, if the character names and the title weren't there, it might not even seem like a shameless rip-off of Child's Play, let alone a remake. This time around, the killer doll is not the dwelling place of the soul of a notorious serial killer who used voodoo magic to prevent himself from dying; in fact, the doll doesn't technically have a personality at all. Instead, it is a highly complicated electronic toy fulfilling its programming to the best of its abilities. The problem is that, as once prophesied by The Simpsons, somebody switched it to "evil" at the factory.
In fact, one of the more notably interesting things about this new Child's Play is how ably it picks up specifically 2019-ish concerns to replace the specifically 1988-ish concerns addressed y the original. In a time of paranoia about stranger danger and Satanist daycare workers, a story about a serial killer using black magic to torment a child was right in line with the Zeitgeist. The new film instead starts with an abused Vietnamese worker, ground to a pulp by the ravages of international capitalism, sabotaging a Kaslan Buddi doll as an act of defiance right before killing himself. And what it is a Kaslan Buddi doll? Well, Kaslan is basically a more square version of Apple, a manufacturer of every kind of Internet of Things gewgaw imaginable, and Buddi is their line of lifelike, but oh-so-creepy-looking two-foot-tall computerized dolls who can interact with every other Kaslan device. Basically, if someone was trying to sell Alexa directly to children, and doing it in the form of a homunculus so viscerally unappealing, it could only be the result of corporate designers. So we have concerns about the unchecked damage of globalism leading off into a film about whether we've let computers into our lives too much. Sounds like 2019 to me.
And that's even before we meet our protagonists, single mom Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) and her junior high-aged son Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Karen has been working herself into a lather trying to save up enough money to replace Andy's failing hearing aids; her job is at a Kaslan company store getting ready for the upcoming rollout of the Buddi 2 line. This puts her in a good place to *ahem* reappropriate a defective Buddi toy, presenting it to Andy as a combination "happy birthday"/"sorry about this shitty new neighborhood and apartment we just moved to" present. The doll is glitchy, erratically responding to Andy's commands, calling itself "Chucky" without prompting, and interpreting its primary mission to make the boy happy a bit too seriously - when a tween gets to complaining about how everyone in his life sucks, and it would be better if they were all dead, a simple bit of rudimentary A.I. that has had the "don't commit murder" subroutines turned off isn't going to stop to consider the difference between a request and a bit of rhetorical whining, after all.
We're a long way from the sarcastic shitheel version of Chucky brought to life by Dourif; this Chucky is really just an over-literal computer program of a sort familiar from so many Star Trek episodes and other cautionary sci-fi tales. The interesting twist is that it has been programmed to have an ingratiating, wheedling tone of voice, which when covered in blood and trained by tweens to mindlessly quip before performing various brutal acts, turns into a kind of horribly shrill version of a slasher movie jokester. The best decision - out of a surprising number of good decisions - that the filmmakers made here was to hire Mark Hamill as the voice of the new Chucky: he brings a wonderful sociopathic flatness to the part, removing all the self-satisfied effect of his phenomenal Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, but holding onto the creepy tendency to amusement where it shouldn't exist. As a simulation of a personality turned into something desperate and psychopathic, Hamill is just as great as Dourif was at playing a scummy murderous jerk.
Getting Chucky right was the first necessary hurdle (and I'd argue that even his off-putting design is part of that - he's hideously inexpressive compared to even the earliest version of the Kevin Yagher Chucky design, but it works for the story's portrayal of the character as a fundamentally wrong-headed, ill-advised bit of tech has gone awry. There are other hurdles to clear, some of which I hadn't even thought of until the film cleared them; the most impressive of these is how the film handles tone. It's a funny movie, which isn't particularly surprising: most of the original Child's Play films at least glanced towards funniness, and two of them - Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky - are more comic than otherwise. It's more the way that Child's Play is funny that's impressive: the film completely understands that we know from the minute we sit down that the uncanny beast Chucky is going to kill people at some point, and so Smith and director Lars Klevberg (of the persistently-delayed Polaroid) lean into the black comedy potential of foreshadowing. And here, more than anything is where the film understands the pleasure of slasher movies. They are not scary, not in the least way sophisticated: they let the viewer see the exact outline of what is going to happen and watch the violence unfurl with a pleasant mixture of "oh, shit" and "oh, shit yeah" playing out. They are always garish and silly; the success of this particular film is in celebrating the silliness, rather than disguising it or hiding it.
And also, applying a great deal of blood to it. Child's Play earns its R-rating; there's quite a lot of stage blood throughout, and one death by rototiller that would have been impressive in even the goriest film of the '80s. It's not necessarily done as gross-out humor; when the film turns towards actual horror, it doesn't cling to comedy to blunt the impact of that horror. But it's also very much the kind of thing that would rather invite you to attend to the ingenuity of the staging and the impressive craftsmanship of the execution, instead of pretending that any of this is real or has any kind of stakes. It is exploitation trash, through and through, you understand. To be sure, the central performances (including the ubiquitous Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Mike Norris, making a real character and personality out of the stock "doubting cop" role) are lived-in and plausible; the commentary on our always-online lives is real if not necessarily developed more than at the edges. It's a tacky movie, designed for people to whom the phrase "death by rototiller" exerts at least some kind of appeal in and of itself. But it's made with such bright, playful energy, and such conviction that the garish joys of the slasher movie are worthy of good craftsmanship (this is a well-lit movie, with an absolutely terrific, "toy-style" score by Bear McCreary; the effects aren't seamless, but they get the job done), so breezily-paced in its 90 unbloated minutes, that I wonder if it's not the kind of thing that could make a slasher fan out of somebody who wasn't, to begin with. I'm going to give "Child's Play" a 7 out of 10.