“Cult of Chucky” (2017): Child’s Play Grows Up

Of all the 80s horror franchises, the Child’s Play franchise has the most unique evolution and consistent longevity in terms of continuity. Which is especially interesting given they were all written – and the last few directed – by the same man Don Mancini. 1988’s Child’s Play is a pretty straight forward narrative of killer-possesses-doll-then-manipulates-child-while-killing story, as Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) becomes a Chucky “Good Guy Doll.” Child’s Play 2 followed suite to varying degrees of success. Bride of Chucky went the Scream route to satirize the concept and Seed of Chucky went the extra mile to turn into a goofy Hollywood satire that barely even resembled a horror movie. Then, Curse of Chucky went straight to video a few years ago and actually managed to go back to the roots of the franchise with a straight forward gory slasher and some of the best human characters of the series.

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One of those characters is Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Brad) who we continue to follow in Cult of Chucky. Nica was introduced in Curse as a tragic character. Disabled from birth and looked down upon by her family as a burden, Nica shows a lot more intelligence and quick wit than many of the characters in this franchise. She’s on the up and up about Chucky fairly quickly into Curse, which makes the manipulation of her mind as she’s stuck in this mental institution. All the events she tried to prevent in Curse are pinned on her and now she is beaten down emotionally and psychologically by her abusive psychiatrist Dr. Foley (Michael Therriault). She’s definitely a victim of patriarchal abuse, but one who at least has an awareness of her surroundings and a desire to help those in need even if she can’t control it. Dourif mirrors her father in a few ways, with the fragile broken nature of his Billy Bibbit performances from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and the quiet intensity of his Gemini Killer character from Exorcist III. All while making this character her own and earning her leading position in the franchise. 

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Yet, she sort of ends up fading far more into the background of Cult of Chucky despite being a major motivation for the plot. It leads into Cult‘s largest problem: overstuffing. Don Mancini clearly has big plans for his universe and Cult ends up being more of a pot boiler to establish many of these ideas rather than a complete film on its own. One of the bigger examples of this is how Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) – the original protagonist from the first three films in the series – is introduced as a lead character… only to weave in and out of the film unless it’s convenient for building the new elements of Chucky and his powers. Sure, these elements are intriguing, particularly as the title comes into play. Yet, it results in uneven storytelling. None of this is helped by a clear indication from Vincent’s montone performance that the naturalistic charm he had in the first two films didn’t carry over into his adulthood.

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Cult of Chucky has some smart twists and turns on the formulas established in the series nearly 30 years ago, but also does this at the sacrifice of developing some of the side characters introduced and tonally shifting things all over the place. There are points of extremely gruesome gore followed by a vaudeville style routine of Chucky that dips this between Curse level dark stylized horror and Seed cartoonish goofiness in ways that don’t always coalesce that well.  Still, there’s a consistent fun energy going on, particularly as Brad Dourif gets to show more than a few different shades of the Chucky character. Honestly, the ideas being teased are so inventive and fun for the series. Directions that make so much sense to go down… though Cult spends most of its time teasing rather than taking advantage.

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All of this shows just how much Mancini has done to creatively expand his universe. For something that started off as a pretty simple magical slasher franchise, Mancini has gone down crazy avenues that play on many of the facets of Chucky as a cultural icon. Cult of Chucky also showcases how much he’s improved as a director from the sloppy first effort of Seed. There’s a sleek sterile atmosphere to the asylum setting that makes the titular dolls stand out as he roams the halls to slice and dice. The kills are honestly kind of beautiful to behold. Even the Chucky puppet is still impressive, though not quite as seamless and authentic as Curse‘s animatronic managed to be.

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Overall, Cult of Chucky is a bit inferior to its surprisingly amazing previous entry. One can see the various directions in which the franchise can tumble down into from here, but for now this is a place setting entry for that potential. One would hope that Mancini takes this into the daring levels teased at the end of this film, with such an inventive fun spin going on and how elements from earlier in the franchise are being unveiled. Yet, there’s a disproportionate amount of time spent setting up and making the newer characters – mainly in the asylum alongside Nica – set up for kills. That can be fine in context of a simpler slasher like the earlier films in the series. But the aspirations established in Cult are much bigger, yet the character interactions feel truncated in the pursuit of its ambition. Let’s just see if you can keep a Good Guy Doll down come the next installment.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Smashed Liquor Bottles

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