Saturday, May 11, 2013


I don't know how this escaped my attention five months ago, but better late than never...

On the occasion of the arrival of Texas Chainsaw 3D  in theaters this past January (the movie recently bowed on home video formats), critic Glenn Kenny decided it would be fun to put together a list of  "Horror Movie Franchises That Don't Suck." Any such enterprise is an almost unavoidable invitation to point out all the movies that the writer leaves out, but since Kenny was wise enough to forego including the Friday the 13th pictures I will stick to commenting (briefly) on what is actually on his list. Despite their being the obvious inspiration for this undertaking, I would argue first and foremost with inclusion of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies as qualifying for "Horror Franchises That Don't Suck" status-- it seems to me that, the first two excepted in the extreme, the Chainsaw series has pretty consistently sucked. (I haven't seen the newest 3D incarnation.)

And I was glad to see that Kenny cuts off the Halloween  movies after the undervalued part III ("Silver Shamrock!"), because parts IV through VIII (a.k.a. Halloween: Resurrection) were pretty much bottom feeders too.

However, no rational film fan, horror aficionado or not, would have much solid ground to stand on if she or he chose to argue against the presence of Hammer (their Dracula, Frankenstein and Quatermass films) and Universal (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and even the Abbott & Costello series) anchoring any list of this kind. 

As I paged to the last entry in Kenny's MSN slide show, I was very happy to see that he had made room among such august company for the Child's Play series. The first two movies are solid starter efforts (and big hits), while the third one amounts to a negligible cash grab hurried into production to quickly capitalize on the success of Child's Play 2. Parts four and five eschew the Child's Play label in the title, associating themselves more directly with writer Don Mancini's killer doll Chucky, and it's here where things begin to get really interesting.

Mancini's franchise, originally born of a satiric concept centered around the inescapable and invasive marketing of creepy children's toys in the '80s, really catches creative fire with director Ronny Yu's Bride of Chucky (1998), a movie which brings a very welcome baroque visual sensibility to the series (it was shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau, whose next project was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) that helps connect it directly to the Universal pictures it so directly references. The movie is ultimately a little too beholden to the late ‘80s teens-in-danger horror movie formula, but that’s not because Mancini isn’t attempting to divert the prescribed flow-- not entirely away from straight-up grue, of course, but certainly more toward another much more brazen tonal twist.

With the introduction of Tiffany (the marvelously inimitable Jennifer Tilly) as the girlfriend and eventual bride of Chucky, a.k.a. serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), the movie fulfills the great promise of horror movies as a warped prism through which to look on the world-- or in this case the world of movies. Bride of Chucky ultimately reveals itself as a full-throttle assault on the conventions of road pictures which are built entirely around the pursuit of romantic and/or domestic bliss. Chucky and Tiffany take it one step further, of course, and let us in on a well-known but oft-inaudibly-whispered secret the average Katherine Heigl-Gerard Butler meet-cute comedy tries to avoid— after the couple finally does get together, things sometimes go straight to hell. (Coincidentally, a young Heigl is one half of the teen team kidnapped by Chucky and Tiffany, devoted representatives of the film's humanoid romantic interest. Heigl’s entire movie career as a chick-flick icon could be viewed as a recoil from the crass humor and relative honesty embodied by her puppet costars, who alternate snarls and smooches with regular and apparently libidinous bloodletting.)

But it was 2004's Seed of Chucky, which Mancini directed (it was his first time behind the camera, after having written the previous four pictures), that like the aforementioned Halloween III: Season of the Witch really threw a monkey wrench into the expectations for yet another Chucky sequel. Mancini didn’t pull a bait-and-switch and leave Chucky out of the movie, like Carpenter and Hill did with Michael Meyers. Instead he fashioned Seed as not only another dissection of Hollywood convention—this time the earnestly angsty familial flagellations of Ordinary People are roasted on Mancini’s spit—but also of the entire cult of Hollywood celebrity. Mancini recruited Tilly to reprise not only her voice work as Tiffany, but also to star as the ambitious, petulant, egomaniacal actress “Jennifer Tilly,” resulting in one of the screen’s greatest and most fearless acts of self-lacerating parody. Fans of the series resisted in droves, smelling betrayal of the series’ slasher roots and rejecting Mancini’s move into outright comedy, while conveniently missing the fact that Seed of Chucky is plenty gory and horror-centric at its core. None of the sour audience reaction changed the fact, however, that what Mancini had delivered was one of the more audacious chapters in horror movie franchise history, stretching the restrictive casing of familiarity until it could hold no more, giggling like mad as the whole thing exploded all over the audience, its star and the system which helped bring it to life.

That said, Seed of Chucky is hardly a flippant, punk “fuck you” to fans of the series or to horror movie conventions. It plays with those conventions, sure, and it also delivers the scares-- just not precisely always on the expected beats. However, at its black little heart the movie is a twisted love letter to Hollywood that’s as close in spirit to Billy Wilder as it is to the slasher rule book-- if, that is, Wilder could have ever conceived of a plastic doll serial killer collecting a sperm sample, to be used in the nonconsensual artificial insemination of a pulchritudinous descendant of Norma Desmond, by masturbating over an issue of Fangoria. Coincidentally, and in perfect harmony with the day of honor at hand, it’s also in the end a tribute to a mother’s warped and warping love. And like many a horror movie that has come before has gleefully shown us, what could be more reassuring, more conventional than that?

P.S. This coming Halloween Mancini and his hellish creation are back in Curse of Chucky, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anticipating this one more than almost every other movie scheduled for release this year. The new movie brings Brad Dourif back inside Chucky as he stalks a wheelchair-bound woman (played by Dourif’s daughter, Fiona) who must fight off the murderous doll's wrath while mourning the death of her mother. It promises to cheer fans of the original by steering the franchise back toward the neighborhood of more familiar horror iconography, while at the same time tipping its scruffy redheaded noggin toward Chucky’s ghastly sense of humor, which has been in one form or another a mainstay of the series since 1988.

He’s Chucky. Wanna play? 


More on Seed of Chucky:

"The High Spirit, Sharp Wit and Sexy Self-Deprecation of Jennifer Tilly"

An On-the-Set Seed of Chucky Photo Album

The Orphan/Seed of Chucky Q & As


1 comment:

Peter Nellhaus said...

On a bit of a tangent here. I've enjoyed Ronny Yu's English language films. Had he been allowed to realize his conception of Snakes on a Plane, that would have probably been a better film. I guess his previous outing with Samuel Jackson, The 51st State was a bit too off-beat for most people. Anyways, if the opportunity arises, one of Yu's best films, also a collaboration with Peter Pau, is The Bride with White Hair is highly recommended.