Redefining the Slasher Formula

I am going to assume that if you have managed to find my little site and are a horror fan, that you don’t need me to recap Child’s Play for you. Even if you’re not a horror fan, if you hear Chucky, you just instantly think, Killer doll. Chucky, played and voiced by Brad Douriff, has become so engrained in our culture. He has become such an iconic character, that it’s nearly impossible not to know the basics by osmosis. You think of him turning his head and saying, “Hi, I’m Chucky, and I’m your friend to the end!” Or, if you’re me, the scene where Andy’s mom realized he doesn’t have any batteries, drops him and has to fish him out from under the couch. Makes me squirm every time.

When the killers in these types of films are so memorable, it’s sometimes easy to forget defining details about the good guys. While people seem to recall poor little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), there is less conversation about his mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks). What I love about Child’s Play is that it took the popular slasher concept and bent it. If you replaced the killer doll with a Michael Myers-esque figure, you have a slasher. This is different for the time in that there are plenty of horrific deaths, but no perceived punishment for corruption (ie// no fun-loving, drug-taking, drinking and bare-breasted teens getting chopped up).

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For instance, the audience gets the impression that Maggie (Dinah Manoff), Karen’s best friend, is a serial dater. Too often in slashers, the innocent virgin is ditched for a guy. In this case, Maggie gives up her evening to babysit Andy when their icky boss informs Karen that she has to work late. On top of that, there is no sense that she is being punished for sleeping around; she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Child’s Play is about the desire to preserve childhood, and the corruption that could be lurking in what seems the most innocent. A doll is a universally accepted symbol of childhood, and the idea that a killer could be using it to murder and take over a child is a scary thought. This corruption of childhood innocence is what made The Prodigy so effective, nearly forty years later.

The hero of this movie is set up to be Andy. As he is a child, and talking about how his doll came to life and did all the bad things, not him; of course no one believes him. Because no one believes him, it is assumed that Andy is going to need to be the one to stop Chucky. But deep down the audience knows that there is no way that a six-year old is going to be able to understand enough or have enough strength to make that happen. When Chucky reveals his true self to the audience for the first time, we see the full extent of the darkness in him. Chucky is not a doll; he is a full-grown, violent serial killer. As a result, even though his mother is not set up to be a final girl in the traditional sense, we are instantly rooting for her; she has to protect her kid, and the possibility that Andy might not make it through the movie is not something that the audience is willing to entertain.

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Andy’s mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks), is a single mom just trying to get by. What I loved is that her single motherhood is not all-consuming for her. There are no drunk, late-night phone calls to an ex. No nightly pining for a deceased spouse. Whatever has happened to her husband, he is gone, and she needs to move on for the sake of her son. That’s not to say that these things don’t happen, nor that they are not a valid part of anyone’s healing process. But this movie doesn’t bring them up because that’s not what the movie is about. The movie makes it clear that Karen would jump in front of a bullet for Andy, and the rest isn’t relevant to the story that is being told. Her marital status doesn’t define who she is. This trope of a suffering wife can sometimes be used to crank up drama, or create a conflict where there isn’t one to be had, but Child’s Play doesn’t go there. From the start, it is Andy and Karen against the world.

Andy, for his part, does not seem to feel as if something is missing. Overall, he seems content, just a normal kid who loves his Saturday morning cartoons, and he clearly feels safe and loved. Watching Andy’s face when he realizes that he has gotten some much needed clothing for his birthday instead of the much coveted Good Guy doll, and then Karen’s equally disappointed face when she realizes that he is crushed, shows the viewer Karen’s acceptance of the situation….and how much she hates it. She is struggling financially, and does not keep that secret from Andy. He understands why he can’t have the doll, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing. The financial struggle that we see with Karen is very candid, and makes her instantly relatable. After all, most people have struggled to make ends meet at some point in their lives.

The moment that she has the opportunity to buy the doll super cheap off of a guy selling some questionably located goods in a shopping cart on the street, she does it, no hesitation. This is one small thing that she can do to make her son happy, and it’s a no-brainer for her. Dolls are an innocent plaything, and she wants her son to have a happy childhood.

When Andy begins telling stories about Chucky, she doesn’t believe him, not exactly. But she KNOWS HER KID. She knows that he wouldn’t lie, and that if he is saying this he truly believes it. This is what makes Karen such a strong character; her willingness to put it all on the line for her kid. She goes to bat for him when no one believes her. While she is not initially set up to be the hero of this story in the traditional sense, she becomes one over the course of the film. By bending the structure of a typically slasher, Child’s Play is able to play with horror tropes in a way that was, and still is, completely refreshing. Love it or hate it, Child’s Play was a gamechanger.

Featured Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome from Pixabay

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