Child’s Play barely makes any sense. Or maybe some of it does, but there’s a big voodoo component and it gets used as a crutch for the more fantastical elements (with its own problems with rationality). But the film opens with a shootout in downtown Chicago–Child’s Play uses its Chicago locations very well, never excessive–between cop Chris Sarandon and serial killer Brad Dourif. Serial killer Dourif who has a sidekick and doesn’t use a gun to kill his victims. My suspension of disbelief can go for the possessed doll out to kill those who wronged him, but a serial killer with a sidekick? It’s a more interesting story than a killer doll.
But the film also has some problems deciding what way it wants to go. The script can’t decide if it wants to convince the audience–or try to convince the audience–six year-old Alex Vincent has snapped and is talking to his doll and killing people… or if it’s the doll. The indecision doesn’t last long, but it does come after the rather literal opening where Dourif recites a spell while touching the doll. The trailer never has the money shot (the animated doll), but it certainly goes far towards suggesting it… so maybe theater-goers in 1988 knew what to expect. Given four sequels, even though I’d never seen the film before, it was hard to imagine it could have been anything but the doll.
The killer doll is maybe not the most ludicrous idea for a slasher movie, but Child’s Play isn’t really a slasher movie. The thriller elements play a lot more–down to the out-of-control speeding car going through Chicago–and Holland never lets Dourif (voicing the doll) go over the top, even after the doll’s got its own scenes. The special effects are great on it too.
Acting helps too. Dourif’s serial killer might not make much sense, but his performance is excellent. Sarandon’s solid as the cop (though I question his sweater for the opening shootout… it just doesn’t seem like something a movie cop would wear). Catherine Hicks is okay as Vincent’s disbelieving mother. She’s maybe the film’s weakest performance, especially since Dinah Manoff (as her friend) is so good. Young Vincent might not give the most soulful youth performance ever or anything, but he makes the film. It isn’t so much his dialogue, but how Holland directs him physically. It’s a strong performance.
Holland’s best scene comes at the end–there’s a quiet Halloween homage–and it’s worth the wait. Early in the film, Holland has to do a lot of sight gags to confuse the viewer (well, to create the impression of confusing the viewer), and he repeats them a few times… The film also cheats a lot, like why does Vincent have money to ride the ‘L’ or how does Hicks know where all the homeless hang out (she visits multiple places). The film skips over some of the post-murder stuff, just to create–first, in the viewer’s mind, then in the characters’–some suspicion Vincent is the guilty party. The omissions get obvious after a while.
But Child’s Play works. It’s not exactly scary or disquieting or uncanny… but it’s entertaining and suspenseful.
Directed by Tom Holland; screenplay by Don Mancini, John Lafia and Holland; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Roy E. Peterson and Edward Warschilka; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Daniel A. Lomino; produced by David Kirschner; released by United Artists.
Starring Catherine Hicks (Karen Barclay), Chris Sarandon (Mike Norris), Alex Vincent (Andy Barclay), Brad Dourif (Charles Lee Ray), Dinah Manoff (Maggie Peterson), Tommy Swerdlow (Jack Santos), Jack Colvin (Dr. Ardmore), Neil Giuntoli (Eddie Caputo), Juan Ramírez (Peddler) and Alan Wilder (Mr. Criswell).