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.

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