How 'Child's Play' Survived Bad Test Screenings to Become a Horror Classic

Thirty years later, the team behind Chucky look back at the script changes and technical glitches they overcame to create an unlikely hit.
Courtesy of Photofest
'Child's Play'

In the last months of 1983, frenzied consumers battled each other in the toy-aisle trenches of Sears, Macy’s and other stores to get their hands on Coleco’s coveted Cabbage Patch Kids for their children in time for the holidays. In 1985, Hasbro’s My Buddy doll followed suit by courting the then-controversial idea that boys should play with dolls, not just action figures. Intrigued and inspired by Madison Avenue’s attempts to disrupt children’s traditional consumer habits for an almighty dollar, UCLA screenwriting student Don Mancini tapped into the zeitgeist by writing a dark psychological tale about a boy and his doll that turns deadly.

Three years later, Child’s Play hit theaters on November 9, 1988, winning the weekend at the box office and jolting the horror genre by unwittingly launching what has become one of the most enduring and consistent horror franchises of all time.

“I thought this was a fertile subject and right for a genre prism that hadn’t really been dealt with much,” says Mancini, who grew to recognize the coercive nature of selling children’s products at an early age thanks to his father, an agent of the advertising industry.

Strongly influenced by Trilogy of Terror (the segment with the Zuni fetish doll that chases Karen Black), the creepy dummy in Magic and the “Living Doll” episode of TheTwilight Zone with Talky Tina, Mancini had a well versed knowledge of the killer doll trope that existed in the horror world and saw an opening to “treat the doll as a full-fledged character” with satirical shades. Fascinated by animatronics, he was eager to test the boundaries of what a mechanized character could do onscreen: “I recognized post-Gremlins that they were sophisticated enough now that the doll could convey emotions and a characterization, and you could give him dialogue, stuff that really hadn’t been done that much before. The idea was always to have this story about a little boy crying wolf about his doll, and that doll becomes this f-bomb-dropping, wisecracking terror.”

While still at UCLA, Mancini assembled his ideas for a script called Batteries Not Included (prior to the 1987 release of the Steven Spielberg-produced film of the same name): “It was always a body-count movie structured with these murders happening in this kid’s life; the kid is crying wolf and he’s insisting the doll did it. Nobody believes him, the mom and the authorities are concerned that the kid is a budding psychopath, and ultimately the doll goes after the mom and the boy himself,” Mancini tells The Hollywood Reporter. “In the original premise, Chucky — or Buddy as he was called then — was not possessed by a serial killer. Instead, in my script, the supernatural inciting incident was different.”

That plot catalyst tied into the script’s new title, Blood Buddy.

“One of the features the Good Guy dolls had was fake blood in them, because I was inspired by my sisters’ dolls — they peed, you could make their hair grow — and I thought in the context of a horror movie, how awesome to have a doll that would bleed," Mancini says. "And since we were doing a satire on marketing, the idea was that when you’re playing with the doll, if you played too rough with it the latex skin would break and then this blood would start to seep out, so you had to go out and buy official Good Guy band-aids to put on. It was just a way to sell products. … So the way that the doll came to life was that because Andy is a lonely kid — no dad around, his mom is a busy working mother — in that classic rite of brotherhood he cuts his own thumb and the doll’s thumb so they’ll be best friends forever —friends ’til the end’ — and after that the murders start.”

Mancini’s original storyline gave the murders a more psychological association, with the doll chasing down the boy’s various enemies out of vengeance. “Chucky was like an expression of the kid’s unconscious rage,” he says. “In the Blood Buddy script, Chucky only comes alive when Andy’s asleep. The way the rules were, we gradually come to understand that because Chucky is the embodiment of Andy’s unconscious he decides if he kills the kid then Andy will be asleep forever and he’ll be alive forever.”

Enter David Kirschner, who was producing the animated fable An American Tail for Amblin Entertainment and had created the Rose Petal Place toys, books and movies on top of work for Strawberry Shortcake and Jim Henson children’s products.

“I really wanted to prove that I could do something scary because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed just in animation,” says Kirschner. “I am someone who strongly believes that children have the most glorious imaginations by day, but by night they have the darkest of imaginations.”

While developing projects for Disney, Kirschner stumbled onto Mancini's script, which had already made the rounds in town as a spec and had been passed over. He immediately connected to the premise, optioned Mancini’s script, and then injected the concept of serial killer Charles Lee Ray’s soul inhabiting the doll’s frame after being killed in a toy store.

“That’s the Frankenstein moment,” says Kirschner. “That’s what brings the character to life from flesh — or plastic in this case — to a moving thing, a monstrous psycho whose soul is stuck in that of the doll. Charles Lee Ray were the guys that haunted my childhood: Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray.”

Based on Mancini’s detailed descriptions of the freckled, red-headed doll and his overalls/striped shirt ensemble in the script (but not the original idea of Chucky having a Flock of Seagulls-styled ‘80s ‘do), Kirschner first brought Chucky to life as a graphite pencil drawing, brandishing a knife in a dark and creepy corridor. He presented the compelling likeness at pitch meetings as an enticement and soon multiple studios wanted to make the movie. United Artists was the winner, and brought on Freddy’s Nightmares director John Lafia to punch up the script.

“That got the green light and got it in front of lots of really important directors,” says Kirschner, who name-drops the likes of The Exorcist's William Friedkin, West Side Story's Robert Wise, Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kershner and Sleeping with the Enemy's Joseph Ruben as circling the project. Mancini adds that Howard Franklin and the directing duo of Rocky Morton and Annabelle Jankel also discussed possible involvement. Tom Holland, hot off the success of his vampire comedy-thriller Fright Night, ultimately came aboard to take a stab at the script and to direct the project that finally had its definitive title: Child’s Play.

“I wanted to do a killer doll movie,” says Holland. “I knew that if I wrote in set pieces and suspense pieces based on the doll coming alive and going after the mother and son that I had a very visually dynamic potential in the movie. And that’s why I took it on.”

Mancini remembers, “I was very excited; I was a fan of Fright Night and Psycho II and Cloak and Dagger. I was a film student and inexperienced and it was taken for granted that, ‘Of course Tom’s going to rewrite the script.’ … He preserved that narrative and dramatic thrust from my original script of the doll having to get to the kid to live on. But in his version of it, he brought in the voodoo and the rule that Charles Lee Ray could only transfer his soul into the body of the first person he revealed his true self to.”

As the project continued to evolve, Holland left for a time to direct the Whoopi Goldberg action shoot ‘em up Fatal Beauty, and then returned to Child’s Play with a secret weapon that he picked up on that shoot: Brad Dourif. “He had played the villain for me in Fatal Beauty and he was able to convey a gleeful sadism; he made it fun,” says Holland of the Chucky franchise’s stalwart vocal talent. “You can go look at the end of Fatal Beauty and see Chucky in Brad’s performance. The wicked sense of humor that his voice work brought to [Chucky] was intentional from day one.”

Principal photography on Child’s Play began in January 1988 with a variety of Chicago locations before the production moved to Los Angeles for soundstage work in Culver City. It soon became apparent to those working on the production that Holland and Kirschner did not see eye to eye on a lot of things. That considerable on-set tension was compounded by extensive technical difficulties with the Chucky doll that would often see the schedule’s momentum grind to a halt. “It was very, very slow and laborious; it worked like a son of a bitch,” says Holland, while Kirschner remembers, “There was constantly frustration.”

The filmmakers were struggling to pull off convincing animatronic work that had not been done before, yet Holland only has praise for special-effects technician Kevin Yagher’s “brilliant work.” Yagher, who designed the Chucky doll and helped to execute it on camera, had previously cut his teeth on a number of other horror franchises, including Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. He also constructed the Crypt Keeper for Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (notably, he also married Child’s Play star Catherine Hicks in 1990). Yagher’s team fabricated a series of heads to create an emotional range for Chucky that swung from, “I’m being friendly to I’m going to kill you!” says Holland. “If you cut together three or four of them, you had a change of expression that was frightening.” He adds with a laugh that sometimes the figure’s eyeline “would slowly start to drift either left or right and away from whoever the doll was talking to, because they couldn’t control it.”

One of the ways the filmmakers enabled Chucky to move convincingly on his own was by building entire sets six feet above the ground so the puppeteers could operate the doll from beneath the floor. Holland points out, “In order to make the illusion of a doll coming to life work, you need, ‘Look ma, no wires!’ You need shots that the audience can’t figure out. You’ve got to have shots where you go, ‘Holy shit, how did they do that?’”

Humans in costume also filled out the doll’s range of movement abilities, a simple yet effective ploy that tricks the audience just as they think they have a bead on the doll’s range of movement capabilities. One brief moment in which Chucky runs behind the furniture actually featured one of Kirschner’s close neighbors, two-year-old Hunter Marks, was dressed in a wig and overalls running to the arms of his mother. It turned out to be one of the more jarring moments of the movie. “I think it’s one of the great creepy shots of all time,” says Holland. Other shots required the use of little person/actor Ed Gale to pull off convincing Chucky choreography, such as in the climactic burn sequence in the fireplace. Kirschner says burning an actual animatronic doll would have proven to be too expensive for the production.

As for Chucky’s convincing mouth syncopation, Mancini credits late puppeteer Brock Winkless for helping the team pull it off. He wore a catcher’s mask-like apparatus that would manipulate Chucky’s lips and jaw while he delivered lines already recorded in pre-production by Dourif. “Brock would have to syncopate his fingers doing the lips — with his jaw wired into Chucky’s jaw — in order to articulate along with the voice track,” explains Mancini. “Insanely time consuming because the problem is it’s so easy to lose a take because we’re not in sync with the track, and then that locks you into how much you can move the camera. It’s a big nightmare. … Bride of Chucky was the first movie where they could [use] a computer prior to shooting. Brad would record the lines and then the puppeteer would [preprogram] Chucky’s mouth before we got on set so we would never lose any takes to synchronizing the mouth with the track. … It was a huge time saver.”

Holland also gives “a huge amount of credit” to Hicks and how she manipulated the doll to make her climactic onscreen struggle look convincing: “The moment where she threatens to throw the doll in the fireplace and she goes to light a match and Chucky grabs ahold of her and bites her in the neck — Catherine’s really the one that sold that.” Hicks, who at the time was a prominent face on the big screen thanks to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the Dudley Moore/Kirk Cameron body-switch comedy Like Father, Like Son in the preceding two years, gives a convincing performance as a single mother trying to cope with chaos and emotional turmoil around her. In directing her, Holland explains, “I had played the poignancy of a mother trying to save her little boy whom everybody is thinking is insane because he’s saying, ‘It’s not me, it’s Chucky!’ I thought there was something very moving about that.”

As for little Alex Vincent, who plays Andy, his initial friendship with the doll and subsequent fear of it had to be palpable in order to sell the foundation of the story. “I cast Alex Vincent because he was innocent, and yet there was something depressed about him,” recalls Holland. “There was something vulnerable about him. He was six years old. He didn’t know what was going on. But there was a sweetness and a sensitivity that came out of him.”

A crucial point in the film finds Andy behind bars in a pediatric psych ward fearing for his life and breaking down in tears. An emotionally complex scene that proved difficult to capture on film, Holland recalls his method to achieve the required results: “I kept having him do the scene again and again and again, and just by the repetition and also by my manic energy he went to tears and gave me everything I wanted. Understand that everybody here is trying to satisfy two masters at once, which is to protect the child to the greatest extent possible, and yet get the goddamn scene. And I needed Andy to go to tears.” Kirschner remembers that day from a different point of view: “[Holland] was screaming at him and saying things that a production could be shut down for today, but he made him cry and it feels real. He got an amazing performance out of him.” Holland adds, “You could say I bullied him. … I don’t know morally what the answer is, but if you don’t get the goddamn thing, don’t make scenes with kids.”

With production wrapped and the first rough cut assembled, a test audience got to see the first pass at Child’s Play. It didn’t play well, according to Kirschner and Mancini. “The original cut that Tom delivered was two hours,” explains Mancini. “It was quite long and definitely a lot of stuff needed to come out. It just needed a fleeter pace, the regular process that all movies go through.” Kirschner adds, “I think Tom did a very good job directing the film,” but he felt the director was too liberal in showing Chucky.

“They wanted to cut the amount of screen time of the doll,” confirms Holland, “and I said, 'No Chucky, no third act.’ I remember that turned into a very difficult situation.” Creative differences hit a fever pitch, and Holland departed the project. “You don’t see that on the screen, you just see what works,” says Kirschner diplomatically. “It was a lot of people coming together to bring out the best of it, and that’s what our jobs are as moviemakers.”

After Holland left the film, Mancini was invited by Kirschner into the editing room for his creative input. About 25 minutes of Chucky footage and a few more “investigative” moments with Chris Sarandon were cut, and Kirschner explains, “We did everything we could do to trim all of this back and show as little as possible of the doll because it was that much more frightening, just like Bruce in Jaws, or the title character in Alien.”

Following a streamlined cut that played much better to test audiences, Child’s Play was released in theaters on Nov. 9, 1988 and killed it at the box office, becoming the number one film in theaters that weekend. The film would go on to reap more than $33 million in its domestic run on a production budget of $9 million. Thrilled with the success of their first “child,” Kirschner and Mancini immediately began work crafting a sequel, with co-writer John Lafia recruited to direct the first followup.

“I did dream of sequels because there were Halloween movies and Friday the 13th movies,” says Mancini of the idea of cultivating Chucky into a franchise character. But he never imagined that his creation would stand the test of time and keep going with seven films and counting over three decades, not to mention a TV series in the works. “I got very lucky. I don’t think I could have imagined a franchise 30 years and counting, because were there any franchise at that time other than James Bond [that had lasted so long?]”

“If Child’s Play hadn’t been as exciting as it was, you wouldn’t have spawned all the sequels [and] I don’t think that it would be the worldwide brand that it has become,” says Holland, offering credit where credit is due: “I want to give it a tip of the hat: I don’t think that Child’s Play or Chucky would be as big as it is now if it weren’t for Don Mancini, because he’s gone and made all those [sequels] and it’s built its own fan base.”

“It was the right idea at the right time,” says Mancini of Chucky’s appeal. “I think we have a primal response to dolls that are alive because they fall into the uncanny valley. We have this simultaneous fascination and recoil from something that is a representation of the human form — but off. Just the idea that something we associate with childhood and innocence and good things — and subvert that and make it into something evil — I think that there’s an inherent fascination with that. The idea that this cute child’s plaything has a filthy mouth, I think that’s part of it, and then of course Brad Dourif’s performance of it is crucially important as well, because his performance is indelible and is a huge part of the fun.”

"The intention of horror movies is to stay with you and scare you,” concludes Kirschner. “It’s been a wonderful ride. … A lot of movies come and go, and to keep a killer doll alive for 30 years, it’s something we’re both very proud of.”

Now seven Chucky films deep, Mancini and Kirschner are prepping a multi-episode, small-screen take on Child’s Play. “With the end of Cult of Chucky I was deliberately setting up a TV series,” says Mancini of the 2017 entry that found the soul of Charles Lee Ray inhabiting not just one but several of the freckled Good Guys dolls by the end credits. “I had been wanting to do the multiple Chucky doll idea for awhile — [after] 30 years it seemed like we could do that now. I deliberately left that movie with a lot of cliffhangers.”

After spending time playing in the TV sandbox during the past five years with Hannibal and Channel Zero, Mancini was keen on expanding the Child’s Play narrative within a format that welcomes more character development. “I wanted to move into the realm of TV having done it myself as a writer,” he says, promising a linear narrative as opposed to an anthology format. “Being able to take these characters and look at them more over the course of eight or ten episodes on a weekly basis, rather than a 90-minute movie every three or five years, that’s very exciting to me.”

Mancini, who wrote and directed the last three Chucky movies, intends to helm the pilot of the TV series, if not more episodes, while juggling his duties as showrunner. As far as the onscreen talent is concerned, he confirms that in addition to Dourif continuing to voice Chucky, many of the regular characters of the films — and the actors who have played them — will be part of the TV series. “I think you can surmise who’s coming back,” he says. “We like the family aspect of it. It’s fun to work on characters with actors you’ve been working with for decades. There’s just something really unique about that. I want to preserve that. Chucky just seems bigger in pop culture than ever now. There’s a lot of appetite for [him] and I’m excited to get into it.”

One subject he’s not excited to get into is MGM’s current reboot of Child’s Play with Polaroid director Lars Klevberg at the helm and a script by Tyler Burton Smith, who wrote Kung Fury 2. When a photo of the new incarnation of Chucky made the rounds in September, Mancini infamously threw shade at it on social media, posting the “I don’t know her” Maria Carey meme on Twitter and declaring in all caps, “THIS IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY ON THAT SUBJECT.”

“Obviously I’m biased,” he says. “I prefer classic Chucky with Brad Dourif and all of our team, which is what we’re doing, and can’t speak too much to what MGM is doing. They asked me and David if we wanted to be executive producers on it. We said, ‘No thank you, we have our own thing to do’ — and that’s what we’re doing.”

And Kirschner does not mince words when he says that he does not like the idea at all of a competing Child’s Play film in the works: “It’s upsetting. It bothers me that they have the right to do this, but I’m honestly thrilled to see the fan reaction — so far the horror world has not been pleased, to say the least, by it. … Why would you do that to this franchise?”

With many fans and industry watchers indeed scratching their heads wondering why a reboot would be attempted while the main franchise is still going strong, Mancini and Kirshner are full speed ahead with their original vision. In addition to their TV series, they are promising even more features distributed by Universal, ensuring that their version of Chucky prime will stay “friends ‘til the end” with the series’ loyal legions of fans.