Bitter fanboys and Chucky purists be damned. Lars Klevberg’s controversial, updated-for-the-digital-era reboot of the Child’s Play series defies all the ugly pre-release buzz and delivers a lean and nasty ride. Sure, the absence of creator/screenwriter Don Mancini is palpable, and Brad Dourif’s legendary voice work remains untouchable. However, by eschewing 30 years of franchise baggage and lore and introducing a new concept, Klevberg creates his own standalone chiller that might just be better than Tom Holland’s 1988 original.
Klevberg changes Chucky’s backstory (voiced by Mark Hamill) by introducing him as a high-tech home appliance called “Buddi” – similar to Siri/Alexa, but in the form of a creepy red-headed doll that walks and talks. One of these toys lands in the hands of Karen (Aubrey Plaza) and her lonely, hearing-impaired son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) – unbeknownst to them, a disgruntled factory worker removed all of the safety/language/behaviour protocols, and Chucky starts to behave a little strangely. What starts out as the tale of an amusingly defective toy soon turns into a violent nightmare.
Removing the original’s soul-possession narrative is a risky move, but it pays off – there’s something inherently more believable about the notion of Chucky as an emotionally confused robot. The first three films in the series buy into their own hokey serial killer/voodoo premise and play it mostly with a straight face – even when Chucky was given more screen time and humorous one-liners in the sequels, they were still ultimately setting out to scare. It wasn’t until 1998’s Bride of Chucky and 2004’s Seed of Chucky that the franchise took a massive tonal shift and started veering towards intentionally campy meta-horror. Klevberg attempts to mix the more subtle attributes of those later films while harkening back to the genuine terror of the first three, and it all comes together quite nicely.
The film works in part because its world is thematically richer and emotionally complex. Plaza and Bateman have genuine mother-son chemistry, and Klevberg manages to say some thoughtful things about single parenting, AI, loneliness, bullying and consumerism, all without being too heavy-handed.
The new film also benefits from changing Andy’s age from six to 13, although some of the gruesome kills sit uneasily with the Goonies/Stranger Things vibe of the second half. There’s one particularly unfair death, but that’s the sign of a writer who knows what they’re doing – a good horror film reminds you that no one is safe, even the characters that don’t deserve to die.
Klevberg fills the screen with primary blues and reds, and achieves more than a handful of highly memorable shots – an almost ethereal moment with Andy and Chucky playing a board game is a standout. There are also a few playful callbacks to Holland’s 1988 film – Andy and his mother live in a building that looks strikingly similar to the Brewster Apartments from the original (although this was shot in Vancouver, standing in for Chicago).
The wild-eyed, mayhem-filled third act also produces some particularly unforgettable imagery, none of which will be spoiled here. Let’s just say it involves more people and operates on a much bigger scale than the other films, all while creating a deliriously chaotic tone.
When compared to other recent horror reboots, Child’s Play blows this year’s middle-of-the-road Pet Sematary out of the water, and stands confidently alongside David Gordon Green’s brilliant Halloween. Who would have guessed that by removing Chucky’s soul and turning him to a robot, he’d seem more alive than ever?
Child’s Play | Directed by Lars Klevberg (US 2019) with Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman. Starts July 18.
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