'Child's Play': THR's 1988 Review

Child's Play Still - Photofest - H 2018
Courtesy of Photofest

On Nov. 9, 1988, the horror character Chucky debuted as Child’s Play hit theaters. While the technical aspects of the film were praised, the characters and material were not. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:

Many horror films tread a thin line between the frightening and the absurd. Child’s Play, United Artists’ new horror film directed by Tom Holland (Fatal Beauty, Fright Night), wobbles too often on the wrong side of that line.

As a result, its box office take is likely to be equally erratic, with its best prospects being for a quick smash-and-grab, a la the method of operation of its main villain, a killer doll.

Horror films have often imbued icons of innocence with horrific significance, and the idea of a killer doll is not new. Back in the ‘30s there were movies such as The Devil Doll, in which Lionel Barrymore in drag shrunk people down into dolls that killed at his bidding, and The Great Gabbo, the first of many tales about a deadly ventriloquist’s dummy. The best examples of this sub-genre include the Michael Redgrave segment of Dead of Night and the Teddy Savalas vs. Talking Tina episode of the original Twilight Zone TV series.

Child’s Play has elements of these but with modern updating. The film gets off to a bang with Chris Sarandon as a police officer tracking down a serial killer (Brad Dourif) who is a practitioner of gris gris (a type of voodoo). Before being blown away, the killer transfers his soul into a talking doll.

Catherine Hicks gives the possessed plaything to her little boy, Andy (Alex Vincent), who has been programmed to want the doll by an animated kiddie show he watches. When the doll reveals its true nature to Andy and kills Andy’s babysitter (Dinah Manoff) because she won’t let the doll, Chucky, watch the news.

From this point on, writer-director Holland lets things get out of hand as Chucky continues killing and starts swearing in the killer’s voice. Naturally, when the adults catch on to what is happening, nobody believes them and they come off sounding like idiots. A particularly dumb attempt to generate suspense comes when Chucky attacks a character in a car. Instead of doing what any person of ordinary intelligence would do — stopping the car — this character steps on the accelerator to place himself in double jeopardy.

The film is in most respects well-crafted, and Holland shows good visual sense as a director. Joe Renzetti’s score helps generate tension, and Bill Butler’s cinematography makes Chucky credibly creepy. The film even shows evidence of a sense of humor (as did Holland’s last two films), which points to the opportunity lost to make the really funny/macabre comedy that this material calls for.

But as it is, most of the laughs seem unintentional and come too late in the movie — after several reels of serious build-up — for the audience to adjust to its tongue-in-cheek qualities. Making a good horror-thriller, or even a good horror-comedy, is not child’s play, as this schizoid film all too unfortunately proves. —Dennis Fischer, originally published on Nov. 9, 1988.