The Horror of Animatronics

I think in the world of animatronic horror there is an objectively correct way to rank the top dogs. In first place is Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise, and second is famed kids’ birthday party mogul Charles Entertainment Cheese (or Chuck E. for those who know him more personally).  Weird coincidence, no? Don’t name your kids Charles.

I won’t go to a Chuck E. Cheese any time soon, but the movie about the killer doll is streaming for free, so I decided to revisit the most scarring horror experience from my kidhood1988’s Child’s PlayI initially saw it when I was probably 5 or 6 years old while at a gathering with some of my extended family. I got bored of hanging out with the other little tikes and wandered into another room where the older kids were watching it. Nobody in the room thought it might be a good idea to shield me from Chucky’s murderous endeavors, so I just took it all in – and a lifelong fear of dolls and people wearing overalls was born. For years afterwards, the Spencer Gifts at my local mall displayed a replica Chucky doll in the front window. I couldn’t even walk past it. Any time we reached that window, I would make my mom walk back the way we came and do an entire reverse circle to the other side of the mall so we could get my dorky cargo pants from the Gap. Fashion ain’t easy. 

I wanted to watch the David Kirschner-directed classic again to see how my sense of fear has evolved, and to see how the effects hold up after thirty-two years. Spoiler: they hold up well. The Howard Berger-led effects team masterfully used animatronics to capture the doll’s transformation from a plastic nightmare machine early on in the film to a more plastic-flesh hybrid nightmare machine as the film went on. Chucky’s subtle facial movements bring out just the right amount of skewed emotion, blurring the lines between the mass-produced toy and the spirit of the serial killer living within. The team clearly understood the script and story extremely well, and they tailored the different versions of the doll perfectly to complement Chucky’s arc at any given time. 

On rewatch, the doll effects are certainly scary, as are the gore effects in Chucky’s violent moments. What I wasn’t expecting though, was to be scared by the writing. The most terror I felt this time was in trying to understand the emotional journey of the main character, Karen. Yes, she has to deal with Chuckybut in the first act of the film, she also has to do deal with the very real possibility that her precious son is a psychopath. Once she realizes her son is actually telling the truth, she’s handed an entirely new terror in that nobody else in the world believes her. These psychological scares are made more intense by Kirschner’s choice to not show Chucky in full killemode until the forty-five minute mark of the movie. This allows suspense to build over Karen’s mental struggle for half of the runtime. When we do finally see Chucky snap during the fireplace scene, the scare is earned and real.

Closing observations: 

-I never should’ve been allowed to watch this at age 5 or 6 

-This movie has the only shootout scene I can remember in which the cop wears a Mr. Rogers sweater 

-The human version of Charles Lee Ray looks like a cool alt-rock artist. I’d buy his album, or at least stream it

-The doll commercial tagline, “Good Guy dolls say three different sentences. We even blink our eyes and turn our heads when you talk to us,” pretty much sums up my life during quarantine