When is a remake not a remake? When someone, somewhere decides that a known and loved franchise’s name is what’s going to sell a film, not what’s on the screen after the title card has faded out. We call this a “reimagining” and it’s a product of a cynical Hollywood system that is in dire need of change.
It’s a hit and miss business model, with far more misses when it comes to horror. But these films keep getting made because they are cheap to produce and it only takes one decent Saturday night box office for them to turn a profit. But for every steaming pile of garbage Nightmare on Elm Street remake, there is a fresh classic Evil Dead. As the moist, warm stinkers like Prom Night and The Fog cloud memories of the originals, there is a Crazies, or even a Child’s Play, to renew faith in the scare genre.
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And so, Norwegian director Lars Klevberg – who will himself be remaking his own excellent Polaroid for English speaking audiences that don’t like to read later this year – has found himself the uphill battle of remaking the beloved Child’s Play. And by uphill battle, we mean ice skating, uphill, in gale force winds, with all manner of bladed implements coming at him. Thankless doesn’t even begin to describe the director’s task here.
Having just moved to a new apartment, Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman, Lights Out) and his mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World) are more or less alone in their little corner of Chicago. Karen’s solution to her son’s socially crippling loneliness is a Buddi toy; an interactive doll that learns while it plays to make itself more life-like and can connect to any smart devices in your home. Designed to be your best friend, Buddi is every kid’s dream, until he goes wrong.
Little do Andy and Karen know, that this doll has been tampered with. Its artificial intelligence chip has been set to psychotic, meaning that while it’s learning how to be Andy’s best friend, it can learn a whole host of other stuff too. Including, but not limited to, swearing and stabbing people. Now the Buddi doll, accidentally named Chucky, is doing what it thinks is best to keep its new best buddy happy.
Things seem harmless enough. The slightly malfunctioning bot tries to sing the young man to sleep, wakes him up in the middle of the night to play, all manner of not-quite-right behaviour. It’s not until Andy has to stop Chucky from attacking the family cat because the teenager expressed his hatred for the feline after a scratch that it’s obvious something is wrong with Chucky. Now Andy needs to get rid of the homicidal Buddi doll before things get worse.
There is a moment very early on in Child’s Play where it becomes plainly obvious that the film audiences are about to sit down with has almost nothing to do with its namesake. That moment is when the head of the fictional Kaslan company (The West Wing’s Tim Matheson) sells us the Buddi doll as a completely interactive, smart device. Anyone watching knows what is coming the moment that happens. Chucky isn’t just a killer doll anymore, he’s got an arsenal of smart devices he can use to make those he’s punishing for Andy hurt just a little bit more. It is fairly obvious early on that Child’s Play took the most top-level description for the property – single mum gives young kid a toy that kills people – picked up that ball and ran in its own direction entirely. But here’s the thing: it really works.
A big part of why it works is the voice behind the doll. Gone is Brad Dourif, the iconic voice of Chucky for thirty years, and taking his place is Mark Hamill (do I really need to write Mark Hamill – Star Wars?). The face of the space opera has been voicing bad guys for more than two decades, with an especially excellent turn as The Joker in various Batman animations and video games. While fans will struggle with the change of voice, Hamill does a splendid job not just in giving Chucky a voice, but in making it creepy enough to stand out from Dourif’s performance. All but the most pig-headed of naysayers will be able to separate the two and enjoy Hamill’s Chucky for what he is: a different take on the killer doll.
Chucky doesn’t even look like the Chucky we all know. Once you get the Buddi doll out of his yellow box – a fun little nod to the original psycho doll – you could put 1988 and 2019 Chucksters next to each other and they barely look alike. New Chucky looks like a rubberised Donald Trump with Bell’s palsy and ginger hair. It’s easily the most terrifying thing about this reimagined Child’s Play!
This latest in a long line of remakes claws you in with its name, but quickly changes things up and takes you on a ride that is guaranteed to make even the most avid smart home user think twice about asking Alexa to turn the TV on. Chucky’s update gives him the power to control anything that’s smart connected. Be it the TV, the heating, or other Buddi bots. It’s a twist on the story that isn’t just welcome, it gives us the opportunity for some fun, almost Final Destination style, kills we haven’t seen before in this particular series. They just needed to get here a bit quicker.
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Child’s Play is a little slow on the uptake this time around – something the original was cursed with, too – and once introductions are made it can feel like an eternity before the fun stuff starts. That’s not to say there aren’t those moments to keep you on your toes; malfunctioning Chucky is very creepy and the crazy toy wishing Andy goodnight is enough to keep the toughest watcher from switching their lights off at night. But with a ninety minute runtime, there shouldn’t be any room for sag, and more importantly, with a premise this good with such a huge amount of potential, you wouldn’t want to waste a minute. Thankfully, a final Equalizer style showdown in a toy store really does make up for the slowness at the start.
Overall, Child’s Play is a fun and funny slasher, a decent fresh take on a three-decade old series and a good jumping off point for a whole new franchise. There’s something here for almost everyone with a penchant for creepy kids/dolls/thermostats, and it is different and original enough to make you forget you’re watching yet another reimagined classic. It just never should have been called Child’s Play.