Friday, October 19, 2012

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Has there ever been a more drastic and perverse evolution of a horror movie franchise than the Child's Play movies? When most movie franchises reach their fourth or fifth entry, the well has been poisoned and the concept has entered an unpleasant kind of unlife. But not the Chucky movies. This is a franchise that doesn't really come to any kind of life until its fourth, much belated entry. And the fifth entry, 2004's Seed of Chucky (directed by Don Mancini), veers so far away from its origins that it seems to exist in an entirely different universe.

In truth, I never really liked the Child's Play movies back when they were still bearing that name. They seemed like a mundane devolution of Stephen King's suburban horror idiom, one tailored to a mass audience at the expense of anything really mythic or really and truly frightening. They're a conservative kind of horror. They don't take risks. That's not true of the "Chucky" movies, though. Those two movies take big risks, and reap rewards from them. The biggest risk is the shift from middlebrow horror to ghastly comedy. When horror movies start mocking themselves, that's usually just about it for their relevance in the marketplace, but not so with these movies. Somehow, the addition of sick humor turns that very middlebrow horror into something edgier and darker than the first three movies ever came near. It also makes them more fun to watch. The first three films are staid, tasteful horror movies, as eighties multiplex horror movies go. The Chucky films, on the other hand, know where the line of good taste is drawn and feel no compunctions about crossing it.

Seed of Chucky is more daring than Bride of Chucky, which I say with some reluctance because I loved Bride. But Bride is a transitional film. It's still clinging to that middlebrow pop horror idiom even as it pulls away from it. Bride at the very least provides the catalyst for the franchise's evolution in the form of Jennifer Tilly and her alter ego, Tiffany. In the grand scheme of these movies, she's Nora to Chucky's Nick, a match made...well, if not in heaven, than in some warmer place at least. I never could have dreamed that two bickering homicidal dolls could be so funny. Funnier, it turns out, than many ostensible comedies. But then, Seed of Chucky is an ostensible comedy unto itself.

The story in Seed of Chucky finds their offspring in the hands of a thoroughly awful human owner, a modern, hip ventriloquist who treats the poor doll about as well as Stromboli treated Pinocchio. The fact that this owner has bestowed the name of "Shitface" on the poor kid is indicative of hir lot in life. Shitface has dreams of violence. One day, the kid sees a story on an entertainment program about a new movie chronicling the "Chucky" urban legend, and zie recognizes them immediately as hir parents. Zie makes hir way to Hollywood and discovers that Chucky and Tiffany are inert and lifeless, a product of a special effects house. Fortunately, zie is also in possession of the voodoo medallion that can bring them to life. Soon, they're one big, happy, dysfunctional family. The initial strife comes over the actual gender of their kid. Zie isn't anatomically correct (apparently, Chucky himself is fully functional), and both Chucky and Tiffany see the child they want: Chucky want's a boy and renames the kid "Glen." Tiffany want's a girl and renames the kid "Glenda." The next order of business is to get themselves human bodies. Tiffany has designs on the star of their movie, Jennifer Tilly herself, who is lobbying a rap star who is making a biblical epic. She wants to play the Virgin Mary and is willing to use the casting couch to do it. Tiffany (voice of Tilly) is appalled at Tilly's lifestyle choices, but they contrive to impregnate her anyway so that the trio can be a "normal" family. Glen, unfortunately, has a dilemma on hir hands when Tilly delivers twins, one boy, one girl. And the girl side of his personality apparently has some issues...

The obvious takeaway from Seed of Chucky is that it's as queer a horror movie as you're likely to find (the fact that it explicitly references Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda is an obvious tip-off, but it's not the only one). This is like some puppet show version of a Nicholas Ray melodrama, if Ray had ever decided to make a homicidal queer version of Tennessee Williams, which suits it the film, actually. I'm a little bit troubled, as I always am, by the conflation of a transgender identity and homicidal mania. When Glen(da) gets dolled up and kills Tilly's assistant, I let out an audible groan because it's such a cliche, though probably an inevitable one in a movie that begins things with a sequence that references Psycho at three different beats. Even among the allegedly "straight" characters, there's a theme of self-actualization, as Chucky comes to grips with being a killer doll and as Tiffany tries to recover from her addiction to murder. It's all singularly perverse, and funny as all get out, and provides a distant echo of the gender confusion that is often at the heart of the slasher film.

Seed of Chucky is like Ray's films, too, as a portrait of the strangling ties that family often provides. This is a demonic parody of a dysfunctional family, with a mother who is struggling with addiction and an abusive father, with the child being torn between their two equally idealized fantasies of what they want from a child, regardless of the child's own wishes. The push and pull is tearing hir apart. The split eventually comes.

The film itself is the living end of Scream's self-referential horror parody, and hinges on a particularly self-deprecating performance by Jennifer Tilly, whose portrayal of herself is surprisingly brutal in its critique of her own film persona. The Tilly presented on film here is one living off past glories--she tries to seduce one character with the promise of a threesome with Gina Gershon at one point--whose success is attributable to her physical characteristics rather than her talents as an actress. She's venal, greedy, and slattern. I'm amazed that Don Mancini was able to convince her to play the role as written, but it just goes to show that Tilly is a good sport. The film is a critique of the movie business, too, in which the meat grinder of the industry creates monsters, both literally (in a special effects workshop) and figuratively (both among sociopathic actresses whose only concern is how they look and who they have to fuck to get ahead and among carrion-feeding ancillary media that devours its young). This is a bitter movie behind its gallows humor, and one that's better than its reputation.

Current tally: 16 film

First time viewings: 14

From Around the Web

Dr. AC has a mixed bag of goodies over at Horror 101, and feels that he can't do Tetsuo II justice.

The Rev. Anna Dynamite takes on Cabin in the Woods and some Hammer classics over at Dreams in The Bitch House.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter continues barreling through the Puppetmaster movies.

Tim over at The Other Side questions the horror bona fides of this year's version of The Raven.

Andreas over at Pussy Goes Grrr looks at the classic Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life."

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