Killer-doll movies have been an enduringly creepy horror staple for decades and currently seem to be enjoying a major commercial revival in the Conjuring / Annabelle franchise. Launched with Child’s Play (1988), the Chucky series has so far given us six helpings of the malevolent grinning toy possessed by the demonic spirit of a wisecracking serial killer. Quality levels have inevitably wobbled but the most recent reboot, Curse of Chucky (2013), was widely hailed as a strong comeback, generating enough critical and commercial buzz to spawn yet another sequel. Cult of Chucky was warmly received at its FrightFest world premiere in London two weeks ago
Screenwriter Don Mancini, who created the character and co-wrote most of the series, returns to direct for the third time here. As with Curse of Chucky, the mix of comic-book carnage and tongue-in-cheek humor is more playful than scary, but Mancini is clearly working from a close knowledge and paternal affection for the franchise. Universal’s genre-friendly 1440 Entertainment subdivision is once again releasing this Canada-shot sequel directly to VOD and home-entertainment formats in North America on Tuesday, though other territories will host theatrical runs later in the year.
Mancini picks up the main plotline from Curse of Chucky, with wheelchair-bound Nica (Fiona Dourif, whose father Brad voices the diabolical doll himself) still under lock and key after being framed for Chucky’s latest murder spree. Diagnosed as insane and delusional, she is moved to a fortress-like secure mental hospital in the snowy hinterlands, where sleazy psychotherapist Foley (Michael Therriault) deems it a smart idea to bring several wide-eyed, flame-haired Chucky dolls into the ward to help heal Nica’s mental health. What could possibly go wrong?
Also converging on the asylum are two further Curse of Chucky survivors: the grown-up Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), who survived the first three Child’s Play films, and Jennifer Tilly once again playing herself, or at least the meta version of herself who has been possessed by Chucky’s evil girlfriend Tiffany Valentine since Bride of Chucky (1998). “Does anyone ever tell you you look exactly like Jennifer Tilly?” Nica asks her, a heavy-handed in-joke for the franchise faithful. Keen-eyed horror fans may also spot fleeting homages to Carrie, The Shining and more.
Sticking dutifully within genre rules, Cult of Chucky starts slowly, dropping a few jump shocks and false alarms into a low-voltage first act. The chilly, futuristic, almost Kubrickian hospital design and the soaring aerial shots of snowy Manitoba provide pleasant distractions while Mancini gradually ramps up the suspense, teasing us with obligatory hints that Nica may actually be a real serial killer plagued by nightmarish hallucinations.
But once the Chucky dolls click into demonically possessed troll mode, the bratty quips and cheerfully nasty murders come thick and fast, with drillings and decapitations, high heels and compressed air canisters all part of their repertoire. Mancini’s low-key shooting style also shifts up a gear with slow-motion split-screen action and deranged psycho-lesbian clinches, like Brian de Palma on an indie-movie budget.
A lean 91 minutes long, Cult of Chucky is part self-spoofing slasher, part lowbrow bloodbath and all guilty pleasure. There are plot holes here bigger than Trump Tower, and almost as ridiculous, but only the most joylessly wrong-headed film critic would waste mental energy unpicking them. More seriously, Dourif Jr.’s acting skills are frustratingly underused in the lead role, reduced to a wan spectator for much of the action until a final-act twist puts a much-needed spring in her step. Inevitably, the gothic, revved-up, kick-ass conclusion leaves the door open for further chapters. And they will come. The Chucky franchise is hardly Toy Story, but it is reliably pulpy good fun, the gift that keeps on taking.
Production companies: Universal 1440 Entertainment
Cast: Fiona Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Alex Vincent, Michael Therriault, Grace Lynn Kung, Elizabeth Rosen
Director-screenwriter: Don Manicini
Producers: Ogden Gavanski, David Kirschner
Cinematographer: Michael Marshall
Editor: Randy Bricker
Music: Joseph LoDuca
Production designer: Craig Sandells
Venue: FrightFest, London