Video Store Memories: The CHILD'S PLAY Franchise
There are franchises that were cornerstones of my development as a young horror fan. Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Puppet Master all played a crucial part in getting me into the genre. But Child’s Play might resonate more deeply than any of them. Because those films all fascinated me, they all sparked my curiosity and I wanted to see them so badly the more and more I heard about them. But Chucky? He terrified me. I kind of wanted to know more, but I didn’t. I was petrified. When I jumped into horror with both feet after renting Friday the 13th at age seven, I still did whatever I could to avoid even looking at the box art of the Child’s Play films while I spent all my time in the horror section. I would have to flip them over to hide the covers, just to be able to browse.
Part of it, I’m sure, began with just happening to catch a glimpse of a TV spot for Child’s Play 3 on USA. I don’t remember what I was watching, but when it cut to commercial and I saw a 20 second spot for that film, I lost it. While I couldn’t even look at Chucky in general, that specific image of him bursting out through the front window of the Good Guy Doll box first scared me to my core. After that, I was done. I was over it. I didn’t know any of the mechanics of Chucky and I only kind of wanted to, because I knew any answer I got would more than likely unnerve the hell out of me.
When it came to Jason and Freddy, I was fascinated with any bits of backstory I could gleam from my friends. But I didn’t know how or why Chucky was a bloodthirsty doll and the less I knew, the better. The only thing that really gave me any small comfort was being told that Chucky could be killed by a shot to the heart. It felt like a safety net, like learning that sunlight or a stake could kill a vampire.
While almost nothing remotely scared me when it came to box art, the covers of all three Child’s Play movies terrified me so much that I couldn’t look at them. My friend Chris, who got me into all of it, tried to talk me into renting the original once, and my dad even encouraged it. For a second, I thought I was going to do it, too. But I was so scared that I just couldn’t get take the leap. It got so bad that, eventually, my dad went out and bought Child’s Play just so that I could finally watch it and conquer my fears.
Most people who were terrified of this or any other horror franchise as a kid usually felt traumatized by seeing the movie late at night or catching it on TV, but that wasn’t the case for me. I was frightened until I saw it, and after that, I was hooked. Nothing could have been scarier than whatever abstract thing I saw in my own young mind. Making it real, making it tangible, that just made it another movie. Another movie I could deal with. From the moment I sat down to watch it, I was beyond grateful for the fact that I now owned Child’s Play and I made it a mission to see the other two.
But my mom had a stricter movie watching rule than my dad, even if he didn’t really encourage my love of horror. She mistakenly believed that “Yesterday’s R is today’s PG-13,” which I never corrected her on, so I could basically watch anything as long as it was made in the ‘80s or before. That ruled out the two Child’s Play sequels. Which meant that I either had to see them with friends (tough, because everyone always came over to my place to watch horror movies) or I had to catch them on cable.
For a lot of people, cable was the place that helped them discover their favorite horror movies. But by the late ‘90s, things like USA’s Up All Night had been over for years. I had to endlessly browse the TV Guide to see if something could be coming on that I would want to see. Most of the year, I got nothing. An occasional surprise horror film here and there. But when October came around? My VCR went into overdrive. I knew just what would be playing on every network’s horror marathons, all month long. Child’s Play 2 I finally saw when I taped it off of TNT, not knowing that it was being shown on MonsterVision. I didn’t even know what that was. But I was delighted to find a redneck host who seemed just as enthusiastic about this as I had been, and that was my introduction to Joe Bob Briggs. For years, that edited-for-cable version of the sequel, along with Joe Bob’s hunt for the Nair Witch, was the only one I’d ever seen. By the time I’d gotten my hands on the DVD, it was jarring not to have that last little shot of Chucky’s reforming smile inside the factory.
That same Halloween season, I taped Child’s Play 3 off USA’s seasonal marathon, but lost the first twenty minutes. Even though it was such a messy and incomplete version, I watched that endlessly. My friends wouldn’t even want to see it when they came over, because they’d seen it unedited and with the opening chunk intact. Still, the overall atmosphere of that film captivated me and I was blown away by the third act, which switched—somewhat jarringly—from a war game into a nearby carnival, complete with a showstopper of a haunted house attraction. I tried to tape Child’s Play 3 a second time, but that time the tape got caught in the VCR and nothing got recorded.
By 1998, things had completely changed for Chucky and I. I’d gone from not even being able to look at him to not being able to get enough of him. I remember early that year, fourth grade, walking to a local convenience store called The Tom Cat, where I rented most of the newer horror films and Z-grade stuff like Jack-O that the local video stores just didn’t want to carry, and also where I’d go with friends to buy candy after school. I was in there, alongside my partner in crime in most of these journeys, Chris, and I distinctly remember reaching over to grab a package of Sour Punch Straws when something caught my eye.
A magazine. Nothing I’d ever really noticed before, it was called Sci-Fi Teen and the front cover was a picture of Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy—I was still some time away from discovering that, which would become my favorite TV show of all time—but I was much more interested in the picture in the corner. He looked different, scarier, messier. But I recognized Chucky. Beneath the picture, a few words promising a first look at the new film. I put my candy back and bought that magazine on sight because I had to know more. Nine year-old me was not on the Internet and I didn’t have a clue that another Chucky film was even in the works. After all, the last one had come out when I was two.
Bride of Chucky was the first horror film I ever remember anticipating. It was the first one that I knew was coming out in advance and got genuinely excited for. I ate up every bit of news that I could find on it. And it only fueled a developing Chucky obsession that had already started to make my parents a little nervous. That issue of Sci-Fi Teen came with a Chucky pullout poster, which I of course hung on my bedroom wall despite my parents’ open concern. I even eventually got my hands on a Chucky doll, at Spencer Gift (a staple provider of budget Chucky dolls since the mid-‘90s). It didn’t even have fingers, its squished face was frozen in a scream that was meant to echo the scene of Chucky bursting through the Good Guy box that first scarred me when I was seven… but it didn’t quite get there. It didn’t matter, though. I loved it anyway.
Chucky memorabilia was extremely odd at that point, because it was everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Chucky dolls were almost disposable. They were a staple prize at the local fair. But a figure? They were so scarce that I remember genuinely wanting to get my hands on the Bride of Chucky “Little Big Heads” bobble-head figures because they were the only smaller collectibles available until McFarlane Toys’ Movie Maniacs burst on the scene to save me from Horror Toy Hell. I desperately wanted to catch Bride of Chucky in theaters, too, of course. I hung on every trailer and TV spot I saw.
Obviously, I didn’t talk any parent or guardian into letting me see it in the theater, but I did see it almost as soon as it hit video and fell in love with it immediately. Sure, it was more comedic and completely different in style and structure than the three Child’s Play movies I was used to, but that didn’t mean a thing to me. It was more Chucky, it was different Chucky, it turned him into the protagonist by introducing Tiffany, pushing the human characters to the background and that was exactly what I wanted to see at the time. I’ve only grown to love the film more and more since as a stylish, sleek and bitingly funny satire of everything from the media’s obsession with violence to the mainstream rom-coms of its time.
I would even try and watch it on scrambled Pay-Per-View, while most other kids were trying to catch a glimpse of the Playboy Channel. When a third attempt tape Child’s Play 3 again ended in disaster, my mom offered to let me buy the movie because I’d tried taping it so much. When I got to Walmart to pick it up, though, I decided that my chopped-to-bits tape of the third movie would be something I could live with if it meant I’d be able to somehow get my hands on Bride. I managed to convince my mom to let me buy Bride of Chucky instead, just basically playing it casual and saying that “One Chucky movie’s as good as another.”
Bride of Chucky was one of the defining movies of my childhood. It was gasoline on a fire that had begun from the moment my dad essentially forced me to watch the original Child’s Play. That’s ultimately what makes this “Video Store Memories” entry so different. True to the name of the column, I have some extremely distinct memories of seeing these films in the video store and being almost frozen with fear, doing the best I could to avert my eyes and focus on any other title instead. But Bride of Chucky was actually the only movie in the franchise that I ever rented.
My experience with Chucky was, in some ways, the reverse of poor Andy Barclay’s. At first sight until my first actual viewing of the movie, Chucky was a nightmare that just seemed to torment me wherever I went, but became—as I got to know him—a friend till the end.