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Child's Play: Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition DVD Review

Child's Play movie poster Child's Play

Theatrical Release: November 9, 1988 / Running Time: 87 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Tom Holland / Writers: Don Mancini (story, screenplay); John Lafia, Tom Holland (screenplay)

Cast: Catherine Hicks (Karen Barclay), Chris Sarandon (Mike Norris), Alex Vincent (Andy Barclay), Brad Dourif (Charles Lee Ray, voice of Chucky), Dinah Manoff (Maggie Peterson), Tommy Swerdlow (Jack Santos), Jack Colvin (Dr. Ardmore), Neil Giuntoli (Eddie Caputo), Juan Ramirez (Peddler), Alan Wilder (Mr. Criswell), Edan Gross (voice of Friendly Chucky), John Franklin (voice of Walkabout Chucky)

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Thanks to Toy Story, cinema's prevailing notion of toys coming to life will long be a pleasant one marked by spirited adventures and witty dialogue. But seven years before Pixar changed the face of animation with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and company,
live-action horror film Child's Play offered a darker version of what a plaything could be with a bit of liveliness.

Toys don't ordinarily have personality in this film. But that changes when Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), better known as the Lakeshore Strangler, sees his life running out while being pursued by police detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon, The Princess Bride) in a Chicago toy store. In his dying moments, Ray casts a spell on the nearest thing he can find -- a neat, redheaded Good Guy boy doll -- effectively passing it his soul.

Purchased in a back alley deal, the very same doll becomes the last and most treasured gift single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks, "7th Heaven") gives her son Andy (Alex Vincent) for his sixth birthday. The large doll, whose few features include saying three phrases and moving his head, informs us his name is Chucky. Having already been abundantly exposed to the toy line through television and cereal, Andy instantly takes to his new friend. On his very first night with the doll, though, tragedy strikes and a babysitter dies.

The assigned Norris silently lets his suspicions move toward the unlikely idea that Andy was involved in the incident. The boy's case isn't helped when he starts attributing non-standard utterances and actions to Chucky. That's sheer lunacy, think Mom and the detective, who haven't witnessed anything unusual about the doll. But, of course, they reconsider as the film progresses and Chucky is revealed not only to have life but a relentless, murderous drive.

If you'd like, "Child's Play" can be viewed as a cautionary tale against buying toys from back alleys. That's exactly what poor single mother Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) and best friend Maggie (Dinah Manoff) do, from a creepy peddler (Juan Ramirez). Despite the glum look, Andy (Alex Vincent) is actually quite thrilled by the company of his new Good Guy buddy, Chucky.

Twenty years since it was released to theaters, Child's Play strikes a person as belonging to an old school of horror. Though clearly deserving its R rating for some gruesome imagery and plaything profanity, the movie is tame by today's standards of genre gore.
I'd count that to its advantage. If it can't rely on the shock value of bloodshed, it's got to offer something else of substance.

And Child's Play does. The four leads -- three humans and the sketchy Chucky -- claim roughly even amounts of screentime and together form a passably compelling narrative. Sure, you can figure out where we're headed pretty quickly. And no, the fairly standard plot does not stand up to scrutiny. The suspense is modest and even the scares are played safe and predictably with telling silent stretches preparing viewers and preventing seat-jumps.

Nevertheless, Child's Play entertains. The movie plays its premise quite straight and thoughtfully, but a comedic value is certainly found. How else can you react to a character resembling My Buddy cursing off adults or giving them ample opportunity to avoid doom? The important distinction to make is that you're not laughing at the movie, but with it. And beyond that laughter promoted by a slight camp factor is a truly disturbing concept: child's cheerful companion revealing its evil side.

Chris Sarandon plays Mike Norris, the Chicago police detective tracking the Lakeshore Strangler. If he doesn't get his man, it's up to his brother Chuck. Chucky knows voodoo.

Though not regarded as one of the genuinely great horror films of our time, Child's Play has proved popular and profitable enough. It spawned two sequels in just three years and the past ten years have seen an additional two films with a more self-aware and darkly comedic tone. Apparently, Don Mancini (who has written all five Chucky films) is now developing a remake of this original at Universal for 2010 theatrical release.

No one can cry "double dip" over MGM's new Child's Play DVD, in stores Tuesday. This disc, dubbed Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition, arrives nine full years after its previous release and can be considered "new" and "improved" in every way. Its firsts include a widescreen transfer, a 5.1-channel soundtrack, and a slew of bonus features. Keep reading for more on all of that.

Buy Child's Play: Chucky's 20th Birthday Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Dolby Surround (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, Spanish;
Feature and Extras Closed Captioned;
Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 9, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black keepcase with embossed cardboard slipcover
Later released on Blu-ray + DVD Combo ($19.99 SRP; September 15, 2009)
Scary Movie Halloween Village Collection

VIDEO and AUDIO

Child's Play appears for the first time on Region 1 DVD in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio and is enhanced for 16x9 displays.
Picture quality is quite satisfactory. While I'm not able to compare to MGM's 1999 disc, I don't doubt that this new version offers considerable improvement. The element is clean throughout and colors are quite vibrant even in the plentiful night scenes. Grain is an issue, as it usually is for low-budget horror movies from this time. But its mild presence is more atmospheric than detrimental. Four movie soundtracks are provided, including a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 remix.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Bonus features begin with three audio commentaries, two of which accompany the entire film.

The first one features actors Alex Vincent and Catherine Hicks and Chucky designer Kevin Yagher. Rather than making Vincent a third wheel, he is recorded separately from Hicks and Yagher, who have been married for 18 years now. Despite this, the track is cohesive if not uniform. All three speakers have a lot to discuss, most of which is interesting. Each lends a unique angle as well: Vincent being the former child star whose every bit has been repeated or questioned to him over the years; Hicks recalling her first maternal role and top billing; Yagher concerning himself with the animatronics and puppetry. It does grow a little tiresome by the end, but there's still plenty to cull from this track with minimal overlap from the video extras.

The second commentary offers writer Don Mancini and producer David Kirschner. As two of the biggest forces behind Child's Play, they have involved perspectives and loads of information to share. Their conversation is easy to follow and observations easy to appreciate. There are lots of screen-specific anecdotes, production facts, and discussions of all who contributed to the film. Big fans may most appreciate their pondering of various ideas and themes in the film.

Next is a Chucky character commentary, offered on four select scenes. Per the doll's personality, the remarks are sadistic and occasionally profane. He talks over three of his standout sequences and then he's joined by writer Don Mancini for 11 minutes of the climax. I assume this was done by Brad Dourif, although he's not sounding a great like the Chucky we hear in the first film. Altogether, this commentary runs 24:46, but no "Play All" option is supplied.

With Chucky and spare head keeping watch behind him, writer Don Mancini is sure not to embellish the story of production for "Evil Comes in Small Packages." Chucky: The bald and drunk years? This test footage appears in "Chucky Building a Nightmare." Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, and Chris Sarandon reunite for the short 2007 Monster Mania convention Q & A.

The second page of the extras menu holds video bonuses. First and longest among this class is "Evil Comes in Small Packages" (25:18), a fine featurette comprised of three distinct but similar parts. "The Birth of Chucky" covers the development and some abandoned concepts, most prominently in interview clips with writer Don Mancini and producer David Kirschner. Longest part "Creating the Horror" adds lead actors Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, and Brad Dourif for their reminiscences, which are supported by behind-the-scenes and rehearsal footage (the latter shows Dourif acting out Chucky's part). Finally, "Unleashed" discusses the filmmakers' tradition of amplifying audience reaction in theaters as well as Child's Play's legacy. Perhaps the only downside to this featurette is that talk of long working cuts underscores the disc's lack of deleted scenes.

"Chucky: Building a Nightmare" (10:00) has a number of crew members recall the techniques used to bring the doll to life.

"A Monster Convention" gives us a short but solid Q & A panel (5:20) piece from the 2007 Monster Mania convention that reunites stars Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, and Chris Sarandon.

Chucky's designer Kevin Yagher demonstrates how his creation can (somewhat) realistically sneeze in the 1988 making-of featurette. Catherine Hicks, Alex Vincent, and Chucky pose looking like a warm, fuzzy '80s sitcom family in this photo gallery still. Chucky strikes a killer pose for the static main menu of his 20th Birthday Edition DVD.

As expected of a release-time featurette,
"Introducing Chucky: The Making of Child's Play" (6:10) is short, dramatic, promotional, and delightful. It provides tidy interview sound bites and behind-the-scenes looks at Chucky's mechanics, some of which are excerpted elsewhere on the disc.

A fun 2-minute theatrical trailer for Child's Play is provided. A photo gallery supplies 73 images, the majority of which are plain publicity stills. Finally, cross-promotion gives us full trailers for recent MGM horror flicks Mr. Brooks (2:22) and Pathology (2:12).

I uncovered a trio of Easter Eggs from the main and special features menus. They're all accessible in the same way and easy to discover on a DVD-ROM. Each unlabeled find triggers a different 3-5 second clip of a computer-animated Chucky uttering a clever one-liner.

The 16x9-enhanced static menus set old publicity art against new backdrops with a liberal number of blood splatters. The main menu plays a bit of Joe Renzetti's theme score, but otherwise the screens are silent.

Child's Play comes packaged in a standard keepcase that slides into a cardboard slipcover. The slipcover recreates the artwork below while adding some embossing effects and stickers including a lenticular moving eye. There are no in-case inserts.

It may look like a flashlight, but the deranged My Buddy actually wields something more deadly. Mother (Catherine Hicks) and son (Alex Vincent) have a heart-to-heart, as they always do in '80s horror films. None of the Camden kids ever got in this kind of trouble!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Child's Play isn't a great film, but it offers about as much entertainment as can be asked of a horror movie you're more likely to consider funny than frightening. It holds up as intriguing and technically sound if charmingly tame and more than a little silly. MGM and Fox ensure that Chucky's long-awaited return to DVD is a worthwhile one. This 20th Birthday Edition improves upon the old release in every way. It also stands as a thorough, satisfying DVD that's a steal at its low starting price. As such, it's doubtlessly recommended for fans as an upgrade or first-time buy.

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Reviewed September 7, 2008.



Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1988 United Artists and 2008 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.