The reaction to news of a Child’s Play reboot was incensed and immediately fevered. Sentiment towards remakes is generally negative and I too subscribe to the less-is-best point of view, and while I initially squirmed at the thought of such a beloved film being tampered with, I was prepared to endure whatever atrocities the producers dared to throw at me.
I never would have thought that Child’s Play 2019 would be a contender for my end of year Top 10 list… and yet, here we are, and yes, it is.
The first point of order is to acknowledge the source material and reassure people that this new film is not a remake. Nor is it a sequel. In fact if the makers had abandoned the Child’s Play moniker and ditched the “Chucky” reference entirely, they would have delivered a stand-alone killer doll movie to contend with the best of them.
Buddi is a new line of hi-tech robo-toys from Kaslan Technologies, with endless wifi capabilities. A disgruntled production worker in Vietnam re-programs one doll’s internal computer, and it ends up in the hands of Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman), who it imprints on. Its name is Chucky and he is programmed to be Andy’s best friend until the end.
The premise is simple, and with that one fundamental switch of Chucky’s modus operandi the story reaches new depths. There is no denying the power of Tom Holland’s original film and it remains one of the great modern horror films, however director Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) has upped the ante by injecting a strong emotional anchor to Chucky’s story, making it superior to all of the previous sequels. Where the 1988 film had serial killer Charles Lee Ray possessing a children’s doll and feeding his murderous appetite through the body of Chucky, the new story depicts him as an artificially intelligent being with a major programming flaw. His purpose is to love Andy until the end… and so it is an absorbing fatal attraction story about loyalty and obsession.
Now before I get strung and quartered for gushing over a Child’s Play reboot, it must be said that the movie is full of absurdities. As with most horror movies, it requires a generous suspension of disbelief. Not because of the killer doll or any of the general narrative, but rather because of the many creative decisions favouring style over substance. There are plenty of moments where the spectacle is amazing, but the reality of the situation is ludicrous. A Christmas light sequence – for example – has you shaking your head and asking “why would you leave them turned on while you do that?” with the answer, of course, being that it simply looks cool. And so be it. None of these idiocies impact on the story itself, and this truly is a thrilling roller coaster of a time.
The production design is strong and pays homage to the original film. The tenement building location provides a familiar setting for the story to unfold, and with cheeky nods – such as a delicious introductory lightning bolt over its roof (a reference to the original theatrical poster) – the film also embodies a strong retro-centric 80’s atmosphere. In cheeky fan service the film is scattered with classic horror references, such as nostalgic movie posters on Andy’s bedroom wall and an unexpected (yet entirely welcome) reference to Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. Fans of 80’s horror are sure to be pleasantly surprised, while newcomers will identify with the premise of wifi technology and its implications. Indeed, Chucky’s potential is diabolic and rather terrifying. Furthermore, Child’s Play 2019 is ultra-violent… like, really gruesome!
Gabriel Bateman gives a commanding lead performance as Andy and carries the film on his shoulders. His character arc is very well measured and his performance, particularly throughout the final act, is (seemingly) years beyond his age. Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West) is also excellent as Andy’s mother, Karen, and she plays her character with an unconventional single-mother nuance. New and unfamiliar characters are also added to the fun, including a bunch of mischievous neighbourhood kids, a douche bag boyfriend, a creepy handyman, an elderly neighbour and her detective son. They all serve a purpose and all come in handy when it comes to plucking off victims in creative and gnarly ways.
Fans should breathe a sigh of relief, because Child’s Play is a fantastic new horror movie that confidently separates itself from Don Mancini’s ongoing series. It is a fresh new spin, with enough originality to carry it onward to its own parallel franchise. Mark Hamill voices the new Chucky with an entirely new personality, remaining robotic and composed throughout. Brad Dourif’s original maniacal hysteria has been preserved in the original series and there’s no comparison to be made here.
I could never have anticipated feeling as much empathy for Chucky as I did, and Klevberg’s film makes him a character we actually care for sympathetically. Some franchise regulars might struggle with his new design, and the narrative acknowledges that. He takes some getting used to, but by the time the fantastic Gremlins-inspired finale unfolds, we’re right there rooting for Chucky and excited for the potential of future instalments. Ignore your reservations and do not hesitate to embrace the new direction. It’s hella fun!
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Child’s Play’ is in Australian cinemas from June 20 and US cinemas from June 21.