When we stood on the sound stages of Child’s Play 30 years ago, marveling at the larger-than-life sets that would provide some proper scale to Chucky, there was simply no reason to imagine that three decades on that Good Guys doll would still be a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. And not just as some old memory we collectively refuse to let go of, but as an active…uh, figure…in movie adventures that are still being made. And shepherding the Chucky doll through all of it has been writer Don Mancini, who came up with the original concept, wrote the first three films, and then stepped behind the camera to serve as both writer and director of Bride of Chucky (1998), Seed of Chucky (2004), Curse of Chucky (2013) and, most recently, Cult of Chucky (2017), with his eyes set firmly towards an eighth film in the series. All told, it’s a pretty remarkable — albeit unexpected — journey, which he discusses with us in this exclusive interview.
PORTAL 13: Is it mind-blowing that 30 years later people are still talking about Chucky, and that the character is still showing up in films?
DON MANCINI: It’s a sort of longevity I could only have dreamed of, and I did dream of it. Never imagined that would actually happen. Obviously for that to happen you have to have some mighty strokes of good luck, which I have had, so here we are. 30 years and seven films later.
Given this is the 30th anniversary year, let’s go back to the beginning. What was the original inspiration for Chucky?
I was a lifelong horror fan, so that was certainly in my DNA. My dad had worked in advertising and marketing, so as a kid I was around that world a lot. Sometimes I’d go to New York City with him when he’d have business trips, and I’d be at the ad agencies where I would be subjected to campaigns in their infancy. I learned a lot about that world and specifically the world of marketing and advertising to kids. Even as a kid myself, I was struck by how cynical it was; the idea of manipulating young psyches to want things that they don’t need. I remember learning the concept “consumer trainee,” which is how the advertising world classifies children, and I went, “Oh my God, that’s terrifying.” I just had it in my head that I wanted to do some kind of dark satire about the world of marketing to children. This was in the mid-80s. I was a film student at UCLA. Cabbage Patch Dolls were all the rage, so all of these impulses went through the funnel and out came the first Child’s Play. It was really wanting to do that dark satire about how advertising affects children, and I think there was a little more of it in my original script than what made it into the film.
In my original script, the Catherine Hicks character of the mom was actually an advertising executive who worked for The Good Guys company, and so she was involved with the campaign. I actually think that they were right, and when I say “they” I’m talking about Tom Holland, who rewrote the script, and David Kirschner, our producer. I think they wanted the mom to be just a little more of an every mom, which I certainly see the value to that. By having that character an ad executive, it gave me a little more of an entrée into depicting that world. We got into that in the subsequent movies. We depicted the inner workings of the company and the factory and all of that. That was the original idea.
What came to mind back then and now is Talking Tina from Twilight Zone and the Trilogy of Terror TV movie. God, that scared the hell out of me as a kid.
Absolutely. Me, too. As I said, I was a lifelong horror fan, and I was well aware, of course, of the killer doll trope from Talking Tina, and from Dead of Night, which is a ventriloquist’s dummy, but of course similar train. The movie Magic and the William Goldman novel Magic made a big impression on me when I was a kid. So I was well aware of the trope, but I was also aware at this point in the mid-80s that it had not been done in the era of post-Gremlin animatronics, and that was a big deal, too. That was one of the things that, in retrospect, I can’t believe that I was the first one to get to this, but it was a conscious impulse. I was really into movies like that and fascinated by animatronics. I’d been a big fan of Jaws, and the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong, so the idea of animatronic characters on screen was just very interesting to me.
After Gremlins, I recognized that the sophistication and the puppetry had grown to a point that you could actually depict the doll as a full-fledged character in a way that you really couldn’t before that, because it wasn’t possible to do that degree of subtlety in his facial expressions and in his ability to enunciate syllables. Post-Gremlins, that was possible. I think that was one of the things I got lucky about as well.
When you flash forward these 30 years, and we recently had Cult of Chucky, what is the difference in terms of making a Chucky movie now compared to what it was in the 80s?
Gosh, there are all kinds of differences. One of them is budgetary. Ironically we spend much less money on these movies now than we did back in the day. We started in the cash-rich 80s and 90s. I’m not being glib, but it’s absolutely true. There was just a lot more money going around, and so even a movie of this size, you know the first one I think was a $15 million movie. The first three or four were all in that range, and then with Seed of Chucky we went to Eastern Europe, and that was, I think, officially a $10 million movie after the tax rebate that we had from Romania and the UK. That was because of the degree of puppetry involved in that movie because there were three puppet characters and they were very much front and center by that point in the series. If we had shot in the United States, that would have been a $20 million movie or something. All of those movies previous to Curse, they were shot basically 50 to 60 days, and Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky were both 30-day schedules. Again, this is just the reality of the business now where, with this kind of movie, they look at the bottom line and as a result, these are smaller movies now.
So how does that sort of shift in budget and production schedule affect the films?
Approaching Curse I was initially a little wary. It was just, like, “How can we do this in 30 days?” I built the movie around that schedule and budget. It dovetailed nicely with our mission of making Chucky more straightforwardly scary again, which meant that he was going to be on screen solo and not with his bride and his gender confused pal. It was just going to be Chucky and if we wanted him to be legitimately frightening, that would mean keeping him in the shadows a lot more, rather than in the comedies, Bride and Seed, we brought him very much front and center and he was the lead character, whereas in the last two he is a villain rather than an anti-hero, if that makes sense.
In the most practical sense, that’s how the movies have changed, but from a creative level one of the things that’s always been important to me and to David Kirschner, who was the producer on all of the movies and we’ve been partners on this franchise from the very beginning, is we always want to switch it up somehow. We just don’t want to make the same movie twice, and so we found that Chucky is an extremely versatile character. You can plug him into different genres, different sub-genres, different tones. We’ve gone from straightforward slasher movie, to comedy, to really crazy meta-comedy with Seed. Then with Curse, we did an Agatha Christie, old, dark house, woman in jeopardy movie. With Cult of Chucky, we’re doing the mental asylum movie, or another subcategory that this fits into is mind f**k movie, which we’d never done before. A movie where you’re constantly wondering if what you’re seeing is real or not, because for the characters in the mental institution their perceptions of reality are all filtered through their own madness, the drugs that they’re on, the hypnosis that they’re undergoing, the nightmares that they’re having. That was just a fun new, generic prism to view the character through.
Is it shocking to see how versatile Chucky is in terms of the genres you’ve placed him in?
I don’t know if I would say shocked. Pleasantly surprised, maybe. When I wrote the first one, I dreamed of following in the footsteps of iconic characters like Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers, and before them characters like Dracula, and Frankenstein; iconic monsters that we all love to hate or love to be afraid of. I dreamt of it and the fact that it worked out, again, I pinch myself often, certainly the older I get the more I try to very consciously be grateful about it all, because I am. It’s a lot of good fortune. I think that there was a savviness about the character that was there from the beginning and that the idea of a cute little, mass-marketed children’s toy that is possessed by something very dark with a mordant sense of humor and a potty mouth is a fun idea. As a result, he’s become an ambassador for the horror genre or the Halloween season. People around the world know who he is. People like to dress up as the character for Halloween. There are all kinds of products, all of that. Of course, it tickles me and David. We’re really thrilled that we get to keep doing it. It’s important to us and we love it. We legitimately love it, and we’re proud of the fact that we’re still here steering it, whereas that’s fairly rare if not even unprecedented in any kind of franchise regardless of the genre. In our more grandiose moments, David and I like to think of ourselves as the Broccolis of the horror genre, as in the Broccolis steering their beloved James Bond franchise through the decades. We’re doing the same thing. We have taken a page from their business model, in a way, that we like to work. We treat it as the family business.
You talked about all the genre movies that Chucky has been a part of, how you’ve molded the different movies around different genres. What ones are you still wanting to give a shot?
I would love to do a World War II-era Chucky movie; I think would be awesome. You know how in Raiders of the Lost Ark they say, “Hitler’s obsessed with the occult”? That’s the window in. It would be legitimately interesting to see Chucky in that milieu with the iconography and the archetypes of the World War II movie, he could be great.
C’mon, put him in a Western. Gun-slinging Chucky? Awesome!
It would be. There are so many possibilities, it just depends on which genre you want to go into, and whether you want to go into it comedically or horrifically. Sometimes they overlap. A lot of that just depends on what the tastes of the day were. When we did Bride, this was on the heels of Scream and self-conscious, winking, meta horror was very in at the time. I love that genre anyway. It was catnip to me to be able to treat that with a bit more of a sense of humor and to acknowledge the absurdity that’s inherent in the concept. Doing that just allowed us to reinvent it a little bit with a new tone and bring in a new character with Jennifer Tilly. At the same time, that allowed us to delve into the character of Chucky and to learn more about him. One of the things that’s interesting about the franchise as distinct from other franchises is that we have a fairly coherent mythology that’s evolved over 30 years.
What is it about Chucky that’s allowed him to endure all these years?
There are several answers to that question. I think part of it is just our inherent… I was going to say cultural, but it’s beyond cultural. I think it’s just human, universal, primal responses to dolls. Dolls are distortions of the human form, so they fall into that category we now call the uncanny valley. They look like us only not, and I think we just have a primal revulsion to that. If you add on top of that the idea that dolls are generally taken to be symbols of childhood innocence and you pervert that, that’s also just inherently disturbing. Also, with this character specifically, the audience loves his sense of humor. Because he’s so irreverent and subversive and is often trying to upend the status quo, over the years young audiences in particular identified with that. People kind of enjoy the spectacle of seeing the little guy raise some hell, and then ultimately get his just desserts in the end. People enjoy that because his sense of humor is so specific. Brad Dourif is also an indelible part of it. His performance from the beginning was so perfect, and one of the things that people are responding to over the years.
So what’s next for Chucky?
I’ve been doing it for 30 years now, so I have files of different ideas and notions, and scenes, and set pieces, and characters, and situations. It’s a constantly evolving thing. I want to be ready. Cult isn’t, I don’t think, the last we’ll see of Chucky, but again, it’s always important to me and David to find a way to reinvent it and keep it fresh. Obviously, I can’t say too much, but we’re already thinking ahead, definitely. I do spend my nights thinking about, “Gosh, what would happen if Tiffany met Andy Barkley?” The two disparate characters from different, far-flung parts of the franchise, what if they collide? I think about these things. I’m a fan as well. I guess it sounds silly or self-serving to say, “I’m a fan of my own franchise,” but I am. I love it. I’m a fan of other franchises, too, and I think when you’re a fan that’s one of the things you do is you just muse on the characters and “what if in this situation…?”, and “what if they met this character?” One of the reasons we’ve been able to go for this long is because we legitimately care about it. It’s not just a paycheck gig for us. This is our baby.