Child’s Play, Chucky, and the Case for Horror Movie Sequels

Picture this: you are a teen, and your local library has just gotten rid of the charge to borrow movies, which adds up to a considerable combined number of DVDs and VHS tapes in weathered red cases. Also, your parents have more or less given up policing your media viewing habits because all their energy is now invested into the process of divorce and its related squabbles over whose weekend is which. You do the obvious thing: you test the boundaries, watching whatever you weren’t really supposed to before. Horror movies, for one, if you have been particularly sheltered.

And to impose some order on the process, you stick to consensus. You check out the seminal, respected horror films, the ones that got re-evaluated after initially tepid receptions and were eventually included in the broader film “canon.” The sequels, however, remain disreputable and disliked, and thus safely ignorable. You go on like that for a while, until you eventually (and rather belatedly) develop a healthy suspicion of these things called “consensus” and “canon.” 

In this way, I eventually discovered something earnestly compelling about horror movie sequels; even the bad ones embrace a kind of desperate creativity that makes them rewarding to discover. The poster child for this phenomenon, I’d argue, is the red-headed killer doll Chucky, who began his diminutive rampage in 1988’s Child’s Play as a murderous toy housing the soul of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). The Child’s Play series does not have the same quantity of sequels as other horror franchises, nor does it have the largest cultural footprint, but it is unique for its reasonable consistency and recent resurgence, which has manifested not only two direct-to-video sequels (2013’s Curse of Chucky and 2017’s Cult of Chucky) but a TV series (currently airing as of this writing and called simply Chucky) as well as a reboot made without the original creators (2019’s Child’s Play).

Child's Play
Child’s Play

Choking Hazard

As a character, Chucky is known primarily for his goofy concept. There is an innate comedy to a rogue Cabbage Patch Kid toddling around the house, doing gruesome murders while spewing profanity in the voice of a grown man. He is a forward-facing personality akin to Freddy Krueger, easier to latch onto than the more silent slashers whom we know through simple iconography like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.

But this comedy also belies the bleak heart of the concept. Chucky, ridiculous character with a ridiculous continuity though he may be, leaves genuine turmoil in his wake. There is no incitement of desired revenge, as with Jason ostensibly avenging his mother or Freddy targeting the kids of the people who burned him alive. Chucky arrives in the home of young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) through simple and cruel misfortune, his single mom buying this particular doll off a street merchant because that’s the best option her income allows. The consequences are dire: Andy becomes an innocent party to various murders and, in the second film, ends up in foster care because his mother has been institutionalized for her tall tales about a sentient killer toy, who inevitably tracks Andy down once more. By Child’s Play 3, Andy has nowhere to go but military school. This darker thread largely goes away as Andy mercifully exits the picture and middle films like Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky grow more overtly comedic, but it comes back again in the newer direct-to-video films and the TV series.

At a glance, we might attribute any consistency to a highly unusual move for a long-running franchise: the entire original series of seven films and now the TV show has been shepherded by original creator Don Mancini. Even as the franchise has been retooled across mediums and experimented with subject matter and different balances of comedy and horror, Mancini’s voice provides a dependable perspective and sensibility, having written every entry in the series and directed the last three himself. Without needing to uneasily accommodate or outright erase what other writers have done, the Chucky movies feature none of the messy cleanup most infamously seen in Halloween, which boasts three separate continuities that all take different films as canon (or, if you count the remakes, four).

Friends ‘Til The End

But for as surprisingly sturdy as the Chucky continuity may be, it’s not necessarily revolutionary or unique in that regard. It is simply the most successful fulfillment of the promise inherent to a horror sequel, which engages with a general anxiety that the horror can never really be over. Films in the genre tend to have ambiguous or downbeat conclusions, commonly upending any apparent triumph through a last-minute stinger once the audience is lulled into a false sense of security. Sometimes these are imagined fears, like the hand shooting out of the rubble in Carrie, and sometimes they are quite real, revealing that the characters’ plan didn’t work or entirely defying logic altogether—the end of Friday the 13th is famously nonsense, inserting one final scare courtesy of the presumed-dead young Jason, who would go on to beef up, don a hockey mask, and serve as the entire franchise’s resident terrorizer of rather old-looking teens.

Unambiguous triumph, after all, is hardly scary. Effective horror must leave scars and lingering paranoia; it must follow us home. Both the stinger and the sequel effectively rebel against the confines of a mainstream film structure, where audiences demand some kind of finality so that we feel like we’ve had our money’s worth. They assert that the terror can and will continue, as either a memory or a renewed physical threat, and we (quite surprisingly) do not protest. We expect it, and we embrace it.

Halloween II, for example, finds Laurie Strode hospitalized but still pursued by Michael Myers, a detail replicated as an extended nightmare sequence in director Rob Zombie’s 2009 remake, which dives deepest into the miserable aftermath. Ring 2 explores the first film’s side characters and the way psychic pain reverberates outward, while Cult of Chucky depicts the institutionalization of the prior film’s protagonist, Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif, whose character is not related to the one played by her father). In doing so, Cult follows what is essentially the trajectory of Andy Barclay’s mother rather than that of Andy himself, who returns in the film (played now by an adult Alex Vincent) and does things like torture the disembodied head of a Chucky doll to ease his own pain. Even the underrated, oft-dismissed, Jason-less Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning effectively traces the repercussions on Tommy Jarvis, who has grown from a child in Part IV into a haunted-looking, near-silent adult.

Seed of Chucky
Seed of Chucky

In Defense of the Martial Arts Stylings of Busta Rhymes

Certainly there are diminishing returns, as there will likely be for any brand primarily motivated by finding and contorting itself into some new form that’s still just as marketable, if not more so. On the whole, however, the resulting desperation to find a new story without being able to retread the same ground can force a downright captivating level of invention. Horror sequels follow dangling threads that have been ignored (and in many cases might have been better off if left that way), arriving at unexpected destinations and novel solutions. Halloween II hastily establishes that the baby present in the beginning of the previous film is, in fact, a subsequently adopted Laurie Strode, creating a recurring plot where Michael Myers specifically targets his living family members. From that initial nonsense springs further absurdity: a psychic niece, a druidic cult, a karate kick delivered by Busta Rhymes in an alternate continuity. 

The Elm Street sequels further explore the kids taking control of their nightmares, gaining dream powers to combat Freddy, culminating eventually in an antagonist who enters the real world via the perpetual sleep of a baby as well as a town where the adults have all gone mad after the systematic deaths of all the children. Quality (and actual scare factor) aside, the ideas in better horror sequels are hardly boring. Perhaps most fascinating of all, sequels show horror franchises responding to themselves. They acknowledge the ways that we end up relating to and even rooting for the monsters over time, as fright gives way to familiarity.

Like sequels themselves, these responses ping-pong between totally sensible and bafflingly misguided. Though Pinhead is the character on the posters for the first two Hellraiser films, he doesn’t really become the franchise’s conspicuous center until the third film, at which point some variant of the phrase “come to daddy” has become a confounding hallmark of the series. And despite the overall consistency of the Chucky films, the more muted reception for the extremely silly Seed of Chucky led to the later Curse adopting a more back-to-basics approach, albeit without wiping out continuity — Chucky’s girlfriend, Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly), still technically occupies the body of actress Jennifer Tilly, a distinct character also played by Jennifer Tilly.

Remakes and soft reboots begin to seem truly redundant by comparison, and that monotonous, unadventurous feeling extends to brand-new films that follow a cut-and-dry structure where someone probably consults a paranormal expert played by a semi-recognizable character actor at some point. The Elm Street remake, for example, wastes so much time getting its anonymous characters to believe in the dream-killer concept, despite also replicating many of the original’s iconic scenes for the apparent benefit of the people who will also have the least patience for all the perfunctory table-setting. By contrast, where but a grasping-at-straws sequel will Hellraiser’s demonic puzzle cube turn out to be a satellite orbiting a future Earth? What’s the fun of Saw if it isn’t sweating to write itself out of the narrative corner that results from killing off Jigsaw in the third movie?

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Child's Play
Child’s Play (2019)

Software Update

The 2019 remake of Child’s Play fares marginally better, updating the character into more of a rogue AI with technology-based powers. However, it stubbornly clings to an approximation of the classic Chucky design, which makes little sense in a modern context attached to an ostensibly modern toy, save for the fact that it’s the brand’s most recognizable feature. 

Mancini, on the other hand, can reliably portray Chucky as a relic of yesteryear, carried from the shelves of the 80s toy store to the table of a present-day garage sale. And while crafting a story still largely accessible to newcomers, the TV series is able to further explore themes that have been present throughout the entire series. In early episodes, Chucky functions similarly to Mancini’s original script for the first Child’s Play, where the doll was a conduit for Andy’s rage. The TV series places Chucky in the care of Jake (Zackary Arthur), a gay teen bullied at school, positioning the killer doll as another reckoning with a changing sense of self, literalized here via explicitly queer identity. This idea extends to a continued plot point from Cult of Chucky, where Chucky now possesses the body of Nica Pierce and resumes his relationship with Tiffany (and in addition to portraying Charles Lee Ray within Nica’s body, Fiona Dourif portrays him in flashbacks with the aid of prosthetics and vocal dubbing).

Perhaps the show’s most impressive feat is in making this by-now familiar character, who has made multiple appearances in the world of professional wrestling, feel genuinely threatening again by the simple fact of who he murders. Instead of disposable and interchangeable teens like a traditional slasher, he kills people fully entangled within the characters’ lives, leaving incalculable damage by ripping friends and parents away. The teens are all played by age-appropriate child actors, lending a genuinely uncomfortable dimension to the actions Chucky nudges them towards and the carnage that ensues.

So much modern horror swings for respectability, loudly declaring Themes and/or riding the crest of reverent nostalgia through extensive homage that treats older films as sacred text. It seeks to correct past mistakes, walking back how so many concepts were diluted through trashy sequels and general overexposure. Through Chucky, however, we can observe the virtues of a long-running story. And when we look beyond just this series and through piles of other horror material long since dismissed, we discover the sense of the unexpected that brought us here in the first place, even if it no longer scares us very much anymore.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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