Is there a horror franchise that has had a better second act than Child’s Play? The first movie was a genuine slasher innovator with plenty of quirk to go along with its creep. But it came along relatively late in the game so Chucky was always doomed to stand in the shadow of bigger (and taller) horror icons like Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. It spawned two immediate sequels, but like his masked or burned compatriots, it was diminishing returns pretty early on.
But then along came 1998’s Bride of Chucky, a bizarre almost send-up which introduced Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany, Chucky’s soulmate/fellow killer doll. The only thing more ridiculous than one evil doll is two. And the only thing more ridiculous than two evil dolls is their offspring, who we met in 2004’s Seed of Chucky, a deliberately schlocky 90 minutes that was so self-aware it not only cast Jennifer Tilly as herself but brought in John Waters for a spirited cameo, just in case you had any doubt about where a movie that involved a woman getting artificially inseminated by a turkey baster full of doll jizz’s loyalties lay. Seed of Chucky was franchise creator Don Mancini’s first time directing his doll pal, and he returned for 2013’s Curse of Chucky, which brought things back down to earth (relatively speaking, of course), for a more straight up horror approach that felt more in line with the first movie.
All of this of course brings us to Cult of Chucky, which sees Mancini back in the director’s chair. While the slasher franchise model du jour seems to be either “go back to basics” or “ignore the bad sequels and pretend this is the second movie in the franchise” Cult of Chucky, in true Child’s Play fashion, is a gloriously bizarre and appropriately vulgar “fuck you” to that kind of logic. Sure it brings back Fiona Dourif’s Nica Pierce from Curse of Chucky, and Alex Vincent as original Chucky victim/hero Andy Barclay for another stab at the franchise, but it’s not to apologize for its history, or even to particularly revel in it. No, Cult of Chucky is full steam ahead into a different realm of weird, burying the shock n’ schlock of Bride and Seed for an almost Kubrickian sense of sterility amidst its repeated stabs at psychological horror.
Set in the same mental institution that you’ll probably find yourself confined to if you think about the franchise’s logic too hard, Cult of Chucky picks up Nica Pierce’s story from Curse of Chucky, introduces a handful of fellow inmates who have a hard enough time without an evil talking doll running around, throws in a skeevy doctor with a talent for hypnosis, and brings in multiple Chucky dolls just to maximize the hallucinatory effect. Chucky himself seems even more aware of the ridiculousness of the proceedings than usual, but the effect isn’t one of self-parody (which both Bride and Seed flirted with), instead managing to heighten the weirdness and menace even further. I’d rather not go into more specifics about the plot, because the colder you go into this, the more fun you’ll have.
Chucky (well, Chuckys this time around) has been getting progressively more expressive without ever losing sight of the fact that this is a character made all the more menacing by his limitations. So, more expressive is good, while more agile/mobile would be bad. That oversized head and those brightly colored overalls stand out nicely against the stark, bright, whiteness of the hospital (and the snow covered exteriors), which also serve to maximize the impact of the expected number of decapitations and skull crushings. While Cult of Chucky has moments that are both surreal and horrifying, it still finds time to nod to at least a couple of the more out there elements of Child’s Play continuity, lest you worry that the franchise is ashamed of its history.
Cult of Chucky only stumbles when you stop to think about how thin the actual story is, but then again, you’re reading this review and you’ve probably sat through at least three other Child’s Play movies that are far worse. I never would have taken the bet that the seventh film in the franchise would be one of its best, but here we are. With a 91-minute runtime, pound for pound and kill for kill, Chucky is finally stabbing well above his weight class. All these years later, Chucky may just prove to be more durable, creative, and fun than the big guys who kept him down.
Cult of Chucky is out on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix on Oct. 3.