There is no reason why an inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life at the beginning of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Air Doll. It just seems to happen, and thus begins a tale of a toy’s explorations of human life and interaction. Maybe it happens because her owner, a lonely, introverted Tokyo salaryman, has invested so much energy in believing her to be a real partner that she is given agency: when we first see them together, they are having dinner, him telling her the gossip from the office while she “listens” passively. She shows the same composure throughout their subsequent one-sided sexual encounter:
Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.
Anyway, The Passion of the Crust (oh, I’m still chuckling about that one…) is not what I wanted to write about. I’ve been wading through the Child’s Play movies, a cycle of films that I had never seen before, despite being firmly within the range of their target age-group of clueless teens first time around. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, the five (so far – a remake and franchise reboot is rumoured to be in the early stages of production) Child’s Play films follow the fortunes of Chucky, a doll possessed with the spirit of a dead serial killer who desperately wants to quit the plastic body and find a fleshy one in which to be reborn. His attempts to perform the necessary voodoo ritual are always thwarted; despite his skill at offing the human obstacles to his progress with a variety of household implements, he just can’t seem to get his hands on Andy Barclay, the little boy who first receives the demon doll as a birthday gift.
Let me lay my cards on the table, although I don’t usually like to reduce my judgements to a qualitative assessment: the first three Child’s Play movies are rubbish. Derivative and predictable in their cycles of slashing, stabbing and jumping out of the shadows, tiresome in their dogged, unkillable persistence. Oh, and clunky in their execution, perfunctory in their plotting and scripting. The only point of research interest for me has been to notice the ways in which the films use puppets as figures of fear and recepticles of animist superstition. Chucky is able to get away with murder because he can always slip into “Barbie mode” (a witticism that is only cracked in the much sharper episode 4) and become inert, indistinguishable from an ordinary plastic plaything. Therefore, the films play on the doll’s loaded potential to spring into life at any moment, a simple jack-in-the-box fear generator that is endlessly replayed. In many sequences, Chucky is invested with a sense of life not just by the magic of animatronics that allow his facial features to contort with malice, snapping him out of the smiley congeniality of his factory settings, but by mediating his image through shot selections that are usually reserved for human characters in dialogue. For instance, the back-and-forth of this over-the-shoulder, shot/reverse shot sequence from Child’s Play 3 builds suspense over when Chucky will fulfil his side of the filmic bargain and enter the conversation with the barber who has yet to realise that the doll is alive and preparing to take a razor to his throat.
Cute. But the analogy of film with animistic power, the ability to endow inanimate objects with an impression of life, and the correlative use of puppetry as a shorthand for that power, is an interesting one to me at the moment, not least because it is so frequently invoked in horror films.
Everything changes with the final installments, Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky. Together, these two invigorate the franchise with greater visual invention, a sharper wit and an extreme level of self-reflexivity. Having attained full franchise-royalty status alongside cyclical slasher series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th, the Chucky movies use their lofty position to look down on their previous efforts, and to try and shift the series to the heritage site of Universal horror. They thus join the ranks of the Scream, Nightmare and Gremlins films as franchises that become so self-referential that they end up chewing on their own tails. This interests me. Can a series of horror films not go for any length of time without getting self-conscious about its own naked repetititivity? Do they always need to turn inwards and act so “knowing”? Either way, the leap in quality from the stolid and ridiculous Child’s Play 3 to Bride of Chucky is quite remarkable. Bride may not reach the giddy heights of reinvention and frenetic genre-thrashing of Gremlins 2, but it fixes a lot of the series’ original problems by acknowledging the daftness of the diminutive doll’s deadly prowess and telling the tale from Chucky’s perspective instead of hiding him in shadows. Plus, the addition of Tiffany, his sweet but lethal partner undercuts Chucky’s primacy and gives him someone his own size to bicker with. Tiffany, in human form (Jennifer Tilly) is the first to turn Chucky’s dollhood against him by locking the little bastard in a cage and treating him like a naughty baby.
There’s a long tradition of horror films offering alternative visions of family relations, whether its the inbred rustic nutcase clan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Satan’s attempts at child-rearing in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, or the abortive, cobbled-together union of The Bride of Frankenstein, which the fourth Chucky film repeatedly references (hey, you’ll even find clips from Bride of Chucky on the Bride of Frankenstein DVD, just to claim Chucky’s place in the heritage of the Universal monster cycles). With Bride and Seed of Chucky, the formation of a new family comes to the fore, with Tiffany reincarnated in doll form and later, their son (or is it daughter? They can’t figure out which, leading to another movie reference – is he/she to be named Glen or Glenda?) struggling with his sexual identity and descent from a family of serial killers.
This increased focus on family drama (I’m stretching that definition a little perhaps) is matched by the filmic syntax of human drama, giving the puppets close-ups and reverse-shots to align the spectator more thoroughly with their story, instead of hiding them in the shadows as pop-up monsters. It kills the fear, but it heightens the pleasure.
It’s not just the way the film insinuates itself into a nest of external reference points and self-mockery that allows Bride of Chucky to raise its game: the introduction of Ronny Yu (the man behind the delirious, insane and romantic Bride With White Hair films) as director, along with Crouching Tiger’s Peter Pau on cinematography duties adds a bit more verve to the imagery, with faster cutting, canted angles and extremes of blue-hued lighting. This is in stark contrast to the flat and perfunctory style of the earlier films – there can’t be many sequences less effective in horror film history than the protracted battle in a doll factory that drags out the end of Child’s Play 2: the bright uniformity of the strip-lighting throws away the golden opportunities for the hiding places and grotesqueries of the setting, and the leaden set-ups do nothing to make the conflict more dynamic. Ronny Yu at least has some form as an action director, and even if he can’t seem to do anything without hyperbolising the moment, at least it shows someone investing the franchise with some effort, care and attention by appearing to make aesthetic choices as opposed to just the most basically functional narrational ones.
Seed of Chucky is less successful, partly because it takes the self-referencing a little too far, but there is fun to be had. Jennifer Tilly plays herself as a self-absorbed, over-eating has-been (“I’m an Oscar nominee, for Christ’s sake, now I’m fucking a puppet”), appearing in a film about the alleged Chucky murders, allowing for one of those mise-en-abime shots where the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene we were watching is actually taking place on a studio set, giving us a good view of the cables that work the animatronic puppets. There’s a cameo from John Waters, a walking representative of the heritage of trash cinema (and apparently a big Chucky fan), the death of Britney Spears and a scene in which Chucky and Tiffany decapitate their own puppeteer. This latter piece of puppetic rebellion, with the proxy people rebelling against their status as objects on strings is, as I hope my project will eventually demonstrate, a recurrent motif throughout the history of puppetry. That kind of self-reflexivity, the ability to comment on the text from the position of one of its constitutive props, occupying that bordeline place as an animate/inanimate object, not quite in or out of the fictional world, is an embedded property of the puppet. Once Chucky acknowledges his status as a doll (not just a man temporarily trapped in a plastic body), he can come into his own and start performing his true function as the focus of the story and commentator on its construction. But more on that another day. I’m shocked enough that I just wrote a lengthy appreciation of a couple of films I expected nothing from, but maybe I was just pleasantly surprised that they weren’t as god-awful as previous form had led me to expect. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.