Good lord, Don Mancini’s Cult of Chucky is the 7th entry in the Child’s Play horror franchise, now tying with the Leprechaun series. How did we let this get so far?
The first three Child’s Play films came out in a rapid succession in 1988, 1990, and 1991, arguably the height of the horror franchise market. Inspired by a fad of creepy-as-hell realistic dolls with mechanized mouths that talked at the children, Child’s Play wondered what would happen if a serial killer, Charles Lee Ray, possessed one of these dolls and continued killing. Chucky, the Good Guy doll, shoved babysitters out of windows and terrorized little kids by juxtaposing the innocence of plastic toys with the horrific spectre of haunting and murder. Though fairly ludicrous, these first three movies played the horror fairly straight forming a neat trilogy of terror.
7 years later, after Scream revived the slasher genre, Don Mancini revived the Chucky franchise as a horror-comedy series with Bride of Chucky, this time helmed by famed Hong Kong director Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair). For the first time, Chucky becomes the main character of the series. Resurrected by Charles Lee Ray’s equally psychotic ex-girlfriend Tiffany Valentine, Chucky and Tiffany have to hitch a ride with star crossed lovers to find an amulet that will transfer their souls into human bodies again. The body count was higher, the laughs were funnier, and the series had new life breathed into it through comedy, pacing, and a higher budget.
For the next three sequels writer Don Mancini, who had been writing all of the Child’s Play scripts, took over the role of director. Unfortunately, Universal lost interest in the franchise, slashing the budget with each successive movie. Bride of Chucky had a budget of $25m, Seed of Chucky only got $12m, direct-to-video Curse of Chucky was stuck with a $5m budget, and who knows what budget Cult of Chucky has. With each budget cut, the difference on screen was palpable as Mancini struggled to expand the fireworks with successively less money.
Cult of Chucky takes place sometime after Curse of Chucky. Wheelchair-bound Nica (Fiona Dourif) is in a mental asylum after she was diagnosed with schizophrenia after she blamed Chucky for massacring her whole family. Even though we know the truth, Nica’s doctors have brainwashed her into accepting her own guilt before they place her in a medium security asylum similar to the one in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There, she’s allowed to roam the halls, socialize with the patients, and try to heal in full view of other patients. All seems to be going as well as it might be until Chucky dolls start arriving.
Meanwhile, original victim Andy Barclay is hanging out and trying to find a nice intelligent girl to date. His latest date turns him down based on his deadly past and that’s before he can reveal that he has a live Chucky head which he tortures nicely for fun and games. This Chucky head seems to bear the soul of Charles Lee Ray, but so do a couple of the other dolls at the asylum. Murders ensue.
Mancini’s writing is hilariously fun and batshit crazy. His writing maintains a blend of vicious humor and deadly terror, allowing for maximal kills without sacrificing the laughter. The problem is, Mancini isn’t actually that great of a director. Actually, I would say he is quite a terrible director. Yes, Child’s Play is his baby – he’s been the sole screenwriter since the beginning – but his first directorial outing was the ill-paced over-the-top camp sequel Seed of Chucky. It was a serious step down from the fast-paced darkly-hilarious Bride of Chucky which threw quotables at the audience with as much ferociousness as Chucky and Tiffany threw murders.
Some of the problems stem from the production design; set mostly in a stark white insane asylum in the dead of Canadian winter surrounded by white snow and dead trees, there isn’t much color to hang on to. Some of this stems from Mancini waffling between tones, unable to decide whether he wants to create a horror with comedic underpinnings (e.g. The Evil Dead) or a horror-comedy (Bride of Chucky), both of which require two specific types of tension that Mancini never quite gets. Maybe some of this is the music and cinematography, which never fully commits to either side. Or, maybe its the acting where Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly go way over the top with their characters while Fiona Dourif is deadly serious and everybody ranges in between.
I really wish Cult of Chucky had pulled itself together because the core concept is actually quite a lot of insane fun. Seemingly for the first time, Mancini is finally comfortable adding in queer characters to the story. The kill scenes are creative and graphic. There’s a lot here to love in bits and pieces, but it just needs a stronger director to keep the engine churning along.
P.S. The Unrated version of Cult of Chucky may have a couple extra shots of gore here and there, but the bulk of the extra minute of running time is taken up by a post-credits stinger. The unrated version runs almost 91 minutes, while the rated version runs just under 90 minutes.