Frightfest presents Living with Chucky.
In 2020, the daughter of Chucky puppeteer Tony Gardner, Kyra Elise Gardner, released a short Florida State University film exploring the Chucky family (see above). This short would bring together the filmmakers, writers, puppeteers, actors and producers who have dedicated thirty years to a psycho doll born from all our childhood nightmares. However, the seven-minute short hardly seemed enough considering the longevity and diversity held within the Chucky story. Therefore, what started as The Dollhouse in 2020 has now become Gardner’s debut feature-length documentary exploring the world born from Child’s Play in 1988.
In recent years, we have had a plethora of horror docs, from Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th to Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. It is, therefore, surprising that it’s taken so long for Chucky to have his moment in the spotlight. Gardner understands this but also veers from offering us a standard making-of documentary by exploring the family born from the pint-sized killer’s movies and their willingness to take creative risks and embrace diversity.
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Our journey starts in the mid-1980s when Don Mancini created the now infamous killer doll while studying at UCLA. Mancini’s original screenplay was titled Blood Buddy, and it found interest in the most unlikely of places when producer David Kirschner spotted its potential. Kirschner was keen to explore something different following his success with the animated family flick An American Tale, and Blood Buddy fit the bill. Over the following months, Kirschner worked with Mancini in fleshing out the screenplay, and Child’s Play was soon born. The rest, as they say, is history. But the story of the seven movies that made up the Child’s Play and Chucky franchise is fascinating for several reasons.
Unlike many horror franchises that struggle to maintain interest in the killer as time goes on (I am looking at you, Friday the 13th!) Kirschner and Mancini have openly and unapologetically played with Chucky’s character from the start, tweaking and adjusting to allow for growth. As a result, one could argue that the personality of Chucky found in Child’s Play (1988) now bears little resemblance to the 21st Century version. However, even more clever is that this transformation has been moulded around an ongoing story born in 1988, built upon in 1990’s Child’s Play 2 and then transformed in 1998 with The Bride of Chucky. The result is a franchise that has been bold in its artistic vision and belief in diversity, reflecting changing consumer appetites while never losing its core themes.
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Through interviews with Brad Dourif, Tony Gardner, Don Mancini, Alex Vincent, John Waters, Fiona Dourif and others, Living with Chucky is, in essence, a celebration of the franchise. However, as a result, it skirts some of the more challenging issues that have faced Chucky’s survival over the years. For example, there is no direct discussion on Chucky’s role in the knee-jerk video nasty debates of the early 90s. Neither is there any exploration of the multiple countries that chose to ban the original movie in 1988. While it’s understandable that Gardner would focus on the positives, by not fully delving into the history, it often feels like a piece of the jigsaw is missing. However, Gardner does excel in exploring the impact of the four-foot ginger-haired killer on family life for all involved.
While watching Living with Chucky, I was reminded of the 2021 documentary Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies. In Laddie, Amanda Ladd-Jones created a profoundly personal space in examining the impact of Alan Ladd Jr’s career on his family life and his children. Similarly, Kyra Elise Gardner explores how the industry often creates a feeling of separation for the children of those working in film. Here Gardner examines how she grew up resenting the puppet who kidnapped her father for weeks and months. But Gardner also allows those she interviews to explore this separation from a parent’s perspective, from Kirchner to Dourif and Boyd (Glen). Like Laddie, this personal touch elevates Living with Chucky beyond the standard making-of documentary, allowing for a far more intimate exploration of those who have dedicated their careers to the franchise.
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Gardner’s discussions on the queer themes that run through the Chucky franchise are equally impressive. Here she allows Mancini and Co to explore how the Chucky franchise grew in its queer creative confidence over the decades, blooming in The Bride of Chucky and The Seed of Chucky, a horror movie that chose to explore trans identity long before many others through Glen (a character long overdue another outing). This newfound queer confidence transformed the franchise and its fan base as time went on.
While it may sometimes skirt some of the more challenging themes in Chucky’s history, Living with Chucky is a joy to watch. Here Gardner celebrates the franchise and the family of creatives born in 1988, a family that continues to expand today through the Chucky TV series. The result is a fascinating exploration of a character who has been reinvented more times than your average superhero. Living with Chucky is a delightful ode to horror, comedy, puppeteering and the willingness to be bold and innovative on a limited budget. Over thirty years since Child’s Play hit our cinemas screens, a small and ferocious doll in dungarees continues to take us by surprise, and long may he do so.
Living with Chucky is a delightful ode to horror, comedy, puppeteering and the willingness to be bold and innovative on a limited budget. Over thirty years since Child’s Play hit our cinemas screens, a small and ferocious doll in dungarees continues to take us by surprise, and long may he do so.