Cult of Chucky (2017)

DECEMBER 5, 2017


Universal has a weird knack for keeping series not only going longer than anyone would have guessed, but in some ways IMPROVING as they go on. The Fast & Furious series is only now starting to fall apart (largely due to the real life death of its main character), but in those sorry post-2 Fast days, who would have guessed that part 5 would be the apex of the series and that part 7 would gross over a billion dollars? Or that there would even BE that many sequels? Likewise, when Child's Play 3 came and went without fanfare, it should have been the end of the series, but they revived Chucky seven years later with Bride of Chucky and have continued to make new sequels that people eagerly look forward to (even demand), a far cry from some of its competition where sequels are made only to retain the rights to make more of them (cough, Hellraiser, cough). Cult of Chucky is the newest entry in this consistently surprising series, and while it doesn't quite hit the mark as well as the previous entry (Curse of Chucky), it's a more than worthy addition to the franchise.

Plus, to be fair, Curse was blessed with a bit of a handicap - no one was expecting "Child's Play 6" to be any good, especially when it was going direct to video (the others were all theatrical releases). But it turned out to be a terrific restart for the series, and it did so without "rebooting" or ignoring entries - what appeared to be a largely unrelated entry (or the dreaded "True sequel to the original" approach taken by pretty much every Texas Chainsaw movie) turned out to be very much tied in with the established mythology. When Chucky washed makeup off his face to reveal the scars on his face from his previous injuries, I got downright giddy in a film I was already very much enjoying, as it was a return to the original's suspenseful roots, and director Don Mancini was essentially making an old-school "Old Dark House" movie (complete with a fight over inheritance!) with Chucky standing in for the usual fake ghost or whatever. This time, we KNOW these films can measure up, so the element of surprise is diminished a bit.

At least, when it comes to the overall quality - its narrative is very much on par with the last few sequels, in that you probably wouldn't have guessed where the plot would go. At the end of the last film, Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Brad "as the Voice of Chucky" Dourif) was sent to an institution after being blamed for all of the murders Chucky committed there, while our favorite Good Guy doll got his head blown off by his old nemesis, Andy Barclay. When this one begins, we see Andy going on a disastrous date, then going home to forget his troubles with a beer and a blunt that he shares with... Chucky's disembodied head! Turns out Andy aimed a bit to the side, so while Chucky's looking pretty terrible he's still alive, and the two have a weird co-dependent "friendship" of sorts. Honestly I could have watched a whole movie of this, but before long we're off to catch up with Nica, who was just transferred to a minimum security institute and is seemingly starting to believe that she really did commit the murders, not Chucky. However, her psychiatrist wants to make sure she's really over her fear of the doll, so he buys one (from Hot Topic!) and introduces it to her and her fellow patients. But Chucky's soul is with Andy, so there's no way this one could be alive, right?

Well, if you're wondering what the title was referring to, now you have your answer. Seems Chucky found a way to spread his soul across more than one doll, and once that's established, the movie comes off almost like a Thing variant of sorts, as you're wondering if he's been able to possess any humans along with an increasing number of Good Guy dolls that have found their way to the hospital. Not only does this allow for suspenseful scenes that Chucky isn't even present for (her shrink is seemingly crazier than Chucky, something even the doll notes), but also gives Brad Dourif a chance to have a couple scenes where he talks to himself, as Chuckys argue over who gets to kill someone or whatever. The stuff with the psychiatrist can drag a little in spots, but it's offset by the other patients that he's in charge of, one of whom takes a liking to Chucky because she thinks it's her dead son (leading to what might be the series' first truly horrifying moment). Mancini has a knack for creating characters that are almost automatically interesting, allowing him to quickly get back to Chucky (or Nica, our hero) without having to spend too much time making sure we know/care about these new people. I particularly liked the orderly, Carlos (Zak Santiago), who in one brief scene tells us more about who he is as a person - both with dialogue and actions - than I've ever learned about the main characters in certain Jason or Freddy films. It's testament to both Mancini and the actors that we don't need Chucky on-screen every second to be invested in the story.

But naturally, the film is at its best when it's letting Chucky do his thing. Dourif's as good as ever (his delivery of "I just CAN'T with this guy!" is an all timer in context, which I can't spoil here), and the animation is much improved over the previous film, where Chucky's face seemed to be completely different in some scenes. A behind the scenes clip on the Blu-ray shows that they are still using practical puppets with a number of operators for the facial expressions, so while there might be a few computerized "touch ups" here and there, he's still very much a practical effect and I'm never not appreciative of how well they pull it off (though I think the pre-CG Child's Play 3 remains the best he's ever looked). Since he's not just trying to play "hide the soul" every five seconds he's got more to do here than in many of the other sequels, and is up and about most of the time we see him as opposed to Curse, where the plot dictated that he remain still for a while. After the largely comedy-free Curse, Mancini seems to be dipping back into comedy at times (complete with a meta joke about Hannibal's cancellation - Mancini worked on the show), but the comedy largely works and is still nowhere near the level of the (horror-free) Seed of Chucky.

Chucky also really pops thanks to the film's visual style. As it's set in an institution, you can imagine that you'll be seeing a lot of sterile, nearly color-free environments, so when Chucky scampers down a hallway or someone carries him through the room, you can't help but zero in on him (another reason to be relieved that they do such a great job with the doll work). Mancini also peppers the film with diopter shots and split screens, and it doesn't take much effort to realize he's paying homage to Brian DePalma, which he admits to on the commentary (and in our interview!) and works remarkably well in the context of a Chucky film. As I was saying about the films being surprising, each one has its own flavor and style (remarkably, the three Mancini directed himself are the most varied), so you get a certain kind of film (in this case, the mental institution/psychological thriller movie) but now with Chucky, and so using these specific devices actually has two uses. One, it helps set it apart from the others, but the more important second one is that it gives the audience a bit of a subconscious shorthand to know what kind of movie Chucky is invading this time.

I do wish they had taken another pass at the editing, however. It's actually a few minutes shorter than Curse (the series' longest entry), but it feels a bit sluggish at times, even a bit repetitive in some cases. Indeed, some of the split-screen shots were created in editing (not the original design) in order to speed things along, and I can't help but wonder if that tactic could have been employed elsewhere. The climax is also a bit stiff compared to the others - there's big stuff happening to the characters (particularly in Nica's case), but visually it lacks oomph compared to the others. With Andy back it's easy to remember the big climaxes of CP2 (the toy factory) and 3 (the carnival), and here it mostly just amounts to a few people (and even Chucky) standing around talking. I don't need the hospital to blow up or anything, but a chase or something would have been nice; even if we've seen that sort of thing before it would at least send us off with a bit of an adrenaline rush. It's an unusual film in that the bulk of the "money shot" action occurs in the middle, so that coupled with the slight overlength deflates the movie a bit.

That said, the closing scene (along with the post-credits teaser) suggests a more female-driven followup, which I think would go over like gangbusters. Not to mention, given the current social/political climate, a "woke" Chucky movie might be kind of fascinating as long as Mancini and co. can successfully pair it with whatever new sub-genre they plan to ape next. I'm not a huge fan of Bride or Seed, but I know folks love them, and in turn Tiffany, so I'm sure they'd be happy to see her return after sitting these two out. I just hope they don't go full-blown comedy again; the little asides here were fine (though the shoutouts to earlier kills - "All actual examples!" - were clunky AF) but I'm far more impressed by their ability to make this goofy concept work in the suspense/horror mode. But whatever path they take, I know not to underestimate Mancini (and producer David Kirschner, who has also been around for all of them), so I eagerly await the next one - even if it means my sweet "Complete Collection" boxed set will be obsolete!

What say you?


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