The idea of killer toys is nothing new. From The Twilight Zone to Puppet Master, and even the first Toy Story film, the concept of an innocent toy meant to bring happiness to children coming to life with malicious intent seems to hit a deep chord within us. This was never more evident than with the success of the original Child’s Play in 1988. The design of the Chuckie doll was creepy enough, but Brad Dourif’s insane vocal performance sealed the deal. Chuckie is now mentioned as one of the most iconic movie monsters of the last 30 years. Since that film, there have been several sequels, each becoming more over-the-top and silly until the series could be said to have fully transitioned from horror to comedy. With Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play remake, he hopes to return the series to a slightly more somber tone, while wisely incorporating the gallows humor of the earlier films. The resulting film is effective in parts, but never quite scary enough.
The story involves a disgruntled worker at a toy factory in Vietnam tampering with a “Buddy” doll, turning off its high tech behavioral restrictions before sending it off to America. The doll falls into the hands of Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza). Andy bonds with the doll, who insists on being called Chuckie (voiced by Mark Hamill), only to discover that its skewed sense of loyalty can turn deadly in the blink of an eye.
The film has a very likable cast, who commit to the ludicrous story, giving it some real heft. Bateman pulls off the standard “desperate kid that nobody will believe” character in a way that feels fresh, partially because his bond with Chuckie genuinely seems to come from a place of loneliness. Karen, while not particularly fleshed out, is nonetheless given shades of sadness by Plaza, who plays her as a mom trying her best just to keep her head above water. Brian Tyree Henry, always a welcome presence, plays a friendly cop who investigate the disproportionate number of bodies piling up around Andy’s apartment building. Henry plays a character whose side we’re on before realizing that his investigation will lead him not to Chuckie, but to Andy. So we never quite root for him, but still enjoy watching him. It’s a tightrope for any actor, and Henry navigates it perfectly.
While the film does a lot of things well, it never quite generates scares. There’s a sense of inevitability to it all. The director telegraphs which characters will die and then simply follows through. The use of shadow, along with some delightfully on-the-nose art direction, creates a real sense of dread, but I was never truly frightened. A good horror film will have you glued to the screen, deeply invested to see what happens, while a little reticent to actually find out. With Child’s Play, I was invested in the characters, but never fearful for them. What should have been unbridled terror was instead mild curiosity.
However, this lack of scares allowed me to pay attention some of the idiosyncrasies of the film, the first being Chuckie himself. In the original film, he is possessed by the spirit of a murderous criminal, who takes over the doll so completely that the inherent creepiness of the doll itself began to dissipate for me. It just seemed more like a small man running around, rather than this indestructible monster. In the new film, however, the writers seem to take their cues from HAL-9000, giving the character less overt personality and replacing it with laser-like focus and total commitment. Hamill gives a nicely restrained performance, never letting himself venture too far away from the fact that this Chuckie isn’t a raving psychopath, but essentially a computer program gone wrong. A villain that is committed to what he thinks is good is, to me, much more effective than one who revels in doing bad.
Another well-executed aspect of the film is its depiction of its protagonist’s age. While Andy isn’t a child, exactly, he still doesn’t have fully grown-up sensibilities. When Chuckie starts killing and Andy has to cover it up, his method of disposal is the garbage chute in his apartment building. Whether it be a severed body part or the doll itself, down the chute it goes, without Andy ever realizing that someone can still easily find it and trace it back to him. Andy just knows that he wants these things out of sight, so he removes them, never considering the bigger picture. It’s a very specific choice, but one that goes further to put us in the mindset of our young protagonist than any monologue ever could.
So, as a movie, the new Child’s Play is fairly effective. I related to the characters and appreciated the atmosphere that Lars Klevberg created. But, of course, this isn’t just a movie; it’s a horror movie. And while it is occasionally grisly and creepy, I was never on the edge of my seat. As such, I was free to appreciate the film’s finer details, of which there are many. Unfortunately, terror isn’t one of them.