Wednesday, October 09, 2013


Curse of Chucky, the rousing, funny and genuinely scary sixth entry in the now-25-year-old Chucky the Killer Doll franchise, is not only a terrific thriller in its own right, it also happily bucks a few expectations on the way to its gory, satisfying conclusion. When was the last time the sixth chapter of any ongoing horror franchise could be considered one of the best, if not the best of its breed? Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare? No. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives? No, no. But it’s certainly the case here, and it’s an even more surprising prospect when considering the fact that this new movie is not, like so many other far-less-worthy sequels, horror and otherwise, even being released to theaters. Curse of Chucky is that rarest of creatures, a movie designed for the direct-to-video (DTV) market that is neither a cynical cash-in nor a chintzy sausage dressed up in big-boy movie clothes designed to distract from its paltry imagination. This is a truly creative endeavor that takes its own legacy seriously enough to have some real fun with it. Curse clearly deserves a full theatrical release, but to worry too much about that at this point would be to potentially miss the spirit and the surprises that Don Mancini, writer of all six Chucky films as well as the director of this one and the unfairly maligned Seed of Chucky, has in store for the faithful and for those ready to be converted.

One of the remarkable things about the Chucky series is how Mancini has avoided regurgitating his clever toy doll slasher formula from movie to movie. Child’s Play 2 gleefully upped the ante on the first film’s simple bad-guy-transposed-into-a-Good-Guy, Twilight Zone-esque premise by following the beleaguered Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), focus of Chucky’s sinister wrath, to a foster home and staging its clever conclusion inside the toy factory production line where the Good Guys Dolls are stamped out. Sensing formula fatigue after the rushed-into-production Child’s Play 3, which finds Chucky pursing a much older Andy to a military academy, Mancini next took the series in a different, more self-referential and certainly more thematically elastic direction.

The resulting movies, Bride of Chucky (directed by Hong Kong maestro Ronny Yu) and Seed of Chucky (Mancini’s directorial debut), played out profoundly strange and comically delightful wrinkles on familiar domestic dramas—courtship in Bride, familial conflict and gender identification in Seed— all while continuing the stream of bloody mayhem one expects from a Chucky film. In Curse, the comedy doesn’t dominate, as it did, to envelope-bursting effect, in Seed, but is instead woven seamlessly into a much more straightforward approach to horror storytelling and iconography.

But it would be an insufficient reduction to suggest that Mancini has simply gone back to basics in a desperate attempt to win back fans that were put off by the audaciousness of Seed. The director is not in the business here of churning out an ill-considered reboot of the first film. Instead, he sets up the fun by introducing Chucky into a time-tested and beloved staple of the horror genre: the old dark house. The sight of Chucky creeping in and out the shadows, up shadowy staircases and down sinister hallways, delivers a visual beauty that, outside of Bride of Chucky (which was shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau), has never been a hallmark of the series. Here the visual style feels fresh and sparks the movie with ever-renewable shivers and deliciously claustrophobic, drawn-out tension. However, Mancini also turns his eye to the past and sets up a clever strategy of weaving present tensions into past traumas that ends up enriching not only the new movie but all the previous movies as well.

Sarah (Chantal Quesnelle) is a painter living out what has apparently been a rough and reclusive life in an invitingly creepy and creaky mansion together with her paraplegic daughter Nica (Fiona Dourif). Nica is the focus of her mother's overprotective caution and insinuations of weakness, all of which undermine Nica’s need to establish some sort of independence from her mother’s agoraphobic existence. The two receive a package from an unknown sender containing—surprise!—a very familiar looking Good Guy doll, one which resembles the blankly vacant Chucky v.1.0, minus the scars he earned in Bride and Seed. Of course, the doll’s mysterious arrival sets Sarah even further on edge, and with good reason--the dark and stormy night that follows finds Sarah dead in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide, and Nica in charge of gathering the remaining members of her family for the funeral.

Those family members don’t exactly introduce an element of stability into the situation. Nica’s sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti) is a high-strung, controlling bitch, contemptuous of what she perceives to be familial concessions to her sister’s weakness. Barb wants to sell the house off and divide the profits among the family, divorcing herself from her mother’s unpleasant decline and death altogether. (She sneers at Nica, who remains sentimentally attached to the big, impractical house, one which boasts, among other wheelchair-friendly features, a creaky old elevator.) Barb’s contempt extends also to her husband Ian (Brennan Elliot), an underachieving yuppie whose interest in their sexy nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell) does not go unnoticed. Finally, there’s Barb and Ian’s daughter Alice (Summer Howell), who takes a shine to the strangely creepy doll that always seems to be sitting somewhere nearby… and that often disappears and reappears in a different location without explanation. And what about Chucky? We know he’s alive—in one of many references to the aesthetic of Alfred Hitchcock interlaced within the movie, Chucky is Hitchcock’s bomb under the table whom we know is there, causing us to squirm with dread and fear over just when he’ll go off. But why does this deadly doll seem so intent on killing these folks, every last one?

What’s immediately striking about Curse of Chucky is the rather masterful confidence with which Mancini, as writer and director, establishes the relationships between these people, creating clearly delineated personalities which are given time to live and breathe and push against each other before the slaughter begins. The movie creeps deliberately and stealthily at first, exploiting the atmosphere for all its worth, before moving on to the meat of the scares, comfortable in the trust that it has the audience in its grasp. (And, pointedly, not at all like a typical DTV project, constantly looking over its shoulder and goosing the viewer’s deficit attention span.) There’s plenty of believable dialogue and interplay in this early section, much of which sounds like the way a shattered family might actually speak to each other—it’s not a cleverer-than-thou session of screenwriting in which one-upmanship is all. This not only makes the relatively leisurely paced, suggestive first half-hour more enjoyable but also effective as a preamble to the inevitable freak-outs to come.

And they do come. Mancini and director of photography Michael Marshall stage some delicious set-pieces in this section—a Russian roulette-style chili dinner for which Chucky dusts one of the bowls with rat poison is a highlight—and it’s one of the real pleasures of the movie to see how much the director delights in playing out this sixth movie with so much evocative and cleverly mounted storytelling. It’s notable too that, refreshingly, the references to other films aren’t shouted out with a "Look, Ma! No originality!" braggadocio, but instead creatively integrated into the action. If the viewer spots the nods to not only Hitchcock, but also to Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Mario Bava and many others along the way, those observations will add to the fun but are certainly not Mancini’s endgame. Instead, they help rejuvenate the initial cat-and-mouse tease leading to Chucky’s eventual one-by-one outing to the family. Curse of Chucky makes great use of the startling pitter-patter of little plastic feet overheard on hardwood and subtle hints of movement that effectively set the audience on edge and lead to the beautifully balanced second half, which juggles humor and scares with deadly assurance. (Those worried about whether or not the gore quotient will live up to previous installments can relax with heightened anticipation.) The jolts and shivers are shepherded nicely by James Coblentz’s deft editing and a kinetic score by Joseph LoDuca (Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn) which works both as a canny genre pastiche (Goblin and the tag team of Carpenter/Howarth are effectively evoked) and as a lilting beast all its own, propelled by a memorably ominous tinkling toy piano motif.

Of course, none of it would work nearly so well were the movie not so well cast. Bisutti, Elliot, McConnell and Quesnelle and Howell make up a believable family whose members have shades to be revealed, shades which are not hammered home monotonously in the typical one-note fashion of a standard-issue kill movie. (A Martinez also shows up solidly in the rather thankless role of the family priest, but he is compensated with a front and center seat for the movie’s first Grand Guignol showcase number.) But Curse of Chucky rises or falls on the contributions of two actors, both, as it happens, from the same family tree. Fiona Dourif (True Blood, The Master), Brad Dourif’s daughter, proves a resilient heroine, one in which the audience invests in emotionally and without pity. Dourif’s marvelously expressive face sells Nica’s strength, frustrations and fears with graceful modulation. The usual complaints about the credibility of Chucky’s effectiveness as a killer thanks to his diminutive status are all but erased by pitting him against this wheelchair-bound woman, whose limited ambulatory situation may put her closer to Chucky’s level but is no detriment to her resourcefulness. Ms. Dourif rather brilliantly navigates herself through the domestic drama of the first half and the series of revelations and terrors that mark her descent into dark shadows in the second, dispelling possible charges of nepotism through the sheer force of her performance, which stands alongside Jennifer Tilly’s as the best in the series. Plus, she’s a really good screamer.

And then there’s Chucky, the cackling plastic bastard at the center of all the fun. It’s pretty obvious how much energy Brad Dourif has brought to the party over the past quarter-century. In Curse, not only does he actually appear on screen for the first time since the Charles Lee Ray saga began in 1988 (you won’t get from me the how or why), but Dourif’s voice work as his psychopathic alter ego also reaches new levels of profanely malicious wit. Chucky himself is called upon to be meaner and more vicious here than he’s been for a couple of movies now, and the celebrated actor rises to the occasion with a delectable menace which contributes greatly to the movie as an effective horror film, not just a clever concept with occasional bursts of gore. (How strange it must be for Brad and Fiona to watch themselves in such a suspenseful on-screen standoff.) With Curse, I think Dourif moves Chucky rather improbably to the head of the class of a small group-- Leatherface and Freddy Krueger being the others-- of genuinely iconic slasher movie villains, the difference being it can now be said that Chucky is also a great horror movie character.

All that said, the primary element that makes the Chucky series unique in the annals of the slasher film genre is not its nasty-plasty three-foot antagonist, but instead the guiding force of Mancini’s scholarly horror fan perspective. The man has been the consistent creative voice connecting all six movies, a through-line of vision which no other comparable series can boast. That marvelous creativity, combined with inspired participation from the likes of Ronny Yu, Jennifer Tilly, special effects wizards like Kevin Yagher and Tony Gardner, producer David Kirschner (who shepherded all six movies), composer Pino Donaggio, actress Christine Elise (terrific in Child’s Play 2) and, of course, the Dourif family, is what, despite all the possible trap doors of creative lethargy and terminal silliness seemingly built into the concept, has kept the Chucky movies crackling and inventive fun for 25 years.

Curse of Chucky is, above all else, a movie for the audience that has stuck with the franchise, complained about it, obsessed over it and gleefully reveled in its nasty humor and over-the-top gore for the entirety of its long history. The movie comes full circle on the Charles Lee Ray "mythology" in surprising, and surprisingly satisfying ways which enrich not only this newest chapter but all that have come before. It’s just a shame that few will be able to see it, as I was lucky enough to have, with a packed house of Chucky aficionados, that such a riotously effective audience picture has been consigned strictly to the home theater environment. My suggestion: put in the Blu-ray, invite a few friends, turn off all the lights, create your own old dark house and turn Curse of Chucky loose in it. Then scream all you want. Chucky will insist.


If you need further convincing, here's the trailer...

...and a great interview with Fiona Dourif and Don Mancini conducted just hours before Curse of Chucky was screened to great enthusiasm at London's FrightFest 2013.


P.S. Propriety would, I suppose, insist that I make it clear that Don and I have been good friends ever since 2005, when I served up a tepid thumbs-midway-up review of Seed of Chucky. But whether you, Dear Reader, are inclined to believe it or not, this review is one I would have gladly given my worst enemy, if the movie were as good as Curse of Chucky, to say nothing of my delight at being able to say a multitude of good things about the work of someone I consider a close friend. Bravo!


(And PSST! Curse of Chucky is now available on Blu-ray and DVD wherever terrific scary movies are sold!)



Harry44 said...

Thanks for the review Dennis. You got me hooked on Chucky a couple of years ago with your love for Seed of Chucky. I picked up my copy of this yesterday and cannot wait to watch it tomorrow night!

Kevin Deany said...

Sounds great and I can't wait to see it. Once I being working regularly again, this will be one of my first purchases.