Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Shocktober Review: Curse of Chucky

Well, it's October, which is the best month of the year as far as the Cap'n is concerned. Not only do I have license to watch horror movies more than I already do, but it's encouraged! So why not kick it off with a sequel many of you didn't know was on the way?

 I have to admit that I was a little worried about Curse of Chucky when first I heard about it. My concern came less from the nine years since Seed of Chucky - a movie I happen to like, if that informs your reading of this review - but that Curse of Chucky was being unceremoniously dumped in the world of "DTV" horror. The Cap'n has seen his share of direct to video horror films, and with very few exceptions they tend to look cheap and offer nothing in the way of scares, atmosphere, or story. This was not how I hoped to see the next film in the Child's Play series, so I put it on with trepidation.

 It turns out that I didn't have anything to worry about, because Don Mancini - who wrote every Child's Play / Chucky movie and directed Seed of Chucky - was clearly also aware of how shitty most direct to video horror films are, and he was determined to make a sequel to Child's Play first and a low budget horror movie a distant second. Not only does the movie not look like crap, but on top of generating some legitimate atmosphere and really nice kills, Mancini adds to the series in a way fans are going to enjoy immensely.

  Nica (Fiona Dourif, daughter of Chucky) lives with her mother, Sarah (Chantal Quesnelle), who take turns taking care of each other. Sarah is an emotional wreck and Nica is paralyzed from the waist down. One day, a large package with no return address arrives with a familiar "Good Guy" doll inside. Not long after that, Nica wakes up to find her mother dead and Chucky no longer in the trash can. Her sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti) arrives with husband Ian (Brennan Elliott) daughter Alice (Summer H. Howell), and nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell) in tow, along with Father Frank (A Martinez), who hopes to rekindle Nica's lost faith. Alice takes a liking to Chucky, even if he whispers strange things to her, but as a storm threatens the power, they're in for a long night with a killer doll...

 For those of you who don't like the "camp" qualities of Bride and Seed of Chucky, I have good news for you: Curse of Chucky is considerably more straightforward in tone, resembling the first Child's Play in structure. It's a bit disarming at first, because I really wasn't sure if he was trying to reboot the series - Chucky looks like he did in the first an second film (with minor redesigns to the doll when he stops being a "Good Guy"). Mancini is clearly playing with the fact that audiences know what Chucky's really up to, but we don't hear Brad Dourif's voice until halfway into the film. Up until that point, Curse of Chucky plays a LOT like Child's Play, but with a more playful sense of "okay, what's he up to?" for long time fans.

 Much to my surprise, about an hour into Curse of Chucky, Mancini reveals that this isn't a reboot or a spin-off and is a continuation of the story - minus some questions about what happened to Chucky after Glen / Glenda got "axe happy." Beyond that, Mancini develops the Charles Lee Ray back story to boot, tying it into Nica's family history. Is there some debatable retconning? Maybe, but I have to admit it was intriguing to see Dourif on-camera again for the first time in 25 years.

  As horrible as it is to say about a movie, I feel like it's worth pointing out how good Curse of Chucky looks. Mancini's camerawork is fluid, playful, and designed to augment the story, rather than just capture what's going on and get to the next kill haphazardly. Maybe I'm just burnt out on how horrible movies like the Wrong Turn sequels look or the barely competent releases from The Asylum, but Curse of Chucky doesn't look like nobody gave a shit about it looking like a movie. Even when the budget does show (and it isn't often), Mancini works to maintain a spooky ambiance in and outside of the house.

 Two camera tricks are worth pointing out, neither of which spoil too much: the opening credits play out as the camera tracks around a rocking chair Chucky's sitting in, but as it moves from one side to the other and back again, Mancini pulls what I suspect was some in-camera trickery to transition from night into the following day. The second instance follows the audience's discovery that Chucky poisoned one of six bowls of chili with rat poison. We know somebody at the dinner table has it, but not who. Mancini sets up an overhead shot of the circular table, plates arranged like the chambers of a revolver, and slowly spins the camera around. It's a nice visual metaphor of the edible "Russian roulette" to come.

 While we're talking kills, anticipated or otherwise, Curse of Chucky has a better than fair share of practical gore effects that satisfied a "been there, seen that" hound like me. Gouged eyes, severed heads, crushed jaws, and a stabbing or two are the tip of the iceberg. What's really effective, it turns out, is the way Mancini uses Nica's paralyzed legs to generate some truly visceral blows. Just because she can't feel it doesn't mean I didn't react. To be sure, there's no doubt some digital trickery in there somewhere, but keeping both Chucky and most of the kills practical are a big plus in my book.

 If Curse of Chucky has any serious problems, they come at the end: Mancini rushes through the climactic showdown between Nica and Chucky in a way that doesn't quite resolve the build-up, even if the subsequent scene brings the story closure in a clever, twisted way. One can't help feel a bit cheated, especially as Mancini moves along to reintroduce two characters, effectively tying the first three Child's Play films into the "Chucky" trilogy. (Minor Spoiler: It might help to refresh yourself on the end of Seed of Chucky for the first cameo to avoid confusion). I actually enjoyed both surprises, although the second one initially seems to be a set up for a seventh film that quickly collapses into an "ah, nevermind" - watch until the end of the credits for that one. Had Curse of Chucky ended with the final scene in "grandma's house," I think the film would be stronger for it.

 Still, Curse of Chucky was not only better than anything I'd hoped for in a "DTV" Child's Play sequel, but it's a pretty damned good horror movie in its own right. There are plenty of novel or rarely used gimmicks, effective misdirection, and I have to once again stress really good practical gore effects. It's almost a shame Universal didn't feel confident in releasing this theatrically, because even with the time since the last film, Curse of Chucky is the kind of throwback people are often complaining they don't see on the big screen.

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