You know what is probably the least threatening thing in the world? An animate fucking doll. It’s hard to feel much in the way of pant-shitting terror when your primary threat is barely knee height and can be thwarted by cramming it in a bread box. I think that’s why Child’s Play has only ever been able to consider itself a partial horror movie. Yeah, there’s some supernatural shit at play, and people die, but it’s always with this smug winking to the camera, as if the actors and director need to take a time out to desperately let the audience know that they’re in on the joke. The problem with this is that, at the end of the day, deliberately bad is still bad. It’s almost more insulting as an audience member to see that self-congratulatory “Can you believe how shitty this is? Thanks for your money, PS” than it is to see the concept played completely straight. OG Child’s Play kind of tried for the latter, but by the second installment it was off to the deliberate camp races, where it entered with a shattered kneecap and has never recovered.
What creates some cognitive dissonance for me is that this concept can be terrifying. Hell, my other colleague of letters for this site sees a picture of a regular non-haunted doll and you can hear him piss himself from half a country away. If you’re making a set for a spooky haunted house, it is almost obligatory that at least one room have a collection of dead-eyed, Victorian style dolls. And most people in the 30+ bracket remember having the shit scared out of them by reruns of that one Twilight Zone episode. You know the one. Don’t pretend that you don’t. So what exactly is it that can make this so damn scary in some senses, but so damn goofy in others?
Ok, let’s talk about that Twilight Zone episode to get the ball rolling. After all, if you grew up in the times of Netflix and DVRs, you probably didn’t watch reruns of shows from the 60’s that often as a kid (insert obligatory line about walking to school barefoot in the snow here). The episode (cleverly titled “Living Doll”) chronicles the struggle of an impotent man named Erich who marries Annabelle, a woman with a young daughter named Christie. In order to console Christie about the changes in her life, Annabelle gets her a “Talky-Tina” doll that says things like “I’m Talky-Tina, and I love you”. Erich, being unable to make a child of his own, begins to resent both Christie and the doll she gloms onto and starts being kind of a dick to Christie, as she represents the gnawing fear that he isn’t even able to contribute to his own story in any meaningful way. Soon, the doll starts saying weird shit to Erich, appearing in places it shouldn’t, and even returning to Christie’s bed after he throws it in the trash can in a paranoid fit. Annabelle threatens to leave him, Christie becomes more and more afraid of him and attached to the doll, and all of this culminates in him taking a suspicious fall down the stairs as Talky-Tina watches on. I saw this episode when I was around 10 or 11, and it put a scare into me that even lasted to my watching it 20 years later.
So why did “Living Doll” work, but Child’s Play could only find a home in the realm of camp? It’s actually very straightforward: “Living Doll” was never about the doll. It was about Erich’s inadequacies driving him slowly insane, which was then compounded by the doll. Child’s Play is way too up front with their conceit. Once a character encountered Chucky, should they live to tell about it, they never really had any “am I going fucking insane?” moments. It was simply attack, well I guess that doll is trying to kill me, sustain, release. And the idea that anyone would simply take “homicidal doll with serial killer soul trapped in it” at face value makes the premise impossible to fear.
Now, I’m not saying that the general, dead eyed aesthetic of your average doll, particularly in horror (Annabelle, anyone?) isn’t unsettling, but I have yet to see any installment in the genre of “scary doll goes crazy” that isn’t just outright scoff-inducing if the doll in question is doing anything more than channelling something bigger and more unknowable. I know, I’m a broken fucking record here, but it’s simply not enough to say “here is the unsettling thing, be unsettled damn you!” Give me a compelling reason. Have it channel something, say, the very real fear that all of us have to varying degrees of our own unimportance as players in our very lives, or simply a malicious force with desires that are wholly alien to us. Otherwise, you might as well have your movie feature a serial killer with progeria and call it a day.