(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: a terrifying and memorable scene in Child’s Play marked the transition from atmospheric chiller to full-blown practical effect driven extravaganza.)
Of all the horror icons to emerge from the ‘80s, killer doll Chucky and his Child’s Play franchise seems to have left slasher titans like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger in the dust. Between last year’s reboot and upcoming Syfy series Chucky, the pint-sized maniac is still going strong. Granted, no other horror icon traversed as winding and complicated a path as Chucky, from serial killer hellbent on revenge to depraved family man. The mouthy, psychotic Good Guy always opted to eschew traditional slasher convention.
There’s something inherently terrifying about a possessed doll, and Child’s Play boasted no shortage of creepy moments. Yet it’s a game-changing scene halfway through the film that delivered chills with a deceptively simple manipulation of tension that proved to be most memorable of all. Not just for its effectiveness, but because it transitioned the terror of Chucky from psychological fear to full-blown practical effect driven spectacle.
Directed by Fright Night and Psycho II’s Tom Holland, Child’s Play sees serial killer Charles “Chucky” Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) retreating to a nearby toy store when fleeing from the police. With homicide detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) hot on his heels and inflicting mortal gunshot wounds, Charles transfers his soul to a Good Guy doll – the year’s hottest toy – as a desperate means to cling to life. A doll that happens to land in the hands of a single mother, Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) desperate to gift her son Andy (Alex Vincent) his most coveted toy for his birthday. Chucky’s bloodlust isn’t satiated by his new pint-sized plastic body, though, and he’ll continue killing to ensure his situation is only temporary.
The Story So Far
Chucky’s first night home with Andy results in the demise of babysitter Aunt Maggie (Dinah Manoff), who falls out the window after an unseen assailant bludgeons her with a hammer. With no outward signs of a break-in and small footprints in spilled flour at the scene of the crime, detective Mike Norris suspects young Andy. Much to both the police and Karen’s chagrin, Andy blames his doll. Following Maggie’s death, Andy skips school with Chucky, jumps on a train to downtown Chicago, and Chucky’s accomplice Eddie Caputo winds up dead. Naturally, the death further compounds suspicions and places an even bigger target on his back from the police. Even Karen is starting to suspect something may be wrong with her son. When Andy is kept overnight for psychiatric evaluation, Karen has no choice but to head home alone with his beloved doll in tow.
Exasperated, Karen sets Chucky down on the living room coffee table and half-heartedly pleas with him to speak, to prove in some way that her son’s sanity holds firm. The doll remains inanimate. The frame keeps Chucky in the background as Karen goes to the kitchen to clean up. She picks up the empty Good Guy packaging to throw it away when something falls out and hits the floor. Batteries. She looks at the box again, with large print on the side that says “batteries included.” The dawning implication of what that means overwhelms her, and us, with fear.
The tension mounts as she slowly walks toward the doll, still perched on the table, and cautiously picks him up to check the battery compartment on its backside. The moment it’s revealed to be empty, Chucky rotates his head around and cheerily utters the doll’s signature line “Hi! I’m Chucky, wanna play?” The scare causes her to drop Chucky, and the toy rolls under the couch, resetting the tension anew. With severe trepidation, she deliberately retrieves the doll from under the sofa and threatens to toss him in the fire if he doesn’t speak. The doll’s façade changes; the fixed, happy Good Guy face becomes monstrous, and the child-like voice gives way to a vitriolic maniac. The jig is up.
Up until this memorable scene, Holland creates a sense of mystery around the doll. The way Chucky moves and behaves, while occasionally creepy, are still very doll-like. We never see it talk outside of the pre-programmed lines with the voice of a child, nor do we see it move outside of doll blinks and head rotations. The film teases just enough to support the opening sequence where we see Charles Lee Ray perform a black magic ritual, but also adheres to a strict set of rules for the doll to create a sense of doubt. That perhaps through the toy as a conduit, Andy is becoming like Charles Lee Ray.
The quietness of the scene and the deceptively simple blocking of it allows for maximum impact. Keeping the doll out of frame, but facing Karen, signals that he’s watching her every move. Her back faces him, leaving her more vulnerable. The batteries hitting the floor, accompanied by a piercing music sting, brings the startling realization that the doll has been moving and talking on its own the entire time. Karen’s knee jerk terror mirrors our own.
Then, Holland allows for the implication of this moment to embed itself further under our skin by having Karen cautiously test the boundaries of life within her son’s doll two more times, drawing out the tension to excruciating levels. The uncomfortable peering into the darkness under her couch, the cautious shaking of the doll as if it could jump at her in seconds. The horror that she’s not wrong. Only when she hangs Chucky over a fire does he finally relent his hiding place, marking a brand-new reign of terror from the pint-sized monster. Roughly halfway through the runtime, this scene unleashes his bloodlust in a way that he held back before. He’s now free, in all the animatronic glory, to run amok and slay unbridled.
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