Don Mancini’s Child’s Play series had stopped dead in its tracks after Child’s Play 3 in 1991 — a film that Mancini himself told me “Don’t bother” seeing. Then in 1998, Mancini brought it back with startling differences. The Child’s Play tag itself was dropped in favor of Chucky himself, which only made sense. More to the point, the concept moved into the realm of post-modern comedy horror. It’s been said that the idea was sparked by the success of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). That may or may not be true. It never actually occurred to me and I’ve never asked, but it hardly matters because the two films are really nothing alike. I’ve always found Scream bloated, boring and self-important — three things that Bride of Chucky never is. This pokes fun at the genre (while respecting it), but more importantly, it pokes fun at itself and the whole concept of series horror. That last becomes obvious at the very beginning when the remains of Chucky are pilferred from a police evidence room that includes Jason Voorhee’s hockey mask, a chainsaw, Michael Myers’ mask, and Freddy Krueger’s razor-fingered glove. The basic idea is that Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), the old girlfriend of Charles Lee Ray (the human serial killer who became Chucky, but kept Brad Dourif’s voice), plans reanimating her now doll-sized boyfriend — with the aid of a copy of Voodoo for Dummies, of course. That’s the tip of the blood-splattered iceberg, but much very gory mayhem and seriously demented — and very funny — mayhem quickly follows.
Bride of Chucky differs considerably from most movies that can be classed as horror comedies. Certainly, it’s very little like Scream, and has more in common (if a comparison must be found) with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985). But unlike Gordon’s film it doesn’t come out of the blue, since it rests on an established series. I think the key to it in that regard is within the film itself, and its inclusion of Tiffany watching James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) on TV (something that proves to be both her undoing and the source of her ultimate moment of — probably passing — realization). Calm down. I’m not about to put Bride of Chucky on equal footing with Bride of Frankenstein. Among other things, movies like Bride of Frankenstein come along … well, once a century. There is, however, a similar idea at work. Bride of Frankenstein was Whale’s response to Universal wanting another Frankenstein movie. That was something he didn’t want to do, so instead of delivering a traditional sequel, Whale gave them a very dark horror comedy that looked like and could be marketed as a Frankenstein picture. What Mancini came up with was similar — something that both was and wasn’t another Chucky movie.
Bride of Chucky manages to stay within the confines of the whole killer doll idea — complete with a body count that would have given the censors of Whale’s era apoplexy. It’s as bloody as an of the films that came before it — and possibly more so. But it works on a different level that constantly recognizes its own absurdities and those of the whole genre — but without condescension. That last is a key reason that it works so well. You never get the sense that the audience is being held in contempt, but are instead viewed as co-conspirators who’ve been invited along to be in on the joke. Yes, a few of the jokes are of the inside variety. The average viewer in 1998 wasn’t likely to get the poke at the whole voodoo business having been originally foisted on Mancini, but the Voodoo for Dummies gag also works on its own level as a gag about all those “for Dummies” books that were then proliferating.
Most of the jokes are fully accessible to any genre fan. (My personal favorite is Chucky telling his story to the romantic leads — “Well, it’s a long story. In fact, if this was a movie, it would take three or four sequels just to do it justice.”) And any fan with his or her salt knows full well that a love for horror films doesn’t preclude an understanding of the casual absurdity of the genre’s cliches and conventions. In fact, it requires them — and it requires a degree of embracing them. In the case of Bride this not only means references to series films, Bride of Frankenstein, Jennifer Tilly doing the Fatal Attraction schtick, Chucky doing a little Linda Blair Exorcist head turn, and for that matter seeming ever more like the pint-sized heir apparent to Jack Nicholson in the last reels of The Shining (1980).It also means acknowledging its own status as a throwback with its references to being “so ‘80s,” but at the same time rightly concluding that a true classic “never goes out of style.”
Wisely, the film doesn’t stint in the realm of creative deaths. In fact, the honeymoon hotel mirror murder — while being utterly improbable — is certainly a splattery classic of the form. It can be argued — especially, since the Mancini-directed Seed of Chucky (2004) proved such characters inessential — that the teenaged romantic leads slow things down on occasion, but the fact is that they work here as both a plot thread and as part of the satire of the genre. You really can’t spoof this kind of film without imperiled lovers as part of the mix. (Seed of Chucky works on a completely different basis.) And while Nick Stabile is no better than the beefcake eye candy character he is, Katherine Heigl is surprisingly good as Jade. Face it, not everyone can act opposite scene-stealing serial killer dolls and not disappear into the woodwork.
Bringing in Hong Kong director Ronny Yu was actually a good idea. Bringing in his cinematographer Peter Pau was an even better one. I’m not entirely sure that Yu quite got the joke, but that might be why he delivered such a stylish film. I admit I hadn’t paid that much attention to the look of the film until I got down to giving it close scrutiny for this review, but Bride of Chucky is one terrific-looking picture. Not only is the film incredibly atmospheric (the film’s graveyard climax has something of the soundstage artistry found in, yes, James Whale’s movies), but it makes good use of its frame. The compositions frequently contain pertinent information from side-to-side and doesn’t limit itself to the action in the center of the frame (which all too many films — conscious of their pan-and-scan TV fate — do). Beyond that, there are brilliant uses of wide-angle lenses, especially in Jennifer Tilly’s incredible trailer-trash chic domicile. Overall, the film is simply intelligently and creatively made with good production design.
Of course, the big question for fans is how Chucky fares with the addition of more humor and a partner in mayhem. The opinion is somewhat divided on this, but I’m in the plus column. I think this Chucky is, if anything, more effective than previous ones. It actually helps for Dourif to have someone worthwhile to play against — and the casting of Jennifer Tilly was inspired. The timing of their exchanges could not be better. Then too, in this day and age, the mere solidity of the puppet/animatronic characters is such a breath of fresh air. You know that it’s all illusion crafted from clever editing, but you never for a moment doubt that the homicidally-minded dolls are very solid and very real. There’s nothing cartoonish about them as characters (as personalities may be another matter), which seems like a miracle in a world of film increasingly given over to CGI.
Now, if you want to ask whether or not the film is scary, the answer might be a little less positive, but then I’m not sure I ever found the films scary. It — like all the entries — have nicely effective shock moments, but scary? Perhaps not. Then again, do most horror fans actually find horror pictures scary? That’s a question worth pondering in itself — but perhaps for another day. I don’t think Bride of Chucky is meant so much to be scary as it’s meant to be a literally bloody good time. And in that regard, it succeeds admirably — though I still maintain that Seed of Chucky is even better.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Bride of Chucky Thursday, March 15, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.