Culture

Chucky hates capitalism even more than you do

Three decades of a horror icon who represents our fears about the soullessness of mass production, come to life.
Culture

Chucky hates capitalism even more than you do

Three decades of a horror icon who represents our fears about the soullessness of mass production, come to life.

Few film genres are as open about their reliance on formulas as the slasher movie, to the delight of those who love them. The final girl survives, but the slasher almost always rises again, whether by the supernatural forces established in a film, or the economic forces demanding he return for another installment. After all, you can’t be a slasher if you just kill one person. Because of their devotion to tropes, archetypes, and creative algorithms, slasher movies are very clearly products, which is partially what I like about them: They allow us to think about movies as an industry, not just an art form.

Slasher movies don’t just sell themselves; slasher movies also have merchandise. Imagine Michael Myers without the jumpsuit, Jason without the hockey mask, Freddy without the hat — and then imagine Halloween (the holiday, not the movie) without any of those things. Any kid can put a little green paint on their face and be Frankenstein, but you have to buy a piece of plastic to be Ghostface.

Among all the major slasher franchises, the Chucky movies are unique, a remarkably consistent series of products in a genre notorious for inconsistency. (The less you know about Jason X, the better.) Clear continuity is hard to come by in slasher movies but until this year, Child's Play had never been rebooted. It's also remained in the hands of mostly the same creative team, creator Don Mancini and voice actor Brad Dourif, who, after a public tiff over the rights, will continue their own franchise with a TV series on SyFy next year.

Most of all, the Chucky movies are unique because consumption, consumerism, and commodity fetishism — the very things that give slasher movies a reason to exist — are their primary concerns. Jason and Freddy might have their Funko Pops, but they didn’t begin their lives on an assembly line. As a child’s doll turned evil, Chucky was literally made to be merchandised; he’s all our fears about the soullessness of mass production come to life. There’s a Chucky doll at Spencer’s Gifts for $49.99, along with countless t-shirts and plush toys. At one time you could download a Chucky-themed Temple Run knockoff on the app store. Chucky has done extensive cross-promotion with other brands, showing up to talk shit on World Championship Wrestling and SNL’s Weekend Update. He’s also something of an unexpected hip-hop icon, beloved by the late Bushwick Bill of Houston’s Geto Boys, who wrote a song about him, and DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, who has sampled Child's Play on more than one occasion. Both rappers are noted horror fanatics, but they love Chucky for slightly different reasons: Bill responded to Chucky’s size, while I imagine DJ Paul and company got a kick out of Chucky’s satanic antics and gleeful Fuck-You-Pay-Me attitude.

Both the original 1988 movie and the reboot are about a hard-working single mother with a young son named Andy, who desperately wants the talking Good Guy doll he’s seen advertised on TV. There’s no way they could afford a new one, so Andy is given a defective, second-hand doll that’s very conveniently possessed by the spirit of Charles Lee Ray, a voodoo-crazed serial killer who died during a shootout with cops in a toy store. This new devilish doll has an endless appetite for sex and violence, and he lures Andy and his mother into a false sense of security before revealing his true nature, dispatching the babysitter, and unleashing pure plastic hell.

Chucky then proceeds to terrorize Andy across three movies, murdering all his loved ones and terrorizing the military school he’s forced to attend as a teen. Perhaps even worse than all the murder is the paranoid reality Chucky forces Andy to inhabit: No one ever believes Andy when he says it was all the fault of a toy doll, making him completely alone in the world. If the true horror of the Chucky movies isn’t made completely explicit, it’s still pretty clear: The very thing commodity capitalism tells us we should most desire is the thing that will end up destroying us. What’s worse, the only people who know what’s really going on are the ones who suffer.

Chucky has mutated over time, responding to trends in consumer habits and the overall culture. Don Mancini found inspiration for the character in childhood memories of his father's time as an ad man on Madison Avenue: "Madison Avenue refers to children as ‘consumer trainees’ and I discovered that as a child. I thought, I wanted to write a dark satire about how advertising affects children." The term “consumer trainees” comes up in Child's Play 3, which opens in the offices of the Play Pals corporation, the manufacturer of the discontinued Good Guy Doll. Despite the bad publicity from the Chucky killings, Play Pals — part of a multinational conglomerate that also produces nuclear weapons — has decided to reintroduce their best-selling product. Chucky’s first victim? The company’s CEO.

The original Chucky recalls real-life dolls like Hasbro’s My Buddy and Raggedy Andy, as well as the then-recent mania over Cabbage Patch Kids. This Child's Play is more of a media critique along the lines of Black Mirror: Chucky 2.0 can link to the cloud, giving him control over thermostats, household appliances, and self-driving cars. He isn’t innately evil or the puppet of a serial killer, just an easily programmable robot who overhears too many curse words and gets the wrong idea from watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. There’s still a glimmer of Mancini’s anti-capitalist inclinations in the reboot: nu-Chucky is hacked by a disgruntled worker in a Vietnamese sweatshop, who removes the safety protocols that prevent Chucky’s OS from letting him learn how to kill. (Ads for the 2019 Child's Play also show Chucky socking it to characters from Toy Story, his primary competitor at the box office.)

You have to be a little weird to be a horror enthusiast to begin with, but you have to be really weird to like a horror movie about a doll who gets off on killing.

The remake also recalls Stranger Things, making it clear, if his cameo in Ready Player One didn’t already, that the diminutive killer has benefitted from ’80s nostalgia. Chucky feels like a response to many of that decade’s fictional cuddly companions, like NBC’s Alf, as well as the creatures of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, like Gizmo of Gremlins and Harry of Harry and the Hendersons. He’s like E.T.’s evil twin — both are inhuman outsiders to the households they adopt, but Chucky’s mission is to seek and destroy the nuclear family, not improve it (There’s even a direct relationship between the slasher genre’s red-headed stepchild and Spielberg — it was Spielberg who advised Mancini to stick with Universal after other studios offered him the chance to make Child's Play 2.)

With 1998’s Bride of Chucky, Mancini would expand Chucky’s clan in the form of Jennifer Tilly, sometimes playing herself and sometimes playing Tiffany, the one true love of Chucky’s twisted little life. Tiffany is, as they say, fearless and crazier than him; she is Chucky’s queen, and God help anybody that dared to disrespect his queen. Seed of Chucky, the directorial debut of series creator Don Mancini, brought another new addition: Glenn, Tiffany and Chucky’s child who, despite the relentless pressure of their parents to conform one way or the other, doesn’t identify particularly strongly with any single gender.

It’s worth noting that, alongside Hellraiser and Candyman creator Clive Barker, Don Mancini is one of the few openly queer filmmakers working in the slasher genre, or at least one of the most prominent. Moving to direct-to-video, as with 2013’s Curse of Chucky and 2017’s Cult of Chucky, has allowed him to release a uniquely queer vision unlike anything else in horror. The later entries feature body-swapping and gender-bending galore, with Chucky even taking up permanent residence in the body of a woman, played by Fiona Dourif doing an uncanny impression of her father. In a word, the Chucky movies are gay as hell. I can’t think of many other horror movies that make multiple references to Bound, the pre-Matrix ’90s lesbian thriller by the Wachowskis, as happens in both Seed and Cult of Chucky. It’s not just capitalism that the Chucky movies push back against, but all manner of conventions: family, gender, and sexuality.

Chucky’s always been the slasher for outsiders; you have to be a little weird to be a horror enthusiast to begin with, but you have to be really weird to like a horror movie about a doll who gets off on killing. That Chucky’s movies both critique and benefit from the relentless machine of movie marketing isn’t so much ironic as it is a normal part of life in an economy in which everything, even parody, can be transformed into product. Chucky’s promise, that he’ll be our friend to the end, is the same promise all these forces — family, gender, and capital — make. The only difference is Chucky has the decency to kill us quicker.