24 July 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: BABY DOLL

It remains somewhat perplexing to me that the Child's Play films have supported such a robust (by horror standards) fandom: the first movie got by on a certain amount of uncanny atmosphere, and the second on a healthy measure of disorienting absurdity, but the classic trilogy coasted by almost solely on the strength of two things: the design of the murderous doll Chucky, and the vocal performance of the same by Brad Dourif. And yet, when Bride of Chucky rolled around in 1998, there was a measurable portion of the series followers who were put off by the jokey new tone that writer Don Mancini and director Ronny Yu introduced, seeing it as a violation of the "real" Chucky pictures. Things only got worse six years later, when Mancini made his directorial debut with Seed of Chucky, which tanked with critics and horror fans, and all on account of how the movie pushed the series all the way into out-and-out comedy; nay, not just comedy, but a wildly idiosyncratic blend of the most tasteless kind of gross-out comedy with a particularly acidic satire of Hollywood culture.

Seed of Chucky is a hybrid with admittedly few natural constituents, so the film's lack of success is hardly surprising; though as someone who A) thought the original Child's Play were already far too ludicrous to take seriously as horror, B) enjoys a good cheap shot at show business, and C) never says no to pointlessly disgusting gore effects, I'll admit that the film's failure is more than a little disappointing. Films as calculated in their perversion as this are rare indeed, and though it's not always successful - there's a Britney Spears joke that dies the most lingering death that a bad joke can suffer, for starters - the fact that Mancini and franchise producer David Kirschner were willing to go there at all speaks tremendously well of them.

As the last film took its cues from Scream, so does this one springboard off of Scream 2: the first act revolves around the production of a film based on the murderous doll from the first four pictures, titled Chucky Goes Psycho. The human lead of the film is Jennifer Tilly (Jennifer Tilly, who played the villainous woman and doll Tiffany in the last film), once a famous sexpot who is starting to fall apart in her age, and is reduced to taking whatever crumbs the industry will give her. We don't start out here, though: the first scenes of the film takes us to the International Ventriloquists Competition in Glastonbury, where an asshole ventriloquist named Psychs (Keith-Lee Castle) is tormenting his dummy, none other than the sentient doll born to the psychopathic Chucky and Tiffany at the end of Bride of Chucky; a gender-indeterminate collection of Disneyesque yearnings given the hurtful name of Shitface (Billy Boyd). Plagued by dreams in which it keeps killing people, Shitface longs to have a normal, loving family, and so it immediately manages to have itself shipped to Los Angeles, the minute it spots Chucky - sporting the same "Made in Japan" stamp as his child - on an Access Hollywood episode about the production of the Chucky Goes Psycho picture.

In California, played by Romania, Shitface quickly finds its parents - or rather, the puppets made for the movie in their likenesses; the "real" Chucky and Tiffany are still mouldering somewhere in New Jersey, one assumes. At any rate, voodoo curses don't care about that sort of thing, and Shitface accidentally uses the Heart of Damballa - the slightly-more-convoluted MacGuffin introduced in Bride of Chucky to replace the contrivance of the first three films - to resurrect its parents' souls. And while ordinarily, the revival of Chucky and Tiffany would be the cue for an expendable meat bloodbath, Seed of Chucky isn't looking to be ordinary.

The rest of the plot gets so enthusiastically warped that I don't quite know how to synopsise it, even if I was willing to spoil some of the film's best gags: the short version is that Tiffany decided to give up killing, like an addiction, for the sake of her child, to Chucky's great dismay; the dolls decide to impregnate Jennifer Tilly and stick the kid's soul - with Chucky preferring a boy and Tiffany preferring a girl, they can't agree on a new identity for Shitface, who is called either Glen or Glenda, depending on the circumstances (that little shout-out to schlock cinema history is one of Mancini's more obvious jokes) - inside the fetus ASAP, while Tiffany lays claim to Tilly's own body; meanwhile, Tilly is aggressively hunting for the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, in a new biblical epic directed by rapper-turned-filmmaker Redman (Redman).

Whatever else can be said about Seed of Chucky - whether it is funny or crass and broad, whether its embrace of the campiness of its subgenre is bracing and brilliant or just pathetic, whether its gore is wickedly tasteless or shallow - there is one thing that cannot be denied or ignored or downplayed: Jennifer Tilly gives every inch of herself to this movie. History is littered with celebrities making fun of themselves in self-referential roles; what Tilly is doing in this movie isn't playfully making fun of herself, but committing to a depiction of herself that is so merciless and savage and lacerating that one would be concerned for her psychological well-being, if only the results weren't so goddamned funny. The film's idea of Tilly is a brutal takedown of all washed-up C-listers, carping about how people more famous than they are get the best parts ("I could have done it without the Wonderbra", she fumes about Julia Roberts's turn in Erin Brockovich, and damned if she doesn't have a good point), cramming herself full of junk food, prostituting herself to play the Virgin Mary, as pointed out be her horrified assistant Joan (Hannah Spearitt). "Tilly", as a fictional construct, is a pathetic, sad-sack, monster of ego, and Tilly, the real-life actress, plunges deeper into the worst parts of the character than just about any star of any bloody-minded Hollywood satire I can name. It would be an excellent performance in any case; that it doubles as something so twisted by meta-narrativity, that it turns it into an act of sheer heroism. "I'm an Oscar nominee, for chrissake, and now I'm fucking a puppet!" she cries at one point, and in that moment comedy, satire, and self-loathing all coalesce into a perfect singularity

That is, as I say, the basement level of appreciation for the film: the point at which even the most hateful hater must (or at least ought to) concede that there's something special going on. For myself, I find quite a lot else to love about the movie, whether it's for noble reasons or completely prurient ones. For starters, a lot of it is just damn funny, sometimes in the broadest way possible, and often only because Dourif and Tilly's line deliveries are pitch perfect. "I am pushing, you little starfucker!" isn't a natural laugh-line, but Tilly made it hilarious. Freed from even the vestiges of serious horror priorities that formed the narrative spine, if nothing more, of Bride of Chucky, the actors and Mancini find quite a lot of pitch-black, warped delight to be mined from these characters, and it would be awfully easy to descend into a listing of all the dialogue that made me quite literally laugh out loud, but I'll content myself with one exchange: "Is Mummy ill?" asks a concerned Glen/da; "The courts thought so" is Chucky's response, spoken by Dourif with just the perfect amount of shrugging in his inflection.

And then there are the places where it's funny and smart: a riff on the wildly over-referenced "Here's Johnny!" scene from The Shining, the punchline of which I absolutely refuse to give away; the implicit mockery of the sober-minded family drama routine reflected in Glen/da's aching earnestness in the face of Chucky and Tiffany's apocalyptic violence (Boyd's vocal performance is amazing: sweet and simple enough that it's honestly not even that hard to feel sorry for the poor little mutant); just about every moment in which Tilly and Tiffany interact. There are the places where it's funny and smart and shockingly dark: Tiffany's attempts to give up killing involve a 12-step program, but making amends with those she's wrong proves rough when the widow of one of her victims starts to break down on the phone.

Above all, there are the places where it's just fucking with us, trying to push our buttons because why not? and sometimes being outrageous is its own reward. John Waters cameos as a paparazzo whose chief function in the movie is to spy on Chucky masturbating, with a thoroughly wicked grin on his face as much as to say, "I'm John Waters, and I approve this depravity".

Setting aside all of that, it's a remarkable piece of craftsmanship: in his first and only go behind the camera, Mancini proves entirely adept as a director; hard to say if he could actually do a horror film or a genuine thriller, but he does an exemplary job staging the zesty gore effects, at least. Meanwhile, the three dolls look dumbfoundingly good, better than ever before, with an incredible range of expressions that switch back and forth within seconds, just like a real human actor. It's all done with puppetry, too, and among the figures playing himself is Tony Gardner, one of the actual puppeteers, and before gets decapitated in a remarkably flashy way, we get to see plenty of loving close-ups on the mechanics of the puppets; the filmmakers' tribute, five films in, to the great artists who have always been the heart and soul of the Child's Play movies.

What it is not, however, is anything resembling a legitimate horror film, or a proper sequel in any customary sense of that word. Mancini and the actors and the crew obviously knew what they were up to, but nobody else seems to have done the same: a whole new distribution arm, Rogue Pictures, was created because Focus Features and Universal didn't know what the hell to do with the thing. It underperformed and continues to suffer a reputation as just a bad, bad movie, largely from the same people who are able to muster up any kind of nostalgia at all for the insipid Child's Play 3. And that's not un-fair, because Mancini isn't really pulling any punches: Seed of Chucky is quite mean at times in its pursuit of celebrity culture, of the business of filmmaking, of the pointlessness of derivative horror, and even of its own existence, which is acknowledged (if only elliptically) as part of the whole awful mess as the rest of it. "Gawd, can you believe it's another Chucky movie?" the script groans over and over, and it's not a shock that the people who might pay to see another Chucky movie were put out by that kind of statement. But it's that same ballsiness that makes Seed of Chucky such a racous treat, and one of the best examples of its genre in the whole of the '00s. Whatever the hell genre it ends up being.

Body Count: 13-ish, the series record: I say, "-ish", because three of them don't count at all, coming as a quick punchline, and one of them is a fake death in Chucky Goes Psycho, and two them are a dream sequence. And the ultimate fates of Chucky, Tiffany, and Jennifer Tilly are altogether too hard to parse.

Reviews in this series
Child's Play (Holland, 1988)
Child's Play 2 (Lafia, 1990)
Child's Play 3 (Bender, 1991)
Bride of Chucky (Yu, 1998)
Seed of Chucky (Mancini, 2004)
Curse of Chucky (Mancini, 2013)

11 comments:

The.Watcher said...

Yeah, I also really enjoyed this movie, though again, like with Bride, no one I personally know shares my sentiment. I also think the original tag-line for Seed was one of the best I've ever seen for a film:

"Deliver Us Some Evil"

I don't know why they later decided to change it the bland "Second Coming", but there ya go.

Ellen Brody Rocks! said...

This is for me the best film in the wholes series, it´s outrageously camp and damned if the ending doesn´t feel like something straight out of Mommie Dearest. Some sort of bonkers masterpiece:)

RickR said...

Damn you, Tim! Your review might just make me watch this!! I watched "Sleepaway Camp" because of you!!

Now "Seed of Chucky"??!! *shakes fist*

Colin said...

"'Tilly', as a fictional construct, is a pathetic, sad-sack, monster of ego, and Tilly, the real-life actress, plunges deeper into the worst parts of the character than just about any star of any bloody-minded Hollywood satire I can name. It would be an excellent performance in any case; that it doubles as something so twisted by meta-narrativity, that it turns it into an act of sheer heroism."

Yes!

In fact, "Yes!" to everything in this review!

Colin said...

By the way, have you seen the Netflix synopsis? Evidently, whoever wrote it did not bother to watch the movie:

"Chucky's back! This time, he gets a little help from his son, Glen, a doll as vengeful and malevolent as its predecessor. Glen's partner in crime is Tiffany, his "wife" who has a thirst for blood as lusty as his."

Tim said...

Wow, I did NOT read that. Who writes those blurbs, anyway?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tim, I have to say, seeing a consideration of the Chucky movies that doesn't turn out to be a sideways attempt to prove how much smarter the writer is than the movie and the people who like/love/hate them is something to treasure in and of itself. But your series here is a real treat, unafraid as you are to go against the grain in regard to a certain reverence for the first movie and to be so sharp in your consideration of the last two, which deserve exactly the kind of analysis and observation you bring to the party here.

I completely agree that Ronny Yu's BRIDE OF CHUCKY is brilliantly shot, cleverly scripted and very funny, and it should always be well-regarded for introducing Jennifer Tilly into the mix. But I really appreciate your putting your finger on what has always been the drag on the film, and that is its fairly conventional treatment of those runaway teenagers, which continually brings the movie back down to earth when you can feel it wanting to fly on the wings of Chucky's and Tiffany's mad and bloody romance. In the teen moments BRIDE become much more of a standard-issue horror film, even though it does end up transcending the oddities of the killer doll concept and laying the groundwork for greater glory to come.

And I must say, reading your sharp and properly awe-inspired piece of SEED OF CHUCKY actually made me shed a bit of a tear. When I first saw the film it was on DVD and it was close enough to the time of the movie's initial release and spell of bad reviews that I admit I was influenced by its bad reputation and, though I bowed at the feet of Jennifer Tilly and her performance, I felt the movie was a good try but not necessarily entirely successful. Perhaps it was that I saw it immediately after blanching my way through Michelangelo Antonioni's BLOW-UP-- that movie certainly put me in a sour frame of mind, but maybe SEED ended up looking better to me even then because of my distaste for Antonioni's artful antics. But it wasn't long after that that I realized there were elements about the movie that I kept coming back to, even elements that didn't directly involve Tilly, and I started to entertain the idea that the movie might be better than I gave it credit for. This, of course, turned out to be true and now, after a couple of years of tirelessly proselytizing on its behalf, I recognize it as one of the singular achievements in the horror genre of the past decade.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have also been lucky enough to become close friends with Don Mancini, who wrote me an appreciative e-mail several months after I posted my initial reaction and expressed his gratitude, regardless of what I thought of his movie, over my tendency to take horror seriously and to write about ti accessibly.)

Anyway, I couldn't let another minute go by without thanking you for your insights and your energetic appraisal of this series, especially the terrific pieces on the last two movies. I hope that your attitude (and mine) will signal a turning of the tide of the reputation of these smart, smart-ass, genuinely subversive movies from disdain and ill repute to a measure of the respect for their craft and their intelligence that they deserve. Excellent work!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Oh, and you have inspired me with your writing to take another look at CHILD'S PLAY 2 as well. Happy days!

Tim said...

It's a fair trade, seeing as it was your raves about Seed of Chucky that made me file it in my mental "to watch" list in the first place

And a real honor it is to have you commenting on my little weblog, not to get all fanboyish or anything. Thanks for the incredibly kind words!

Don Mancini said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Tim said...

The way I see it, if I can make one person who wouldn't have considered the movie decide to take a peek, then I'm doing the Lord's work. Thank you, sir, for making it in the first place.