With Chucky, Child’s Play creator Don Mancini picks up where his 2017 film Cult of Chucky left off, seeding references from the various films in the long-running franchise about a crimson-haired killer doll without getting mired in concerns over continuity. The four episodes of the SyFy series that were provided to press initially take something of a back-to-basics approach to what has become a very strange mythos, opting for a gruesome and surprisingly insightful coming-of-age story.
Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) is a quiet kid who makes sculptures from doll parts. His mother is dead and he’s stuck in a state of withdrawal, a situation complicated by his dad, Lucas (Devon Sawa), a grizzled mechanic who makes little effort to understand his son. Lucas emphatically doesn’t want to accept that his son is gay, a sore spot that Jake’s smug cousin, Junior (Teo Briones), intentionally pokes during a family dinner. What’s more, the mayor’s snooty daughter, Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), ridicules Jake’s comparative poverty by setting up a GoFundMe for him and the retro doll that he brings to school one day.
Jake’s sculptures seem to be an earnest expression of his inner turmoil rather than the creepy art of a proto-serial killer, but they don’t exactly help his case when accidents start befalling the people who’ve made his life miserable. Obviously, at least to us, the real culprit is Chucky, the talking doll possessed by notorious serial killer and voodoo appropriator Charles Lee Ray (voiced by Brad Dourif) that Jake bought at a yard sale. And though Chucky is more than willing to get his tiny hands dirty, he’s also the devil on Jake’s shoulder, encouraging the kid to follow his diminutive lead. After all, every child needs a role model.
The show’s most surprising angle is that, while we understand and sympathize with Jake’s situation, he’s not all that hard to sway toward violence. He’s full of anger and pain that he hasn’t learned how to deal with except through art nobody seems to like. Chucky retains a lot of the silly humor inherent to the premise of a surly killer doll, but it can also be quite unsettling as it depicts Jake slowly goaded into violence against his classmates.
In the context of a genre whose victims tend to at least be old enough to drive, Jake and his peers all look quite young, and that informs our understanding of the thoughtless cruelty they sometimes display toward one another. They retain the solipsistic impulsiveness that is common to children but are simultaneously old enough for the consequences of their actions to be quite grave, especially if stoked by some malevolent figure. A death sentence seems extreme in this context in a way that would not be the case for, say, your average slasher movie about lusty teens conspicuously played by actors in their 20s.
By focusing so heavily on the human characters’ interiority, and to a degree that the Child’s Play films have never made the time for, Chucky might easily have crowded out its title character and his elaborate horrors in the process. And yet each episode incorporates murders that alternate between gruesomely creative and formally playful, including a roving toy’s eye POV shot of Chucky shoving a housekeeper into an open dishwasher full of knives. Another episode cuts between the present day and a flashback to Charles Lee Ray’s childhood, connecting the two via one of the show’s breathy, on-the-nose music cues.
It would be remiss not to mention that Mancini and executive producer Nick Antosca are alumni of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. The Chucky and Jake dynamic certainly has echoes of that series—that is, if Will Graham had been a troubled teen and Hannibal had been a foul-mouthed doll. In this, Chucky walks a fascinating tonal tightrope as a funny, absurd series that engenders sympathy as well as shock for characters who are more than worthy of our derision. It creates a world of malleable, alienated kids failed to varying degrees by their parents, and then it expresses the danger of what they find once they’re pushed away.