Salem Peterson is 26 years young, living every day with a head full of horror movies and house full of a precocious cat. They have been what can be considered writing for roughly 13 years, but found a love for film long before then.
Odds are you either hate them or you love them. While a certain few make a habit of collecting the things, others tend to walk a little faster when they spot one settled innocently on a shelf. And yet whether you’re among the former or the latter, there’s no denying that painted eyes and permanent smiles have earned their right as a staple in the horror genre. One particular doll still has a way of making skin crawl and grown adults uneasy. You might know him as Chucky, and as the saying goes, he’s your friend ’til the end. Or, in this case, the reason you still don’t trust those happy, plastic faces.
The Child’s Play franchise focuses on a Chicago-based serial killer known as Charles Lee Ray, proudly dubbed the Lakeshore Strangler. The series itself opens on what is likely to be the end of Ray — Chris Sarandon as homicide detective Mike Norris even going so far as to shout, “Give it up, Ray! It’s over!” — but the truth is far more complicated.
It’s unveiled that Ray has been practicing voodoo under the guidance of his mentor, John Bishop. After being fatally shot by Norris in a department store, Ray utilizes an ancient ritual for his own personal gain and makes quick work of transferring his soul into a Good Guy doll (a popular doll in the vein of Raggedy Ann and Andy, or the My Buddy dolls that inspired creator Don Mancini) before the building is engulfed in flame. The now-possessed doll is sold to a local mother, Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), who is desperately seeking an affordable Good Guy for her son, Andy (Alex Vincent), and what Ray comes by is far from the end, but instead a new beginning.
The Child’s Play franchise spans seven films, with a TV series on the way, taking on the shape of dark comedies, supernatural thrillers and psychological terrors. We’re introduced to new characters — including some that featured heavily in Ray’s own past — brought back to the lives of the old, and while the narrative morphs along with their appearances, as it does with all franchises, there is no denying Chucky remains as fascinating a character as he was when we opened up on Brad Dourif running for his life down Chicago’s slippery South Side streets.
Now, unless you’ve scoured the Internet for the novelizations (don’t judge), it’s safe to say most of what we know about Ray is very little. We’re given a few background tidbits to work with as an audience, but part of that is what makes him such a compelling antagonist. We know almost instantly that Ray is a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. He is egotistical, sadistic and entirely self-serving. For most of the series, that goal is simply to survive by whatever means necessary. Initially, this was a man perfectly contented with inhabiting the body of a child in order to simply keep living. By the fifth film, Seed of Chucky, Ray seems to have come to grips with his own punishment, even admitting he’d rather take his chances as a “supernaturally possessed doll.”
Living his life as a cautionary tale about his own pride appears to have finally sunk in with him, but we all know, “a true classic never goes out of style.” Several years later, Ray is back to his old tricks, this time taking his revenge on those he believes have wronged him in the past. The series takes on a darker setting, and meta is traded in for jump scares. Chucky’s legacy as “one of the most notorious slashers in history” holds resolute. Defying magical laws to hack, slash, strangle and choke the lives out of his victims, it was clear from the word “go” there were no such things as rules or remorse for Chucky. And, as the series came to the close of its seventh film, that sentiment remained firmly in place (Chucky now inhabiting several Good Guy replicas, as well as one human host in Nica Pierce, phenomenally played by Dourif’s own daughter, Fiona). He lives on, never dying, always spreading terror in the hearts of children and adults alike. But, perhaps the scariest part of all is that we enjoy watching him do it.
The concept of Chucky might sound scariest to a child. But as an adult, the franchise becomes something else. You begin to focus on other elements rather than just the shock of orange hair and little red shoes padding menacingly around the TV. The characters in the Child’s Play franchise are each unique and interesting; I could spin you an entire follow-up to this with my thoughts on Tiffany, played by Jennifer Tilly. But at the heart of the story, there is always Andy.
One of the scariest things for a child to encounter is their worst fears come to life; what makes it far more terrifying is when you’re trying to tell the world about them and no one believes you. It’s a classic case in horror, but there’s something very real about Andy’s arc that pits him against Chucky as a wholly compelling protagonist. Andy, seen in five out of the seven films, and always, with the exception of Child’s Play 3, played by Vincent, is a little boy crying for help only to be continuously turned away by adults who can’t quite believe such a fantastical story. Where Ray represents pride, it becomes evident very early on that Andy plays into the role of pride’s antithesis — humility — displaying evident bravery and working hard to keep those around him safe, even despite their disbelief.
Enduring countless traumatic events at Ray’s hand, Andy refuses to falter. Some years later (the end credits of Curse of Chucky), we meet Andy again, from Chucky’s point of view, staring at him down the barrel of a gun. In Cult, we learn Andy’s been living somewhere secluded, training himself, preparing and torturing Chucky (who, at the end of Curse, travels via package to Andy’s residence) to ensure he is incapable of wreaking havoc ever again. It is revealed that, once again, Andy’s fears have manifested, and Ray has learned how to split his soul into not one body but several.
With characters like Andy and Chucky at the forefront of the series, we’re given insight into the people they care for, even despite how much the latter refuses to admit it. The series has shown to have surprising heart, family being an overall theme for Andy and Chucky both. (Even a brief glimpse into Ray’s past shows he attempted to make one for himself once.) Andy starts the series off with his mother while the seventh film sees him now having trouble reaching out to others — living alone, but remaining close to his foster sister, Kyle, still kicking butt as played by the effortlessly cool Christine Elise. Andy finds himself entrapped in a padded cell by Ray, completely isolated, whereas Ray begins alone, and is seen last (as Nica) riding into the unknown with Tiffany. It illustrates just how far their worlds have come and who they are now (in Ray’s case, very literally) because of the events of the series.
Once again, the narrative has changed, and what seems like the end, could very well be the beginning. Through choices like this and the hands of the creator still working the clay, the franchise is still thriving today. Seven films in and people are still eager for more Child’s Play content. As the world changes, so too does the story. Updating and becoming more open-minded, the series pushes the envelope in ways we didn’t necessarily see before — with examples of gender-neutrality, disabled heroines and clearly defined PTSD in a child survivor, to name a few. Because of this, Ray’s interests sometimes are tested, and the villain is made to take outside influences into account — a wife, a child (eventually two) and figures from a past he assumed were no longer an issue, among several others. Keeping the villain as the central character of a franchise is a risk that few take and one at which even fewer succeed. But Mancini has always found a way to bring the perfect balance to Ray’s world. We laugh and we cringe, we jump and we realize we’re interested in the story of this killer doll at the root cause of it all. With fresh new faces and twists like Cult, it’s easy to see this franchise carrying on even further than the decades it already has.
As Mancini continues to pour new and creative energy into the Child’s Play world, it becomes more and more evident there is still passion to be had here. With films such as Annabelle, The Boy, and (a personal favorite) James Wan’s Dead Silence, it’s clear that dolls still scare the daylights out of us. They can be easily viewed as conduits for wickedness and spine-tingling scares. Owing to this, Ray has become a staple in horror history. At Halloween, you’ll see his face in every costume store. In certain stores, any day of the week, you’ll still see Chucky and Tiffany glaring down at you from a high shelf.
There is a clearly defined love for the doll that has kept us horror fans awake since childhood. He’s stuck with us, for better or for worse. As someone who was given the privilege of sitting down and listening to the cast and creators talk about this franchise, it’s evident that the passion for Chucky’s world is at an all-time high. The Lakeshore Strangler has his work cut out for him, and the ending of Cult only nudges that agenda further. But as long as Charles Lee Ray is capable of begging for the power of Damballa, one thing remains absolutely clear: You don’t fuck with the Chuck.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness