Movies like Child’s Play make me nostalgic so long as I’m not actually watching them and being forced to assess the magic they’ve lost. In the case of this kiddie slasher pic, what ended up hitting the screens was so much more generic and tepid than what was initially imagined by gay horror screenwriter Don Mancini, so you’ll have to forgive me for resorting to a deflective personal diary.
I’m sure Child’s Play was far from the only film of its era sold as one of the great scareshows of all time. I remember TV commercials for the film using the old trick of showing people exiting the theater beside themselves with terror. Some man with a mullet grinning as he consoled his weeping girlfriend: “You wanted to come. You wanted to see it.” As an impressionable nine-year-old, the gimmicks were still new to me, and hence I allowed Child’s Play to enter my consciousness as the ultimate test for horror; indeed, the scariest movie of all time.
I had been tentatively making inroads into horror, which was already fast becoming my favorite genre, but hadn’t really moved far beyond the musty likes of Universal monster movies. I was even still reeling from my misguided exposure to Night of the Living Dead a year or two earlier. But by the time I finally got around to facing down Child’s Play, a rote thriller in which the soul of a serial killer inhabits a boy’s talking doll and kills two or three people, I’d either desensitized myself with a number of other, far scarier movies (likely) or discovered that it just wasn’t very scary to begin with. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that the Chucky movies didn’t really take off as a series until writer Don Mancini let his allegorical impulses surface post-Scream with Bride of Chucky and, later, Seed of Chucky (right up there with the It’s Alive movies for accurately suggesting parents’ fear their children might be gay).
In contrast, the first three movies were by-the-numbers slasher fare in which the homicidal force of evil didn’t attack through victims’ dreams (pace Freddy Krueger) but, rather, via their kneecaps. (Dee Snyder memorably scoffed about the series on some cable network horror countdown, “Just step on him!”) The second and third resorted to creative gore and gallows humor, but the original seemed to be aiming for pure terror and missing. Mancini has said his original script made the doll’s murderous impulses much more intertwined with the dark fantasies of children. Maybe he’ll get his chance to test out that theory when he remakes the film next year. Until then, Child’s Play is only a shade more terrifying than Teddy Ruxpin.