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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Child's Play (July 2019)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Meet Kaslan Corporation’s new AI-powered, cloud-based, fully interactive children’s doll: Buddi.

Friends to the end.

The Internet of Playthings

Even if you’ve somehow managed to go all this time without seeing the original Child’s Play (1988) or any of its six sequels, it’s still a safe bet that you’ve heard of Chucky and are familiar with the basic idea: doll kills, terror and hilarity ensue. Given this rather basic source material, the new Child’s Play is a surprisingly ambitious movie. That alone makes it worth watching, even if it ends up feeling muddled in its execution. The original had one impossible but simple ask for us: believe that a serial killer trained in occult mysticism was able to transfer his soul into a doll’s body. This reboot replaces the elegance of that one overtly supernatural idea with a multiplicity of semi-plausible ones: what if in the near future a corporation named Kaslan monopolized the market in interconnected devices, ranging from small household appliances to self-driving cars, and one of its workers hacked the code to one of its AI’s without triggering other safeties, and pretty much everyone in this future, even folks enduring economic hardship, made use of these technologies, and the AI was exposed to graphic violence and emotional trauma, and so on and so forth?

The original movie was a silly but unrepentant horror flick. It acknowledged the absurdity of its conceit, but was soberly made, influenced more by the sensibility of directors like Alfred Hitchcock than by the stylings of the then-popular slasher flicks. This new vision works best as a dark comedy, but is conflicted about its science fiction and horror elements, and gets bogged down by over-explaining itself to the viewer.

While the directing and cinematography are slick, narrative suspense is intermittent. Proto-Chucky was scary because it quickly demonstrated abilities, namely agile motility, far beyond its fashioning. This Chucky doesn’t actually do anything outside of what it technically can, since it is animated and fully connected by design. That said, I found the new doll look, though absurdly retro-anachronistic, more thoroughly creepy and seductively charming than its filmic progenitor. The greater range of facial expressions, combined with Mark Hamill’s incredibly fine-tuned voice performance, suggest a poignant sensitivity that I wish we’d seen more of. The death scenes themselves are also praiseworthy: creatively staged, they’re perfect throwbacks to 80s chillers. A memorably grotesque sequence involving a gift goes on for a surreal amount of time.

Horror aficionados and fans of the original will spot a number of cool Easter eggs. I’m just going to mention one. Did you notice that shot showing a poster of Poltergeist III (also out in 1988) on one of the walls in Andy’s room? This might seem like an esoterically specific reference, until we remember that the composer for the original Child’s Play was Joe Renzetti, who also scored… you guessed it, Poltergeist III. I bring this up because I think Bear McCreary deserves special recognition for his musical contribution to this reboot. His score pays tribute to Renzetti’s, and to child-centric horror scores in general. It also provides genuine pathos during scenes otherwise light in affect, and welcome adrenaline during the movie’s scares. Check out McCreary’s delightfully zany video for the movie’s main theme; this pretty much sums up what you’re in for.

Are We Having Fun Now? – Spoilers Ahead

Mark Hamill shares in this interview that Lars Klevber, the director, wrote him a letter explaining his vision for this new movie as a kind of Greek tragedy. The focus here is on an innocent doll whose safety features have been removed, rather than on the possession of a doll’s body by a serial killer. In the original movie, our sympathy as viewers clearly lay with Andy, his mom Karen and her friend Maggie, and to some extent the detective working the case, who paired up quite effectively with Karen in the movie’s second half. This reboot flips things around by trying to make Chucky—an A.I. initially maligned by its programmer and subsequently exposed to adult material and experiences beyond its ability to process—the object of our sympathy. This mostly works in the first third, because the secondary characters Chucky disposes of, most notably Karen’s slimy boyfriend Shane (David Lewis), and the creepy building janitor Gabe (Trent Redekop), are painted in broadly repellent strokes. As Chucky’s murders shift to characters not so morally rancid, however, such as the neighbor Doreen (Carlease Burke), the film tries to sustain our empathy by emphasizing Chucky’s desperation and possessiveness about the boy upon whom he has “imprinted.” A couple of factors work against this transition.

For one, even while the movie’s storyline becomes more explicitly tragic, its tone remains mostly farcical and jokey. Gruesome deaths are accompanied by humorous one-liners and the escalating violence, especially the Zed Mart massacre, is partially played for laughs, such as when the employee wearing the giant Buddi hat is stabbed in the throat by Chucky and ends up gushing blood all over a little girl’s face. The directing and editing signal mounting tension, sure, but there’s no revving up of the emotional stakes. Another element that undermines the film’s climactic drama is the abundance of underdeveloped characters. From Andy’s friends Pug, Jane, and Omar to the endearingly friendly but vaguely incompetent Detective Mike, there are too many bodies running around for us to feel much when they end up contributing to the death count. Which brings us to Karen herself, the motivational driver of Andy’s final heroic struggle against Chucky. Karen’s character in this movie is that of a struggling single mom who doesn’t make good choices and doesn’t appear to be a very responsible parent. Unlike the original Karen, who was kind and consistently loving towards her son (remember that mess he made when preparing breakfast, and how she didn’t get upset at all?), this Karen is mean to customers at her job, blackmails a coworker to get her son the refurbished Buddi, encourages Andy to go out and talk to some random kids on the street in what doesn’t appear to be a particularly safe neighborhood, and is condescending towards Chucky in a private moment simply because it’s in her nature. Aubrey Plaza’s quirky, sardonic performance supports this Karen 2.0, but I feel like the character’s lack of emotional vulnerability and recurring sarcasm keep us at an arm’s length from her.

Then too, the bond between Andy and Chucky is here more easily severed because this Andy didn’t want this Buddi in the first place. Karen jokes about him being too old for this gift, and he approaches the smart doll with skepticism. In the original, the boy craved the toy, and developed a substantial emotional relationship with it, which made it that much more upsetting when he realized what his new best friend and confidante truly was. Charles Lee Ray was simply irreducible evil and operated outside the ordinary laws of nature. Here evil is demystified by reducing it variously to political commentary on labor exploitation (the disgruntled worker who hacks the code), social commentary on violence in entertainment (Chucky being influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), and the perils of overreliance on technology (Andy gravitates towards Buddi because he has a hard time making real friends; smart homes are death traps; and so on). Further, new Chucky’s heinous crimes are too heavily foreshadowed with lingering close-ups when it witnesses something that affects its behavior and with the tired trope of red glowing eyes. Some of its violent acts feel like retreads of set pieces from other recent movies: the killing of the cat recalls the butchering of the dog in The Prodigy; murder by self-driving car brings to mind Upgrade, etc.

All things considered, this reimagined Child’s Play manages to butcher its way to a respectable position in the incredibly vast pantheon of killer doll movies. It animates the legend of the golem from which so many of these stories derive with high-tech sparks. Ultimately, though, its impact is diminished by its lack of focus and concision. Despite heartfelt intentions, inventive gore and macabre laughs, this one is more animatronic than alive.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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