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Chucky, the doll that just won't die: the story of Don Mancini's friend 'til the end

1988's Child's Play
1988's Child's Play

For young children, the central conceit of the Toy Story franchise – that your beloved dolls, action figures and cuddly animals are secretly alive, springing into motion whenever your back is turned  – is irresistible.

Of course, when you think about it rationally, the realisation of this fantasy would be utterly terrifying – a fact which horror writers and directors know only too well. The more humanoid a toy is, too, the more uncannily frightening it can be rendered, and scary movies across the ages have consequently been filled with a plethora of demonic dummies and possessed dolls (just think of that horrible clown in Poltergeist).

Perhaps the most notorious evil doll of all, however, is Chucky, star of the Child's Play franchise. The pint-sized villain is now over 30 years old, and was this week given a new lease of life thanks to a big-screen reboot from the producers of It.

The first film in the series, Tom Holland's Child's Play, came out in 1988, and tells the story of how a dungaree-clad, ginger-locked "Good Guy" doll, the latest must-have toy for kids, is taken over by the spirit of ruthless killer Charles Lee Ray (voiced by Brad Dourif).  

The doll is picked up by single mother and widow Karen, who is desperate to please her young son Andy. Before long, six-year-old Andy is in a mental hospital, suspected of being responsible for Chucky's campaign of terror. Meanwhile his murderous "friend 'til the end", understandably fed up with being trapped in doll form, plots to take over Andy's body.

Childs' Play 3 Credit: Universal Pictures

The film's co-writer Don Mancini, who created the concept of the Chucky character (producer David Kirschner was responsible for Chucky's distinctive look), was inspired in part by the Eighties craze for the wildly successful but undeniably creepy-looking Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.

Mancini was also interested in the intimacy of  a child's relationship with his or her favourite toy, and by the way in which branding and marketing were selling the concept that a doll should also be your "best friend".

"Whenever Don writes anything he does, it's always a reflection of the times that we live in," Kirschner revealed in a 2008 interview with Movieweb.com. "At that point, Cabbage Patch was at its height and people were hurting each other to buy a Cabbage Patch and he really wanted to make a commentary on the fact that who we were as a society, that Madison Avenue was programming dolls to be your child's best friend. That's where the concept came from."

Child's Play 2

Physically speaking, while the film's Chucky doll was expertly animated by the special effects department, the contribution of actor and stunt double Ed Gale, who is 3ft 5in tall, also helped create the illusion that the chracter really was alive.

Gale, who donned blue dungarees, stripy jumper and red wig to play Chucky during scenes in which the villain moves about, runs, or falls, was cast after Holland learned that he had helped play the lead in the 1986 film Howard the Duck. He would later return for two more sequels.

“He [Holland] wanted someone physically capable of bringing the costume to life. I was known for doing just that," Gale later explained.

Three decades on, Child's Play is still a very scary film. For me (and, I am sure, countless others) its most chillingly jumpy moment comes when Karen, unconvinced by her son's insistence that the battery-operated talking doll, who has been uttering his innocuous pre-programmed phrases throughout the film, really is "alive", picks up the box he came packaged in... and discovers that his batteries were never inserted in the first place.

She hesitantly picks him up, checks the back cavity (no batteries!), and stares down at the still, silent doll in her hand... who suddenly springs into malevolent life.

"Hi, I'm Chucky. Wanna play?"

Child's Play was followed by Child's Play 2 (1990) and Child's Play 3 (1991), which continue the story of Chucky and Andy, and by the more comedic Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004), which focus on the character's amusingly dysfunctional relationship with equally evil partner Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), who is also transformed into doll form.

Mancini, whose career betrays a longterm devotion to his creation, later took over as director, helming Seed of Chucky, and then rebooting the franchise with 2013's Curse of Chucky, which attempted (fairly successfully) to bring back some of the horror elements of the original films. The film also featured Brad Dourif's daughter, Fiona Dourif, in a starring role (one that effectively required her to be terrorised by her own father, or at least by the doll bearing his voice).

Packed with knowing references and in-jokes, it employed an enjoyably tense slow build, during which an unwitting family, later revealed to have a tragic past link to Ray, were tortured anew by the evil antagonist. 

The latest straight-to-VOD film, Cult of Chucky, moved the setting to a mental health institution, employing ambitious, surreal dream sequences. "I don’t know why people would take the approach of doing the same things with a sequel," Mancini has said. "Sequels offer the opportunity to subvert expectations. All good storytelling is about good surprises."

At London's FrightFest in 2013, Mancini spoke about how moved he was by the enduring affection that British fans seem to have have for the franchise. Even the critically panned "Seed", which focuses in part on Chucky and Tiffany's child, has a place in the hearts of ardent Chucky aficionados.

Seed of Chucky (2004) Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

This country's relationship with the films hasn't always been straightforward, however. For some, the series will always be inextricably linked to the tragic 1993 murder of 3-year-old James Bulger, who was killed by two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

At the time of the pair's trial, the influence of violent movies  – the infamous "video nasties" – was cited by the press as a possible motive for the boys' horrific behaviour. Particular emphasis was placed on Child's Play 3, which Venables's father was said to have rented out ahead of the crime. 

Videos, it was also believed, could have a much more serious effect on malleable audiences than cinema screenings, due to the fact that viewers could pause them and replay scenes of extreme violence and/or gore again and again.

In the March of 1994, an alliance of 25 child psychologists and experts called upon Home Secretary Michael Howard to crack down on video violence, submitting a report by the psychologist Professor Elizabeth Newson to back up their claims. "Many of us hold liberal ideas dear, but now we begin to feel that we were naive in our failure to predict the extent of damaging material and its all too free availability to children," the group said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in a piece for The Times titled "The Nasty Truth", journalist Margarette Driscoll argued that the influence of violent material on children was undeniable, and that it was time for decades of misguided "permissive liberalism" to be overturned.

Jon Venables (left) and Robert Thompson, pictured after their arrest in 1992 Credit: PA

"The genie is out: what the specialists have finally confirmed that continued exposure to violence, murder and mayhem adversely affects our children has been plain as a pikestaff to any caring parent for years," she concluded. "The tenor of our society has been set by the very people who are belatedly admitting they might be wrong. The irony is that the children most likely to be damaged are those being brought up in sink estates where family values no longer hold sway – the products of the 'anything-goes' society."

In fact, however, while the public outrage at the crime was understandable, as was the desire to find something or someone to blame, the widespread moral panic stemmed from a misconception. There was simply no evidence that either of the two young killers had ever seen the film, a fact later confirmed by Inspector Ray Simpson, one of the police officers who dealt with the case.

"If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children," he told the Guardian at the time.

Childs' Play 3 Credit: Universal Pictures

A suggestion by the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, that violent videos might have been to blame for the atrocity, was also later challenged by investigating police.

"I don't know where the judge got that idea from. I couldn't believe it when I heard him," an officer told The Independent in 1993. "We went through something like 200 titles rented by the Venables family. There were some you or I wouldn't want to see, but nothing – no scene, or plot, or dialogue – where you could put your finger on the freeze button and say that influenced a boy to go out and commit murder."

Despite the many refutations across the years however, however, the pervasive belief in a link between Child Play 3 and the Bulger murder will perhaps never be fully dispelled. Indeed, the Daily Mail was still arguing that the film was to blame as recently as 2010.

In the main part, however, society has moved on – as proved by the new big-budget reboot of Child's Play. With Star Wars' Mark Hamill voicing the killer doll, it is the first Chucky film to be made without Mancini's involvement, and the stars of his ongoing franchise are none too happy about it. "#NotMyChucky" tweeted Tilly, while Brad Dourif posted a threat from the doll himself.

“MGM retained the rights to the first movie, so they’re rebooting that," Mancini explained in a 2018 podcast interview. "They asked David Kirschner and I if we wanted to be executive producers. We said 'No thank you', because we have our ongoing thriving business with Chucky. Obviously my feelings were hurt.

"You know, I had just done two movies [Cult and Curse]… forgive me if I sound defensive, [they] were both at 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Even though they didn’t get theatrical releases, they were well regarded. And I did create the character and nurture the franchise for three f---ing decades...  

"So when someone says,'Oh yeah, we would love to have your name on the film...' it was hard not to feel like I was being patronized. They just wanted our imprimatur of approval. Which I strenuously denied them”

However, Mancini has not been put off by the row: he is currently working on a Chucky TV series for Universal, expanding on the shared universe of his films, and expected to premiere in 2020 on the Syfy channel. With two rival Chuckys now in existence, it's proof that the "Good Guy" won't be going away any time soon.