For a while, Lars Klevberg’s remake of the 1988 slasher classic Child’s Play will have you thinking that Chucky has gone soft. The murderous doll at the center of the franchise really just wants to love and be loved. He has a puppy-like devotion to his nearly pubescent owner Andy (Gabriel Bateman). They play games, they laugh, and they hang out in dark parking lots while Andy’s mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) canoodles with her dickhead boyfriend Shane (David Lewis). Chucky watches Andy like a hawk and seems to need as much attention from Andy as the lonely Andy does from the robot—Chucky waits by the door for Andy to return home from school, and he hovers over Andy as he attempts sleep, begging, “Is it time to play again? Are we having fun now?”
It’s soon clear, however, that this kinder, more sentient Chucky does not represent a sanding down of its source material’s rough edges for a world that (sometimes, generally arbitrarily) demands more compassion and thoughtfulness in its pop culture; instead, the changing of Chucky’s early sensibilities is one of several examples of how the new Child’s Play outdoes the original in sheer extremity at virtually every opportunity. It is funnier, gorier, nastier, smarter, more satirical, and way more referential than the original. It’s also way better than it has any right to be—of the major ’80s slasher remakes (including 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2007's Halloween, 2009's Friday the 13th, and 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street) none has been able to capture the spirit of the original and push it into new discursive territory nearly as well as this new iteration of Child’s Play. It is a movie that alternates between making fun of its absurd premise and teasing out the horror of an app-controlling doll with homicidal tendencies run amuck. This Child’s Play has its cake and eats it, too, but not before plunging the knife in and out of it several times.
This time, instead of being possessed by a criminal who does black magic on the side (literally the premise of the original film), Chucky is an AI robot—something like a cross between Alexa and a mogwai. A disgruntled worker at the Buddi doll factory in Vietnam programs one particular doll to remove its “violence inhibitors” in order to stick it to his boss—that doll ends up in the possession of Andy after it’s returned to the department store where his mom works, Zed Mart (it seems it’s supposed to be a Walmart, but it looks more like a Marshall’s in terms of its layout, low ceilings, and lack of retina-frying lighting). Slavishly obsequious, Chucky learns Andy’s likes and dislikes (his cat, named Mickey Rooney, and his mother’s boyfriend fall in the latter category) and attempts to make his life easier... with deadly results. Chucky learns how to stab from Andy’s brutish way of making sandwiches, and he gets a real taste for violence when Andy and some kids who live in the same building watch Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Without being self-serious enough to firmly moralize, Child’s Play peppers its carnage with gestures of social commentary. The movie wonders what devastation would result in a being absorbing American culture without a prevailing respect for humanity to act as a filter. There’s the aforementioned indictment of cheap foreign labor, an overall side-eye at capitalism (it goes something like Mo’Nique’s famous Charm School platitude: When you do capitalism, the capital comes back to bite), a Black Mirror-esque hypothesis of what we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to when we allow for a tech monopoly by decking our homes in wall-to-wall Apple products (Chucky is able to eventually control a host of plugged-in services like a thermostat and a ride share service because, like him, they were all made by the Kaslan Corp.)
There’s even a scene of grotesque consumerism that calls back to the Cabbage Patch fever of the 1980s, as shoppers foam at the mouth while lined up for the release of the Buddi 2 doll (one of such models comes upholstered in teddy bear fur). There’s probably a thinkpiece to be written about the wave of working single moms in modern horror whose obligations to support their families also leave the door open for said family’s potential destruction (see also Ma). I’m not entirely sure that these movies even have coherent positions on this issue to intentionally blame the moms (or is it the system that they live in?), mostly because there’s so much going on otherwise and when the mothers realize the crisis at hand, they act accordingly.
The references alternate between blatant and sly. Andy’s red hoodie is a clear throwback to Elliott’s in E.T., and Child’s Play has an extremely ’80s sensibility in its early scenes of Andy bonding with a practical, non-human entity. Posters for Poltergeist III and Killer Klowns from Outer Space adorn Andy’s neighbor’s walls, and as Chucky goes increasingly haywire and bodies pile up, there’s a sense of deadly mischief that I haven’t seen so giddily enacted since Gremlins. A few of the casualties feel overly cruel and threaten to harsh the mellow, but the swift pace barely allows you to take anything seriously. Brian Tyree Henry, rather excellently, plays a world-weary straight man type, a cop whose mother lives in Andy’s building, and he nonetheless gets one of the movie’s funniest lines (“A white guy died in a watermelon patch. Poetic.”). At one point, “This is for 2Pac,” is used as a punchline??? Both well-intentioned but not afraid of nihilism, the fun of Child’s Play resides in how unpredictable its sequence of events is. The film is every bit as desperate to please as this new interaction of Chucky, and more often than not, it works.
Child’s Play is currently in theaters, June 21.