Don Mancini’s off-the-wall follow-up to Curse of Chucky thrills by marching to the beat of its own drum.
Broadly speaking, if a horror franchise makes it to ‘entry number 7’ you’d best steer clear of a product that is still financially viable but that – in most cases – has had any and all creative juice drained out of it. An obvious exception to this rule is New Nightmare, Wes Craven’s gripping return to Elm Street that set the template for Scream’s self-reflexive filmmaking by blurring the border between film and reality. Cult of Chucky doesn’t dive deep into the meta-route and refuses to reinvent the franchise but stands as a welcome reminder of why Chucky has earned his place in the slasher hall of fame.
A rarity in the world of horror sequels, Don Mancini is still in full control of the brain child he conceived back in 1988. Perhaps because of the original creator’s keen understanding of what made Child’s Play tick the blueprint can be expanded on without betraying the fundamentals of the franchise and while avoiding the pitfalls of formulaic sequel-churning. Mancini manages the aforementioned feet by, on the one hand, doubling down on the series’ penchant for continuity and on the other splicing Chucky’s offbeat repartee back into the DNA.
Even if the possessed Good Guy doll made his debut through slashing and dashing, Chucky has always been foulmouthed, snarky and relishing the depravity of his murderous ways with morbid humor. Still, fans who preferred the mostly horror-oriented Curse of Chucky may be in for a disappointment. The atmospheric build of its series-revitalizing predecessor is largely absent, but this is by design. Instead we are treated to a film in which a wrongfully accused Nica’s incarceration in an insane asylum plays out like a demented romp in the loony bin: a world where psychologically ill caricatures like ‘Multiple Malcolm’, the ghostlike Angela and infant-smothering Madeline exist both as fodder for Chucky’s knife and foils for his banter.
The thematic underpinnings are slight, of course, but Mancini’s latest does have something to say about how a guilt-trip can contain the seeds for self-destruction. In Curse we got to know Nica (the impressive Fiona Dourif) as a strong-hearted heroine whose wit and survival spirit allowed her to overcome any amount of adversity. In Cult of Chucky we witness how she’s brought closer and closer to the brink of her downfall.
Obviously Chucky has a hand in this by refusing to get even with her by simply exacting revenge. As always, he is on the lookout for a human vessel to possess and all the murders are executed with the purpose of framing Nica, convincing her she has been the crazed killer all along. In its own way the film posits that negative self-perception and doubt leave the door ajar so madness can seep in. Throughout the first act Mancini messes with the audience’s perception as well, cleverly creating confusion by way of multiple Chucky dolls arriving at the clinic. Seeing is not necessarily believing in this outing.
When the macabre fun kicks in after a teasing first act, blood flows freely as glass ceilings, drilling tools and more prove ever efficient as instruments of carnage. While never very suspenseful Cult of Chucky marries gore with gags aplenty (a standout recurring bit finds Chucky wisecracking whether he should kill Dr. Foley or take notes from the pervy hypnotherapist’s handling of patients). At only 90 minutes the latest round of tongue-in-cheek mayhem breezes by at a fast pace while letting not a single scene drag or go to waste.
Even in terms of visual flair this entry holds up and looks very distinct from its predecessor. The psychiatric institution is very much a gothic building when glanced from the outside but the interior exchanges Curse’s aesthetic of gothic gloom for clinical whites (serene yet menacing) that will inevitably get painted in hues of red as darkness arrives on the doorstep. Split-screens are not the most subtle visual complement to a narrative that messes around with the multiple personalities concept in more ways than one but still evince how much thought Mancini has puts in all aspects of the lowbudget production; this is not a by the numbers hack-and-slash offering. Cult of Chucky’s look and feel can turn on a dime and runs the gamut from realist minimalism to surreal nightmare and pure self-spoofing camp. This never feels like stylistic indecisiveness but rather appropriate instability.
Without spoiling the specifics, this entry also sees familiar faces like Jennifer Tilly and Alex Vincent (Andy from the original Child’s Play, now all grown up) return to the fold as obstacles to overcome or hopeful heroes. In their cameo-like appearances Tilly shines as an over-the-top version of herself (albeit one still possessed by Chucky’s girlfriend). Brad Dourif can still be heard having a blast voicing the devil doll but his daughter Fiona is underused in a storyline that keeps her sequestered in the victim role for far too long.
With sly homages, a fair amount of backstory and allusions to previous entries Cult of Chucky may even reward multiple viewings. The franchise has not run out of steam and finds new legs to stand on in future installments before the end credits roll.