Friday, October 31, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Curse of Chucky' (2013)

One of the reasons that the Chucky series is probably my favorite horror franchise (even though I like individual installments of other series more) is that the entire thing is the singular vision of Don Mancini. Even when the movies change protagonists, change tones or change budgets, Mancini keeps a consistent hand on the characters and the storytelling. That's sort of a blessing and a curse for Curse of Chucky, Mancini's second film as both writer and director. On the one hand, its shift in tone back to the straightforward horror of the first movie is mostly successful, with Mancini keeping it consistent with what happened in the more comedic previous two installments. On the other hand, the retcons and fan service in the movie's climax are a little strained, and while I appreciated that everything tied together, it sort of negated some of the effectiveness of the restrained scares in the early parts of the movie.

Although it's unlikely that anyone would come to this movie not having seen the previous entries in the series or at least having a familiarity with the general concept, Mancini still plays with the idea that maybe Chucky isn't actually a killer doll, and is just a reflection of a child's overactive imagination and the conflicts within her family. Chucky doesn't speak (except for his prerecorded Good Guys phrases) until halfway through the movie, and even then he keeps his words to a minimum until the last-act info-dump. The bulk of the movie is set in a single isolated creepy house, where Chucky (initially looking all cleaned up and new after his mangled appearance in the last two movies) shows up in a mysterious package.

Eventually Mancini reveals the (rather belabored) connection between Chucky and the house's inhabitants, but for most of the movie it doesn't really matter. There's a deadly presence in the house, and the squabbling family members have to figure out what's happening and how to survive. Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif) is quite good as Nica, the wheelchair-bound heroine, and the supporting cast is decent as well. This is the only Chucky movie in which I have genuinely cared about the human protagonists, and the tension between Nica and her sister is convincing enough without having to connect back to Chucky's past.

Mancini also seems to have improved markedly as a director (or has recruited better collaborators), and Curse has the visual sophistication that Seed of Chucky lacked. Mancini effectively builds tension in the first half of the movie, when Chucky is a silent menace, and his shot compositions often recall classic horror (he also uses some of the same deep focus framing that Ronny Yu employed in Bride of Chucky). The house is a marvel of creepy set design, complete with a rickety elevator and a dusty attic.

So when Mancini dives full-on into the continuity porn at the end of the movie, it's a little disappointing. I'm not complaining about any of the individual elements -- it's great to see Brad Dourif back on screen for the first time since the original movie as Charles Lee Ray (in flashbacks), it's great to see Jennifer Tilly make a brief return as the in-the-flesh Tiffany (or, technically, Tiffany in Jennifer Tilly's body), and it's even nice to see the bland Alex Vincent do a cameo as Andy Barclay. But all of that stuff sort of feels like it comes from a different movie. The haunted-house horror of most of Curse doesn't quite fit with what comes later, even though it's fun to watch. Mancini is already promising another installment, and maybe next time he'll be able to find the perfect balance of horror, humor and self-awareness. I have every reason to believe he can do it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Seed of Chucky' (2004)

I thoroughly enjoyed Seed of Chucky when it was released in 2004, and I was happy to see Chucky creator Don Mancini finally get the chance to direct a movie in the series that's become essentially his life's work. But revisiting the movie a decade later, I wasn't nearly as entertained. The self-reflexive elements of the movie have not aged well, and while some of the humor is still effective (I was pretty impressed with Mancini's commitment to the dumb "Made in Japan" joke that recurs throughout the entire movie), a lot of it is pretty painful. Bride of Chucky manages to be campy while also functioning more or less as a coherent thriller about Chucky and Tiffany on a killing spree; Seed is a full-on comedy with minimal internal logic and a paper-thin story. If the jokes don't land, there's basically nothing else there.

The biggest problem with Seed is the introduction of the title character, the spawn of Chucky and Tiffany glimpsed at the very end of Bride. While Tiffany (and Jennifer Tilly) reinvigorated the franchise with her debut, Glen/Glenda (voiced by Billy Boyd) is mostly just a drain on the story, and his/her character arc is scattershot and belabored, especially compared to Tiffany's development in Bride. Poor Tiffany gets a much weaker arc in this movie, too, as she decides to give up killing now that she's a mother, and treats it as an addiction to be overcome. It's disappointing that Mancini dilutes her nastiness and then doesn't offer much in its place.

Even Chucky is a bit diluted here, as the movie focuses on Glen/Glenda, Chucky and Tiffany's gender-confused, cowardly child (the name, of course, is a play on the Ed Wood movie Glen or Glenda), who tracks down his parents and inadvertently revives them with a variation on the old soul-switching spell. Apparently not even pieces of the old dolls are necessary for revival now, since the Chucky and Tiffany of Seed are actually movie props for a film-within-the-film about the Chucky murders. That film stars Jennifer Tilly, who gets to appear in the flesh this time by playing herself, but, disappointingly, her performance as herself is not nearly as entertaining as her performance as Tiffany was in Bride.

Tilly is game for anything, but the meta storyline is so half-assed that it completely squanders her fearlessness. Seed seems like an obvious reaction to the Scream movies (especially Scream 2, with its characters dealing with a film-within-the-film about their lives), but it's also indebted to another Wes Craven project, 1994's New Nightmare, which managed to cleverly deconstruct its franchise via actors playing themselves and also work pretty effectively as a horror movie. Seed isn't actually interested in being scary, which is okay, but its hit-and-miss jokes aren't strong enough to compensate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Bride of Chucky' (1998)

If Child's Play 3 was evidence that Chucky creator Don Mancini was out of ideas, then Bride of Chucky finds him reinvigorated, with a new direction for the series and a new take on Chucky himself. Some fans were apparently annoyed at the overtly comedic tone of Bride, but for me it was the movie that really made me love the Chucky franchise. Before going back to the beginning for this project, I would have named Bride as my favorite Chucky movie, although now I think I prefer Child's Play 2, which has the strongest mix of humor, horror and visual style. Still, Bride is a lot of fun, and it introduces a great addition to the Chucky mythos in Jennifer Tilly's Tiffany.

It also jettisons poor Andy Barclay, which to me is a welcome change but was another thing that bothered some longtime fans. I found Andy to be an annoying wet blanket no matter which actor played him, so this movie's focus on the relationship between the Chucky and Tiffany dolls worked much better for me, since it meant that the human characters didn't have to carry the movie. Even so, Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile as doomed teenage lovers Jade and Jesse are more compelling than Andy ever was, and their forbidden love is much more enjoyable to watch than the bland romance teenage Andy had in Child's Play 3.

But the movie really belongs to Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany. She's great as the overheated but ruthless sexpot in the first half hour when she's onscreen in the flesh, and she's also great as the voice of the Tiffany doll, who more fully embraces Chucky's homicidal worldview. Sure, Chucky's motivations for changing Tiffany into a doll in the first place are a little unclear, and sure, the entire plot hinges on an amulet that was never deemed important in the previous movies, but it's all just an excuse for silly one-liners and gruesome murders, anyway, so that didn't bother me too much.

It would be one more movie before Mancini finally got the chance to direct his own creation, but Hong Kong action director Ronny Yu does justice to Chucky, bringing some impressive visual flair to this chapter of the series. In addition to staging amusingly gruesome death scenes, Yu amps up the sense of dread and disorientation with a number of striking deep-focus shots, and he imbues the relationship between two animatronic dolls with genuine nastiness and intensity (aided by Tilly and, of course, Brad Dourif as Chucky).

Although there are plenty of winking references to other horror movies (especially in the opening shots of the police evidence locker that holds Chucky's remains, where accessories from other horror icons like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are stored as well), Bride isn't a meta-horror film like Scream. It may be comedic, but it takes its own premise at face value, turning Chucky and Tiffany into antiheroes of a sort as they go on a killing spree that gets attributed to their hapless human hosts. Only at the very end does the movie return to the idea of Chucky (and now Tiffany, too) attempting to take over a human body, and it feels a little rote by this point. Mancini and the audience have figured out that Chucky is better off as a doll, and with his acceptance and embracing of Tiffany, it seems like maybe Chucky has, too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play 3' (1991)

Although it was released only nine months after Child's Play 2, Child's Play 3 takes place eight years later, with Andy Barclay now 16 years old and shipped off to a military boarding school after drifting through various foster homes. It's a sort of jarring shift that's just one indication of this movie's paucity of ideas (to which series creator Don Mancini has admitted). Since Alex Vincent did not also age eight years in nine months, he was replaced as Andy by Justin Whalin, an older and slightly less annoying (but no more charismatic) actor. Making Andy into a teenager doesn't really do much to complicate his relationship with Chucky, and the movie hedges its bets by introducing a new kid to befriend Chucky, theoretically moving Andy forward as a character while preserving the same dynamic from the first two movies.

The movie opens in the same location where the previous one left off, the factory where the Good Guys dolls were made, starting back up after lying dormant for years. Of course the remnants of Chucky are still there, and of course his blood contaminates the materials being used to make Good Guys dolls, and Chucky is somehow reborn. After he kills the head of the toy company (you'd think they'd learn not to bother trying to make new dolls after their employees keep getting murdered) in a mildly amusing sequence involving toys as deadly weapons, Chucky has himself shipped to Andy's school, but he ends up in the possession of the cheerful, naive Tyler (Jeremy Sylvers) instead.

From there, Chucky makes his familiar play to transfer his soul into a new body, although thanks to a half-hearted loophole, he can now possess Tyler instead of Andy, so Andy becomes the protector figure that his mother and foster sister played in the previous movies. Chucky's threat is pretty weak here, and his kills are rather perfunctory. There isn't quite as much humor as in the second movie, but at this point Chucky isn't remotely scary, so he barely makes an impact. Mancini and director Jack Bender spend as much time focusing on the military school setting and the sadistic bully who torments Andy as they do on Chucky. That bully is a pretty stock military-school type, but at least he has some personality, which is more than can be said for Andy or his bland love interest.

The underwhelming finale takes place inside a carnival haunted house, which is somehow less exciting and inventive than the second movie's toy factory location. Given how unstoppable Chucky has been in the past, his death here is seriously anticlimactic (he doesn't even get the requisite horror-movie "I'm not really dead" moment before being finally dispatched). After rushing into this movie, Mancini and the producers waited until 1998 to bring Chucky back, and thankfully by that time they had a better idea of how to make him entertaining again.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play 2' (1990)

By the second movie in the series, Chucky is already well on his way to becoming the beloved comedic figure he is today. Although Child's Play 2 is a direct follow-up to the first Child's Play, with Alex Vincent returning as hapless victim Andy Barclay, it doesn't have the option of replicating the first film's slow-burn approach, since viewers already know that Chucky is possessed and evil. The movie starts out with a wonderfully detailed sequence of the Chucky doll being reconstructed at the Play Pals toy factory, ostensibly as a PR move to counter the bad publicity surrounding the events of the first movie (when the doll, y'know, murdered some people), but of course really just as the movie's excuse to get Chucky fully functional again, the equivalent of Jason Voorhees rising from his grave for the latest time.

Naturally, Chucky responds to his resurrection by immediately killing the people who brought him back to life, and resuming his quest to possess poor Andy. Andy's now living with a foster family after his mother has been shipped off to the loony bin, which is the now-standard fate for protagonists in horror-movie sequels (also, producers didn't want to pay actress Catherine Hicks to return as Andy's mom). Also typical for horror sequels, everyone around Andy is trying to convince him that Chucky was nothing but a figment of his imagination, and that works really well until Chucky manages to sneak in the house and replace the harmless, non-possessed Good Guys doll already lying around.

Luckily this time Andy has an ally in his foster sister Kyle (Christine Elise), and they team up to take Chucky down. Chucky is a lot more mobile this time, killing people in more gruesome and inventive ways, and the finale takes place in the grotesque funhouse of the Play Pals factory, with plenty of opportunities for dangerous machinery to wreak havoc. Very little of it is scary, but it is a lot of fun, with the sense of morbid humor that the series would end up embracing. Chucky's menace may be waning, but his unique personality is just starting to come into focus.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play' (1988)

At Halloweens past, I've written about the various entries in the Halloween and Hellraiser series (and I tackled Leprechaun around St. Patrick's Day), so this year I thought I'd take a look at the Chucky series, which marked 25 years last October with the release of the sixth movie, Curse of Chucky. I've always had a soft spot for Chucky, although I actually hadn't seen all the movies before starting this project. One of the highlights of my critical career is a random email I got from Chucky creator Don Mancini back in 2006, saying that he enjoyed reading my movie reviews in Las Vegas Weekly and was also a fan of this blog (which, as far as I know, continues to enjoy a minuscule readership). So if somehow Mancini is still reading, I hope I can do justice to his creation.

And make no mistake, Chucky belongs to Mancini, who is credited with the story and as one of three screenwriters on Child's Play, and who has been the sole screenwriter on all the sequels. (He's pretty much dedicated his entire career to Chucky, with virtually no other credits.) Although Chucky became a comedic figure as the series progressed (and that's probably what I find most entertaining about the character), Child's Play is a fairly straightforward late-'80s horror film, with direction from horror veteran Tom Holland (Fright Night) and a simple but effective setup. Brad Dourif, who along with Mancini has stuck with the series for its entire run, plays serial killer Charles Lee Ray, seen at the beginning of the movie getting cornered by police and launching into a voodoo ritual to transfer his spirit into someone else's body. Unfortunately the only "person" around is a cherubic Good Guys doll, and thus Charles Lee Ray becomes Chucky, the friendly homicidal doll.

Much of the movie's first half plays on the suspense of when Chucky's sinister nature will come out, as he sits silent and ominous, or oblivious tyke Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) plays and jokes around with him. Some of the creepiest material in the movie comes from Andy insisting to his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) that Chucky has told him something, and his mother dismissing him as a delusional child. Being the only person who knows what's really going on is a horror-movie cliche, but Mancini and Holland handle it well here, first via Andy, and then via Karen, when she's attacked by Chucky.

That attack, the first scene in which Chucky comes alive and exhibits his now-familiar sarcastic-murderer persona, is genuinely freaky, although it and many other scary moments are undermined a bit by how terrible Hicks and Vincent are in their parts. Vincent in particular is almost completely affectless as Andy, making it hard to emotionally connect with his terror and helplessness. As for Chucky, his familiar persona is such an important part of the series' appeal that it's a little weird to go so long without it, but once he finally springs into action, it's clear he's going to be a memorable horror character for the ages. The combination of Dourif's voice acting, the doll's design and Mancini's creative vision all adds up to one of horror's greatest achievements. The movie that introduces him may be a bit ordinary, but Chucky is one of a kind.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles' (1993)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

I'm far from an expert on martial arts movies, but I feel fairly confident in saying that The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles is not a stellar example of the genre. A remake of the 1978 Shaw Brothers movie The Avenging Eagle (which I haven't seen), Cold-Blooded is a sloppy exercise in wire-fu and overwrought storytelling, featuring the titular gang of roving fighters. They're all orphans raised by the man they call Foster Father (Shi-Kwan Yen), who claims to be sending them out to stop evildoers but is really using them for his own nefarious purposes. Motivations on both sides end up getting horribly convoluted, as some of the Eagles discover secrets about Foster Father and their own pasts, via long expository passages of dubious clarity.

To be fair, the DVD I got from Netflix had terrible, inconsistent subtitles, with numerous misspellings, typos and sentence fragments, so maybe the plot and the character arcs are clearer in the original Chinese (although I kind of doubt it). Either way, the real appeal of a movie like this is the fighting, but the action sequences are clumsy and awkward, with lackluster wire work and a poor sense of space. There's no feeling of weight or impact to the fighting, and the characters mostly use large swords that look like they're made out of plastic (and the sound effects make it seem like they're firing laser guns). Absent any reason to care about who wins or loses, impressive action is all the movie really has to offer, and it falls seriously short on that account.

As the Eagles get whittled down from 13 to one, the story ends up focusing on a lone Eagle fighting against Foster Father, but his emotional investment isn't any more compelling than that of his fallen comrades (two of whom have appeared to be the main characters at earlier points in the movie). The anticlimactic final battle leads to what looks like a great sacrifice, but based on the translation of the final line, it's not as serious as it seems to be. Either way, there's no sense of victory or defeat, just the abrupt close to a series of underwhelming fight sequences.