80’s Library: Child’s Play
Every holiday season, I cannot shake observing the perils of mass consumerism. The television commercials alone seriously make me question why I even continue to watch live network television in the age of digital streaming. The craftiness of the advertisements has gotten some of us thirsting for the latest electronic device under the Christmas tree well before even Halloween arrives. It’s the shit that we stand in line for that really makes me think about what this life thing truly means. My generation was drowned in the notion of ‘having’. So Child’s Play (1988) wasn’t much of a surprise to me. In a very rudimentary way, it exposed that ugliness, and exploited it with cute youthful innocence.
I remember Child’s Play being the first film to ever really disturb me. The no-movie-rating-boundary that shrouded my childhood, and all too vivid imagination, both fascinated and frightened. But it wasn’t really the iconic killer doll Chucky doing the rattling. Seeing a two feet tall doll pull murderous stunts was less of a psychological burden than seeing a sweet child, Andy (Alex Vincent), being raised by a struggling single mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks), in the dreariness of winter in Chicago.
Andy’s loneliness was almost like looking into a mirror. With the awkward grace many kids possess, no father, and the commercial promise of a doll being one’s friend ’til the end, it was difficult not to give the kid a break when he came under the spell of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif). I was never obsessively fixated on one product, mainly because I was so bombarded with many thanks to Saturday morning cartoons. But I remember the shyness bordering on loneliness and having only my mother to depend on for food, shelter, and safety.
And dare I say, her compensating for single parenthood with many products, I didn’t even ask for, during the holiday season.
I can’t fight subjectivity when I reflect on this film. And no, I did not get a Barbie who marked me as a co-conspirator to necromancy. However, the plight of Andy’s mother rings true. Karen is a woman who, as demonstrated in scenes of pure sadness and uneasiness, is so eager to ascertain the American consumerist vehicle by getting her hands on that Good Guys doll. This includes going through questionable modes just to ensure the affection and happiness of her son.
The class structure in Child’s Play is a component fretted with a fearful despair. Short on finances plus single parenthood equals the purchase of rather faulty products. It demonstrates how the working-class collude with, and are suckered into, their own black-holed fate.
It can be argued that Chucky is the focal, but moot point. Clashing with the titans of horror at the height of their popularity (the commodification of Freddy, Jason, and Michael) he stands tall (erm, short) with the best of them, inciting the smell of synthetics, plastics, and terror. In the original film, he’s nothing more than a catalyst who moves the characters deeper into the cold, dark wells that harvest their emotions, only hyperbolizing their wobbly sense of being. Andy and his mother are at the center. We couldn’t turn away from all the supernatural and suspense because of how cleverly Child’s Play was constructed to produce fear in the very idea of loneliness begetting hopelessness.
This is nothing new, but all too often nowadays horror markets itself by cheap, scare gimmicks that abase the genre’s very essence. And I bet if theaters weren’t systematically trying to make us all deaf by the time we’re 50, even bad jump scares would be minimized in effect. Child’s Play unlike its title is clearly not for the very young. Some scenes are hilarious to watch now, and Chris Sarandon is a joy in just about anything, but I’ll never be able to shake those first emotions Child’s Play conjured. The totality of the film got inside my head and never left.