My editor was not born when Child’s Play came out in 1988 and so looked at me blankly when I begged and pleaded with her not to make me review Chucky (Sky Max), the latest screen incarnation of Don Mancini’s possessed doll – AKA the most famously malevolent inhabitant of the uncanny valley and one that traumatised for life anyone who saw the switchblade-wielding horror (“Wanna play?”) at too tender an age.
So, here I am and here, most definitely, is Chucky once more. It’s exactly the same Good Guy doll, with exactly the same backstory – parcelled out in a flashback or two in each of the eight episodes – and the fear is real. At least for viewers of my generation. Maybe the younger folk, who don’t come trailing clouds of monstrous formative trauma and/or have been hardened by the real-life horrors of the internet, will fare better. Let me know, if you can. I’ll be behind the sofa, hyperventilating.
This time round, we find Chucky being bought at a yard sale in New Jersey’s Hackensack (oh, people! NEVER buy anything at a Hackensack yard sale!) by unhappy teenager Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) for use in an art project involving dismembered dolls. Chucky, in whom the spirit of Hackensack serial killer Charles Ray Lee still resides, has other ideas.
He menaces Jake into submission then subtly changes tack to encourage Jake towards vengeful acts of his own. But not before he has the lie of the land, which includes Jake’s violent alcoholic father, a slyly vicious mean girl at school called Lexy (who is the girlfriend of Jake’s rich cousin Junior), and Jake’s crush on a boy called Devon who hosts a podcast about the area’s creepy history. There is a wonderful, kind of inverse-Carrie scene towards the end of the opening episode that causes you to suddenly find yourself rooting for Chucky. How far Jake will follow him – restrained by his conscience but propelled by his misery – is part of the growing tension.
The series is solid work. All the traditional beats are here. The swivelling eyes. A missing knife here, twitching rubbery fingers there. The unseen movement from chair to floor. The insane urge to check that he’s not behind me RIGHT NOW. The jump-scares. The real scares. The battery reveal. The blood and the gore (50% of you will be changing the way you load the dishwasher after episode two, for sure). Above all there persists the simple, visceral awfulness of knowing not just that the call is coming from inside the house but from inside an item supposed to be the embodiment of innocence.
There are occasional funny lines, a bit of light and shade, but the overall mood recalls the original Child’s Play rather than the more (albeit darkly) humorous sequels, let alone the later horror-comedies that were Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky. But there is enough fresh spin given to make it watchable in its own right too. Jake is struggling with his sexuality in a small town where it is not acceptable to be gay and his own father is violently set against him.
There are class (or at least financial) divisions, even within Jake’s own family and a sense of there being no safe harbour anywhere. These are themes that resonate with our own times and the temptations and freedom offered by evildoing are timeless. Chucky is a doll for all seasons. And he’s behind me, isn’t he?