Quick Takes: Killer Doll Edition

In 1988’s Child’s Play, character actor Brad Dourif brought the iconic killer doll Chucky to life with a vocal performance that vibrated with velvety menace. Playing a serial killer trapped inside the toy, he delivered a vivaciously villainous turn.

While the original film deals with voodoo and possession, this year’s remake brings a slightly more realistic, timely twist. This time around, Chucky (Mark Hamill) is a robotic toy with lethally faulty wiring. After enduring one too many acts of abuse on the assembly line, an embittered sweatshop worker turns off all of the doll’s safety controls. This setup feels like a more sinister spin on Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers.

As in the original, this film revolves around a single mother named Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) and her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). He’s a bit older in this version, allowing him to be tech-savvy enough to handle a trendy toy like Chucky. His mom snags the doll after it’s returned to the store where she works. Apparently, the customer’s complaint about his glowing red eyes doesn’t creep her out.

The lonely Andy eventually bonds with his robot buddy and reels in other friends with the toy’s bizarre behavior. He spews profanities, scares Karen’s douchebag boyfriend and generally wears his dark side on his sleeve. Screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith cleverly emphasizes how Chucky learns his young users’ preference for violent content, gazing with cold, artificial eyes as the kids laugh at a horror film on TV. Of course, all hell breaks loose from there; Chucky goes to grisly lengths to earn their affection, especially from Andy. As Chucky grows ever-present and terrorizes them through voice and video messages, the film emerges as a sly commentary on how our cloud-connected devices are ultimately controlling us.

Bateman captures the desperation of a child in an unbelievable ordeal, surrounded by skeptical adults. Plaza brings humor and heart as his mother. Brian Tyree Henry charms as the tough yet tender cop. And Hamill delivers the goods as Chucky, maintaining a robotic tone but subtly revealing the evil underneath.

Director Lars Klevberg creates a sense of dread but also seamlessly makes room for some comedically tense moments, such as the bungled disposal of a severed head.

Who knows how well this Child’s Play will hold up, but I had a blast in the theater. Perhaps the best part of the moviegoing experience was when the family behind us — complete with a baby dressed as Buzz Lightyear — discovered this was not the talking toy movie they were expecting.

In 2013, The Conjuring brought back an old-school, oddly wholesome kind of horror. It provided plenty of thrills and chills, but it also radiated with a Spielbergian warmth. Since then, it has grown into an extended horror universe of seven films, becoming the second highest-grossing horror film franchise next to Godzilla.

The charm of the Conjuring films lies in their simplicity. They revolve around down-to-earth characters facing otherworldly obstacles in ordinary settings — an old farmhouse, an apartment building, an abbey, etc.

Annabelle Comes Home, the third film in the Annabelle spinoff series, largely takes place over the course of a crisp fall night in the home of ghostbusting couple Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). It centers on the two teenage girls, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) and Daniela (Katie Sarife), babysitting their daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace).

The 1970s setting and focus on babysitters makes the film feel like a spiritual cousin of Halloween. Daniela even teases Mary Ellen about her high-school crush like Jamie Lee Curtis’s friend does in that film’s similarly breezy beginning.

The horror kicks in when Daniela sneaks into the Warrens’ basement full of haunted items and accidentally releases the titular doll — the most malevolent object in their macabre museum. Fortunately, there’s a deeper reason behind this break-in. A poignant scene finds Daniela trying to communicate with her recently deceased father in this den of death. Like the other Conjuring films, this one never loses sight of the human drama amid the supernatural horror.

All three young women deliver tender performances, bringing emotional heft to what is otherwise a funhouse ride. This film feels even more contained and low-key than the other Conjuring films. Writer-director Gary Dauberman creates claustrophobic tension by keeping most of the action inside the Warrens’ modest suburban home.

Annabelle doesn’t talk or wield a knife like Chucky, but she can release a shitload of demonic spirits. Both dolls are bound to give you a fun fright if you head out to the multiplex this week.



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Sam Watermeier has been a film critic since practically before he was born, as he almost popped out of his mother's womb in a movie theater during the drawn-out conclusion of The Godfather Part III. Sam started professionally in 2009 at NUVO Newsweekly, not only contributing movie reviews but also profiles of local filmmakers and previews of Indy film festivals. He also writes reviews and commentaries for the Indy-based website The Film Yap. In 2015, Sam was inducted into the Indiana Film Journalists Association.


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