Written and Directed by: Don Mancini
Starring: Fiona Dourif, Brad Dourif, and Alex Vincent
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"A true classic never goes out of style."
When Curse of Chucky was released in 2013, it was something of a minor miracle: it would have been one thing had Don Mancini simply delivered a great Chucky movie after so many years, but to gift fans an honest-to-god sequel that didn’t shy away from the franchise continuity? That was fucking astounding, especially since it left the door open for the follow-up nobody ever expected to witness, one that would find Chucky facing down old nemesis Andy Barclay decades after their last confrontation. Simultaneously a return to the franchise roots and a reminder of Mancini’s willingness to toy with its formula, Curse might have also resulted in the writer/director feeling like he was working with house money on Cult of Chucky. Where Curse at least gave the impression of Mancini dipping his toes back into this franchise and delicately reintroducing the world to Chucky (until the final 15 minutes or so), Cult is an immediately unhinged follow-up that finds its creator taking the franchise in yet another wild, unexpected direction.
Because it’s following up both the main narrative of Curse and that post-credits tease, the structure feels a bit wobbly at first. We open with Andy (Alex Vincent) on a date that quickly turns sour once his companion grills him on his past. “You googled me,” he says with a hint of defeat in his voice, knowing this date will end like all of the others: with him retreating back to a secluded cabin home, where he’s stashed Chucky’s mangled, severed head in a vault. When he’s feeling down, he drags his old pal out and tortures him, giving a new, twisted meaning to Chucky’s insistence that they’ll be “friends to the end.”
Meanwhile, Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) has spent the past few years in a mental institution after being framed for Chucky’s rampage in the previous film. Some good news awaits her, though, as her shady psychiatrist (Michael Therriault) is transferring her to a medium-security facility. Upon her arrival, she befriends an assortment of eccentric folks, including a man (Adam Hurtig) suffering from a dissociative disorder. Years of therapy have left her utterly convinced she actually did murder her family and friends, so much so that she’s not even fazed when her doctor produces a Good Guy doll that looks just like Chucky. Having conquered her demons (to an extent, anyway), she assumes it’s a natural part of her therapy—at least until another doll is delivered by a mysterious woman claiming to be her niece’s guardian (Jennifer Tilly). When murder and mayhem follow its arrival, Nica suddenly realizes that maybe Chucky has been real all along.
While Cult stops short of the over-the-top camp lunacy of Seed of Chucky, it’s quite clear early on that Mancini is dispensing with any pretense of delivering any old sequel. Sure, a straightforward follow-up featuring Chucky terrorizing a mental institution would totally work, but it’s also pretty basic compared what he’s dreamed up here in Cult. Not content to merely honor the various plot twists at the end of Curse, Mancini embraces them without hesitation: from the moment you witness Andy torturing Chucky’s severed head, it’s obvious you’re in for something a little out there, and it’s fun to watch the script connect the dots.
Child’s Play has often thrived on playfulness, and Cult is no different because it features Chucky’s most demented—and inventive—game of “hide the soul” yet. The big hook here (along with the promise of joining Andy and Nica’s plot threads, however clumsily) involves a new sort of mystery: just which one of these dolls is Chucky, and how can he possibly be pulling this off considering Andy has his disembodied head on lockdown? Mancini strings the audience along to what is ultimately a pretty predictable conclusion, though it does add an intriguing wrinkle the mythos and the proceedings here. A full-fledged, vintage Full Moon freakout awaits during an unhinged climax that finds Mancini unleashing utter havoc on what’s left of Chucky’s victims. Everyone involved—both Fiona and Brad Dourif, Tilly, Vincent—clearly revels in the chaos, and I dare any longtime fan not to break out into a wide smile upon hearing Chucky’s signature cackle amplified into a cacophonous chorus of mayhem (the elder Dourif is as lively as ever here, spitting out deranged dialogue with palpable enthusiasm).
The rest of Cult fares well enough, too. Mancini has rarely been content to allow this franchise to lapse into a formula, especially ever since Bride upended the applecart nearly 20 years ago and introduced a wry, camp sensibility. Though Cult is relatively restrained (especially compared to Seed), it’s no less spry in its readiness to deviate from its predecessor. I imagine it would have been quite easy for Mancini to stick with the winning ingredients that allowed him to revive Chucky after a long layoff, but he’s reworked the mold again here. If Curse was his riff on the Old Dark House genre, then Cult is a bit harder to pin down: at times, it mostly resembles a take on 70s European psycho-sleaze, what with Nica’s scumbag doctor (even Chucky admits he isn’t sure whether he should kill the guy or start taking notes from him), the ultra-violence, and a general disregard for tact and taste.
Which is to say Cult of Chucky rules, obviously. As a slasher movie, it has no compunctions about offing anyone, including the poor patients (whose colorful personalities make them more than dispensable fodder) trapped with Nica. Chucky’s array of carnage is impressive too, as he’s arguably at his most vicious here severing heads with shards of glass and impaling victims right through the face with his own arm. Save for some obvious digital shortcuts, it’s gloriously (and messily) practical too. At times, Cult of Chucky is downright nasty in its obvious, utter disdain for the human (and doll) anatomy because various body parts are consistently reduced to a visceral sludge. On its slasher credentials alone, this sequel is a resounding success in its ability to recapture the splatter movie milieu that birthed this franchise in the first place. Equal parts gross and delightful, Cult delivers the gory necessities you expect from the 7th entry in a killer doll series.
Of course, Mancini has higher ambitions: impossibly enough, this franchise has become about more than just mindless, empty carnage, and Cult pays fealty to everything that’s come before it. Not only is it following up Nica’s tale—which has only grown more sordid and sad—but it’s also carrying the weight of the long-awaited confrontation between Andy and Chucky. Mancini knows the latter is the main draw and manages to build anticipation within the film once Andy realizes what Chucky is up to, a choice that comes with the side effect of sidelining the doll’s old nemesis as Nica’s story plays out. It’s not the most gracefully interwoven set of stories, but it does lend the film a certain epic quality that allows Andy to become this franchise’s Dr. Loomis in a sense.
But even more importantly, this structure also allows Nica’s story to flourish even further. What she lacks in a long history with the franchise, she more than makes up for with a rugged, weary sense of determination. In only two films, Dourif has infused Nica with a sharp, plucky presence: just watch how she transforms from a dead-eyed shock therapy patient to a resourceful, vengeful survivor once she realizes Chucky has returned. Cult of Chucky is her story and rightfully so, one that sees her navigating the guilt and horror she’s endured—and now continues to endure—at the hands of everyone’s favorite Good Guy doll. After Dourif’s turn here, it’s more than fair to say Nica has earned a place as Andy’s equal when it comes to Chucky’s foes, a notion of which Mancini seems keenly aware. You find yourself eagerly anticipating this obvious team-up during an increasingly unhinged climax—not that Mancini is exactly interested on delivering the obvious, of course.
Indeed, Cult of Chucky continues to surprise all the way through its final shot (and beyond); much like its predecessor, the film’s home stretch is concerned with introducing new wrinkles to the mythology and setting up another movie. In a lot of cases, the sort of anti-climax here might come off as obnoxious table-setting, but the story takes such an interesting turn (and opens the door for a lot of fun possibilities) that you wish you could queue up the next entry immediately. Whatever doubts or concerns linger at this point (I’m not a fan of the film’s flat DV look at times, and there’s an argument that Andy is sidelined a bit too much) are fairly well washed away by the infectious lunacy on display. Mancini plunges headlong into the devil-may-care vibe that’s guided this franchise for decades now, practically grabbing the audience up by the arm and sweeping them up in it.
At this point, you’re either along for the ride or left hopelessly by the roadside, though I can’t imagine any longtime fan of the franchise will find themselves in the latter category. Cult might feel like it’s at the mercy of Mancini’s whims, but there’s little doubt it’s guided by a sense of careful craftsmanship that could only come from a doting creator. Unlike so many horror icons that were quickly snatched away from their creators by studios, Chucky has been in Mancini’s care throughout, and it shows. These films have become obvious family affairs (look no further than the Blu-ray’s supplements for more evidence) overseen by a tight-knit crew looking to deliver something that’s expressly for fans without simply pandering to them.
That’s a hell of a delicate tightrope walk, and Mancini pulls it off with such aplomb that I can barely believe it. Somehow, we have a 7th Chucky movie that’s allowed an icon to endure without so much as hint of a reboot or retcon. In an era where franchise follow-ups are increasingly likely to just toss out inconvenient lore, this one embraces is history at every turn, with Cult delivering yet another terrific post-credits tease I never expected to see. Somehow, this scrappy little franchise has pulled off the sprawling, epic storytelling typically reserved for blockbusters; in doing so, it should become a model for other dormant franchises out there. Make no mistake: Chucky might have arrived on the coattails of Myers, Krueger, and Voorhees, but he’s lapped them at this point, cackling every pint-sized step of the way.
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