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Old 08-30-2008, 08:25 AM
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Child's Play: Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition





Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: August 30, 2008

Released by: MGM/Fox
Release date: 09/09/2008
MSRP: $14.98
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes



People would slap you in the face if you tried to tell them that Child’s Play, that movie with the killer doll, was actually a detective thriller. Indeed that’s how it was setup and conceived, that’s even the movie the lead, Catherine Hicks, thought she was making. It wasn’t until the public got hold of it, and all the parallels with the equally inexplicable Cabbage Patch Doll craze, that Chucky was thrust front and center. The videocassette release proclaimed “Chucky did it!” with his freckled mug front and center on the cover. It’s no surprise, then, that the sequels abandoned the car chases and moody cityscapes to focus front and center on that red headed piece of plastic.

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It’s been twenty years now (really?) and Chucky’s both a household name and a horror icon. Universal’s made a habit of repackaging the sequels every other Halloween, but ever since Child’s Play humbly made its way to DVD in 1999, that’s been it. Barebones and full frame, the debut of one of horror’s biggest names has been quietly neglected by United Artists. Finally though, Charles strolls into special edition thanks to Fox’s partnership with MGM. It’s now time, once more, to revisit that moody street drama that just happens to have an animatronic doll in it. Let’s give Child’s a play.


The Story


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Chucky runs around terrorizing people, right? Well, yes and no. You’ll have to wait for that. First we get a cop chase through downtown Chicago. Frizzy-haired and armed, Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) runs through slummy streets in a bid to lose detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), who’s hot on his trail. Ray ends up breaking into a toy store, but he’s no match for sharp shooter Norris. Norris shoots and scores, leaving Ray in desperation for his final breaths. He falls into a giant stack of Good Guys dolls, and with a little creativity and some black magic, transports his soul into the doll moments before being shot dead. Clouds form above and lightning strikes, but this Frankenstein is a whole lot smaller than you’d think.


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Okay, now Chucky’s gonna rip shit up, right? Enter Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), a well to do single mother just trying to make ends meet in the big city. She’s got a good friend beside her to stick through all the hardship she faces at her job between overtime and an uncompromising boss. It’s the birthday of her son Andy (Alex Vincent), and if there’s one thing in the world he wants, it’s a Good Guys doll. Of course, they’re all sold out, but lucky for her there’s a homeless guy behind the perfume shop with one carefully placed in his shopping cart. She gets a…killer deal on it, and instantly the doll’s a huge hit with Andy. Too big of a hit, perhaps. Andy starts talking to Chucky as if he were real, and Karen and her friends start to wonder if Andy’s compensating for his lack of a father figure. Then, all of a sudden, Karen’s friend turns up dead.


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Oh yeah, Chucky’s got it going now. Nope. Norris is brought in to investigate and immediately suspects Andy for the accidental apartment plunge. Sigh. It isn’t until the half way mark that Chucky finally outs himself to the audience, blowing up the crack house of an unfaithful colleague. Norris continues to play detective, meanwhile, and Karen continues to cry her way to Oscar acclaim. Still though, Chucky trudges on, and while the body count may be feeble for slashers, for a doll it’s not that bad. Chucky doesn’t want to kill Andy, though, he wants to swap bodies. Will Charles Lee Ray thrive once more, or will Crockett, err, Norris, make his day?


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Child’s Play is one of those weird movies, like Friday the 13th before it, that didn’t understand its main draw until the sequels. It’s because of this that it’s both parts puzzling and subtle. Puzzling in its reliance on bombastic action set pieces, with exploding stores, imploding houses, slow motion stunts and lengthy car chases and subtle in the way it slowly develops Chucky into the menace he is at the finale. Of course the latter seems more an oversight now, since they underestimated Chucky’s popularity in favor of appealing to adults with more action-oriented plotting. Considering how Chucky is front and center in the slasher formula of the sequels, all the action and family drama in Child’s Play makes for interesting viewing.

Since the film thinks itself more a detective thriller than a horror film, the cinematography is disappointingly generic in the typical realist aesthetic that defined most cop movies of the era from Bronson to Seagal. This works okay for the inner-city stuff, but once we get a doll creeping around bedposts and being lit on fire, the look doesn’t really know what to do with itself.


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Director Tom Holland (Fright Night) seems as equally confused about his storytelling in the way he teeters between questioning Andy’s sanity and playing on the dramatic irony of the audience knowing Chucky’s the killer when nobody else does. It’s pretty obvious from the opening ritual that the doll is possessed, but Holland takes great lengths to try to deny that fact to the audience. Andy talks to Chucky on screen, but Chucky doesn’t talk back. The camera zooms in on Chucky’s doll eyes for a response, but nothing happens. Karen’s friend gets a hammer to the face, but those look like Andy’s footprints. Now, the original “Blood Buddy” script reputedly played out the question of Andy’s sanity since it did not have the possessive elements of the introduction. A few re-writes later though, it comes off as confused and ill-conceived, like Holland wasted 45-minutes on a revelation that was obvious from the introduction.

Writer Don Mancini has always been quick to state how he intended the film as a subtle satire of the capitalistic Cabbage Patch Kids craze, but why then does the film slovenly conform to those same capitalistic values? Having Hicks buy the doll from a homeless man on the black market works as some sort of reinforcement for big business – go outside the system and the results could be deadly. By horror movie logic, that’s grounds for punishment. What would have been much more effective, and subversive, would be if she would have bought the doll right off the shelf of your average department store. For to do that would suggest that everyone is the victim when it comes to hype, not just the people conforming illegally.


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The finale is similarly frustrating in that at first it seems progressive, with the tough guy cop rendered immobile in the bedroom, while mother and son fend off the villain. It says something about the power of the family unit, how, with love and trust, that patriarch is not needed to make the system complete. But when it comes time to finally kill Chucky for the last time, Holland leaves it stereotypically for the guy with the gun. For a movie able to think broadly enough to bring a doll to life, you’d think they’d be able to think outside the box when it came to social values, plot and cinematography.


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I’m being hard on the little firecrotch, though. Brad Dourif makes for a truly menacing presence even off-screen and coupled with the amazing animatronic work by Kevin Yagher and co., Chucky’s truly a childhood nightmare come to life. Alex Vincent deserves equal praise for his performance as Andy – truly one of the best child performances in the genre, convincing at every turn and, in that monumental correctional facility breakdown, even heart wrenching. There’s no wonder why they brought him back over the scene-chewing Hicks. Before the patriarchy police kick in at the end, the finale too deserves kudos for really piling on the intensity. There’s some great, tense moments there.

All in all, though, Child’s Play is a ho hum action drama with a great horror villain waiting in the wings. It’s a long wait for the killer doll goods, and even when Chucky’s unleashed the film seems more interested in dramatic irony than mining scares. There’s no question that Chucky is a classic horror character, but is Child’s Play a classic horror film? No way.



Image Quality

It’s been nine years since Chucky’s been in the telecine, and the good news is that now he’s finally anamorphic. The previous MGM transfer was open matte, and while this is definitely preferable to pan and scan, it left compositions too loose and vacant. Considering how uninspired the cinematography is, believe me, the tighter the better. The tighter framing actually works quite well for the finale, isolating those close-ups of Chucky’s rotting face or Andy’s scared eyes to their bare essentials.

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The bad news, is that aside from the extra bit of resolution offered by anamorphic enhancement, this transfer isn’t all that different from the previous. Colors are slightly more realistic, you can see this in the peach coloring of the skin as opposed to the red that shows up occasionally in the previous transfer. Same thing too with the blues, with the big city looking much more flattering in the new mix. There’s a bit more detail too, evident in the shot of Chucky’s eye emerging from the smoke, but again, it’s only a minor improvement. There are still some scenes here that look quite grainy, and black levels never seem to be deep enough.

Make no mistake, it’s a nice upgrade and definitely a deal sealer for those who don’t yet own the film, but after seeing how far the transfer business has come in the last nine years, it can’t help but feel a little underwhelming.


Sound

The sound gets a new upgrade with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but keeps the original 2.0 track for the purists. This new mix is like the video, a modest improvement, but nothing really to write home about. There’s still the directional separation between the left and right, but you’ll have to listen long and hard to find any movement in the rear speakers. The bass gets a decent workout during all those bombastic chase and explosion scenes, and the climax has a decent bit of punch at the end, but overall it feels more like a 2.1 track than it does full our five channel.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageI had a blast with all the inventive extras that came with Seed of Chucky, and while this new special edition is nowhere near as clever, it still definitely delivers the goods. There’s no shortage of supplements – three commentaries, six featurettes, and a bunch of promo material, but even with all this the extras never get repetitive. Don Mancini and producer David Kirschner start things off with energy with their group commentary. There’s a lot of laughs and a lot of information, with Mancini filled with funny observations, impressive film knowledge and a number of solid questions that fuels Kirschner for the bits that he’s not talking. The next commentary with actors Alex Vincent and Catherine Hicks as well as Hick’s husband, and the man behind the doll, Kevin Yagher. Yagher and Hicks were naturally recorded together, but Vincent was separate, and the two tracks have been edited together quite effectively. It’s really nice hearing from Vincent, since child actors tend to get overlooked when it comes to supplements these days. The good thing is that Vincent really remembers a lot, and really has a lot to say. Hicks and Yagher have fun together, and the three different vantage points on the making of the film really make for another informative track.

The last commentary is more of a joke, with Brad Dourif in character as Chucky commenting on four select scenes. It’s a fun continuation of the character, even if it’s sort of one note. He talks on everything from the film business to murder, so in a way it’s a nice continuation of Seed of Chucky. Too bad the series is going into remake mode now, though.

inline ImageOn to the featurettes, there’s three new ones packaged together that look at the film from pre-production, production and finally its legacy. Each one runs around six minutes, and features interviews with all the commentary participants as well as Chris Sarandon and a number of other crew members. The noticeable exclude is Tom Holland. Note to Fox: Getting the director for extras might be a good idea. Still, Mancini is without a doubt the father of this franchise, so not having Holland is not a total loss. Each of the three featurettes are well edited (maybe a bit too edited) and basically a nice abridged version of the commentaries.

inline ImageThe “Chucky: Building a Nightmare” featurette looks at all the effects work used to bring Chucky to life. There’s some great vintage footage of Yagher and co. on set 20 years ago, and even some new insight from Tom Savini. It runs under ten minutes and thanks to Yagher’s open book insight to the craft and all the behind-the-scenes footage, it’s another great look. The last of the new supplements is “Monster Convention”, which is a five minute Q&A at a fan convention with Alex Vincent, Chris Sarandon and Catherine Hicks. Convention extras are often my favorite, since nobody knows the questions the fans want answered more than the fans, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s a little short, but still, definitely interesting.

inline ImageThere’s also a vintage featurette, “Introducing Chucky: The Making of Child’s Play” that runs about six minutes and is more effects focused than your typical EPK. Tom Holland starts it off with his take on the story, and David Kirschner also weighs in with an impressive eighties beard and mullet. It’s sort of dry and predictable, but a nice vintage look at how movies like this were sold back then. The other promotional materials you’d expect – a photo gallery and the trailer, are also included, in addition to a few trailers for other current Universal horror flicks. Those who dig will also find three eye opening easter eggs. All I can say is if they go that route for Chucky in the remake, I'll probably cry.

There’s a lot of supplements to wade through here, but thankfully it’s all worth it. On their work on the supplements, I’ve got to say…Good Guys.


Final Thoughts

Child’s Play is an interesting start for our little killer doll icon, not because it’s a great film, but more because it’s not the one you’d expect. It’s more a cop drama that only finds its successful horror footing for the perfectly puppetted climax. The rest is more average than anything. The video and audio restorations here are at least slightly above average, but aren’t quite the leap one would expect in this day of digital restoration. The supplements though, are a real treat, with information and entertainment hand in hand throughout. The makers of these Chucky films always have so much to talk about – Universal, special editions for Child’s Play 2 and Child’s Play 3 are calling out to you! Chucky’s a horror staple, and even if the film isn’t quite worthy of the legend, this is a disc that all horror fans should have in their collection for historical purpose alone. Happy birthday, Chucky!

Rating

.
Movie - B-

Image Quality - B

Sound - B+

Supplements - A-




Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour and 27 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English Dolby Surround 2.0
  • Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0
  • French Dolby Surround 2.0
  • French subtitles
  • French subtitles

Supplements
  • 3 audio commentaries
  • 5 new featurettes
  • 1 vintage featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Universal trailers
  • Still gallery
  • Easter eggs

 

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Old 08-30-2008, 01:52 PM
Stalker
Did you find the 3 easter eggs?
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Old 08-30-2008, 06:01 PM
Moderator
Yeah, the eggs were a nice touch, although it just has me fearing what's going to happen for the CHILD'S PLAY remake.
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Old 09-01-2008, 09:58 AM
Chucky
Stalker
I don't know...

I always found the first one to be the best...

I mean, it had some amazing set pieces and some classic scenes.

Each sequel just got dumber.
 
 
Old 09-01-2008, 02:05 PM
Victim
I agree, the Army one made me want to puke and don't get me going on John freaking Ritter!
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Old 09-02-2008, 12:42 AM
I'm glad this one is finally getting a decent DVD release. The first 2 in the series were by far the best, with the later films going the way of the NOES series by becoming more humorous than scary.
 
 

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