HEAT VISION

How 'Child's Play' Builds on the Legacy of Horror Remakes

The reboot is unlikely to have earned its positive reception without the panned reboots of the 2000s paving the way.

[This story contains spoilers for Child's Play.]

Since its announcement, the remake of Child’s Play has been met with an uncharacteristic level of dread from horror fans. It’s not the factor of being a reboot that led to the response, but that creator Don Mancini, who has lovingly shepherded the Child’s Play/Chucky franchise for 30 years, is still in the midst of his narrative, which is expanding to a Syfy channel series next year. Mancini has understandably denied his support vocally for the new film.

It’s a tough situation, but horror remakes without the blessings of their creators happen all the time, for better or worse. But MGM’s Child’s Play remake happening at the same time Mancini and Universal are continuing their Chucky franchise through VOD and TV releases is the first time we’ve seen dueling versions of the same property from different studios since James Bond in 1983.

I’ll admit, I was plenty skeptical of the new film, going as far to write that the very idea of a remake while the series was still continuing was a bad idea. Even for those audiences unaware or uninvested in the upcoming TV series, there was an expectation that when MGM’s Child’s Play, produced through Orion Pictures, would hit theaters, it would come and go without making so much of a blip on the radar. Then the unthinkable happened. Child’s Play got positive reviews and won over some of the most vocal members of the horror community. So when everything pointed to Child’s Play ’19 being a quick cash-grab, and original horror blazing a trail for the genre, how did the remake manage to win over so many skeptics?

Despite the fear that comes with any announcement of a remake, fans of the horror genre have largely embraced the format. Of course there are still a fair share of naysayers, but for the most part, those who like to dabble in the darker arts of film history recognize that remakes and adaptations have been a key part of the genre almost since the very beginning. Not only did the early days of film offer multiple adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before the 1931 classic, but 1920 saw the release of two American adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We may not always like the final product we receive, but for modern audiences a horror remake holds the dim glimmer of potential to be the next masterwork like The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) or Suspiria (2018), or exist within the much broader spectrum of slickly made and highly entertaining bloodbaths like The Blob (1988), The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Evil Dead (2013).

Child’s Play, the latest release from the revitalized Orion, certainly doesn’t fall into the masterwork category. Yet, Lars Klevberg’s remake of Tom Holland’s 1988 film of the same name delivers a satisfying and gruesome reinvention of the popular killer-doll tale that fits right in with the slasher movie remakes of the mid-2000s. Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Wait, weren’t most of those mid-2000s remakes poorly reviewed?” The answer is yes. The glut of remakes offered from 2002 to 2009 left the genre feeling overcrowded with remakes, regardless of financial success. But over the past decade, the popularity of original and independent horror has created a dark little corner where a number of these remakes can be re-evaluated and find new fans. While they may not have gained the favor of general audiences or prominent critics, horror remakes like House of Wax (2005), Black Christmas (2006), Halloween (2007), and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) have found a home in horror-fan hearts over the years, and are often the subject of reevaluation retrospectives. The new Child’s Play fits in nicely with this camp, employing the same level of snark and post-9/11 mean-spiritedness. It’s dated for a 2019 film, yet oddly elicits a sense of nostalgia for fans of those mid-2000s films, fans like myself whose ability to sneak into R-rated horror movies were honed on those films. As much as many of those aforementioned remakes pale in comparison to the originals, just as the new Child’s Play does, they were formative experiences for many a horror fan whose enjoyment of the remakes led them to the originals.

But beyond its dated slasher-remake appeal, the new Child’s Play is tailor-made for the Netflix generation who have turned niche properties into sensations. Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his tough-talking friends are an exaggerated version of contemporary urban American teenagers, complete with an affinity for the '80s. From visual references to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to the more direct usage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Child’s Play’s younger characters are filtered through the lens of Stranger Things. While nothing beats the odd eeriness of a serial killer possessing a doll through voodoo practices, this new AI Chucky (Mark Hamill) reflects the technophobia of audiences who have already plugged into Black Mirror. Thus the silly premise of a killer robotic doll is buyable, only one step removed from the more implausible Black Mirror episodes.

As a remake, Child’s Play works because it isn’t just doing the same thing we’ve seen before. A fear of serial killers and Talky Tina-inspired living dolls has been replaced by concerns about the ease we have let corporations like Amazon enter our lives through Echo devices like Alexa. And this is coupled with a deeply American fear that our consumerism can be used against us should the people who make our products overseas finally get fed up with sweatshop labor in the service of U.S. expansionism. Despite some surface-level sociopolitical considerations, at no point does the world the film takes place in feel entirely real. Rather everything is wrapped in the gauze of pop culture allusions, protecting it from the slings and arrows critics would usually release at such a pic, and connecting it to the pop-reference-heavy Chucky films of 1998 and after.

Child’s Play is an odd little monster, and it is highly aware of it. Every performer in the film — Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry, in particular — know exactly what kind of film they’re in. The movie falls just short of camp, but shows just enough amusement with itself and its cult sensibilities to come across as charming. It’s a film that, against all odds, works because it’s a continuation of the horror-remake conversation of the previous decade. Child’s Play 2019 could not exist, and certainly couldn’t have earned its critical approval, without the primer that was those horror remakes of the 2000s, or our affinity of taking the cult and making it mainstream. Child’s Play is just interesting enough to make a case for its continuation alongside Mancini’s ongoing narrative, proving Chucky remains just as surprising as ever.

  • Richard Newby
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