Child’s Play (2019)

Child’s Play first published (in a shorter version) by Sight & Sound, August 2019

Review: Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play opens with a diptych of scenes: first a to-camera announcement from Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson), founder and CEO of Kaslan Corporation, about his company’s range of high-tech Buddi dolls, which learn from their environment and can, Alexa-like, operate all your household electronics; and second, a sequence in Kaslan’s Vietnam sweatshop, where a fired worker decides to disarm the ‘violence inhibitors’ and other safeguards from a doll’s integrated circuit. Here, the eventually murderous doll is a product of class revenge, as these two juxtaposed sequences expose the gulf between the Buddi doll’s slick corporate face, and the infernal, exploitative production line on which it is built. The same tale might be told about any of the ‘must-have’ consumer products that we bring into our lives and homes every day – and so the anxieties that fuel this film have their origins in the sense of guilt attached to the nefarious workings of global capitalism. It is a guilt for which even a lower-middle-class, single-parent family of strivers like the Barclays can find themselves horrifically punished.

The factory sequence is the post-millennial equivalent of a ‘Vietnam flashback’ – one of those scenes, still found in exploitation films as late as 1988 when Tom Holland’s original Child’s Play came out, when the origins of characters’ present-day traumas are traced back to  their experiences in the Second Indochina War. Here, that Vietnam scene explains in part why this particular Buddi doll is so messed up. The other part is that he learns from his environment, and in particular from his exposure to the horror films that his new owner Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) and Andy’s friends watch in his presence. Despite their tameness, Child’s Play 2 (1990) and Child’s Play 3 (1991) were blamed by tabloids for influencing the real-life crimes of minors; here that dynamic is slyly inverted by having the doll ‘Chucky’ himself directly influenced in his gory murderous acts by Tobe Hooper’s genuinely nastier The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). If this human-like automaton is manufactured not born, so too, as he absorbs all the micro-aggressions and violence around him, is his emergent psychopathy. 

Immediately distinguishing itself from the original film by renaming the interactive toy Buddi instead of Good Guy, and by having it turned bad by sabotaged robotics rather than the transmigrated soul of a voodoo-versed serial killer, Klevberg’s smart reboot dresses up its doll in a multitude of influences. In a self-referential nod to the casting of Star Wars‘ Mark Hamill (replacing series regular Brad Dourif) as the voice of Chucky, Andy tries to name his Buddi ‘Han Solo’ – which it then, with hilarious improbability, mishears as ‘Chucky’, bringing us back to the model of the Child’s Play franchise. In his vicious assaults on cats and neighbours and anyone that he perceives as coming between himself and Andy, Chucky will quote not only from Hooper’s film, but also, in keeping with his robotic nature, from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), even as the climax – in a shopping outlet whose gadgets Chucky turns lethally against customers – riffs on Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986). “This is”, as Andy’s new friend Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) correctly observes, “how every robot apocalypse begins” – yet in updating these Eighties inspirations to our own age of approaching technological singularity, Klevberg evolves new anxieties from old materials. Don Mancini’s original Chucky series continues to spawn sequels of its own, and a coming spin-off TV series, but this Child’s Play reboot initiates a whole new franchise with obvious sequel potential (the film ends with the launch of ‘Buddi 2’), and – coming with winning performances and Tyler Burton Smith’s witty writing to complement its bloodier set-pieces – stands on its own two feet and quickly, quirkily makes a friend of even the most remake-weary horror viewer.    

Synopsis: In Vietnam, a disgruntled factory worker for Kaslan Corporation wilfully removes the safeguard features from a Buddi doll’s circuitry before killing himself. In America, widowed Karen Barclay takes home from her supermarket job a returned, defective Buddi doll for her son Andy. Named Chucky, the glitchy, somewhat creepy doll imprints on Andy, and learns quickly. Perceiving the Barclays’ cat as a threat to Andy, Chucky kills it. Realising that Andy hates Karen’s boyfriend Shane, Chucky murders him. Horrified, Andy and his friends Falyn and Pugg trap Chucky, tear out his battery and throw him down the garbage chute. The janitor retrieves and fixes Chucky, hoping to hack into Kaslan Corporation with him. Chucky kills him. Chucky also murders the Barclay’s elderly neighbour Doreen, whose son Mike is the police officer investigating all these murders. Wanting Andy all for himself, Chucky manipulates a rift between the boy and has friends. When Karen takes Andy to her workplace during the launch of the next-gen doll Buddi 2, Chucky takes control of the devices there and attacks everyone. Mike is gravely injured. Andy fights Chucky to save Karen’s life. Andy stabs Chucky, Mike shoots Chucky, and Karen beheads Chucky. Buddi 2 production is temporarily suspended, but a newly packaged doll exhibits the red eyes that signify Chucky’s defect. 

Anton Bitel