Curse of Chucky

When a movie franchise makes the decision to start focusing on straight-to-video sequels, the transition is usually accompanied by a sharp drop in quality. The shift usually signals that the studio has decided to use the name-brand recognition of their franchise to sucker people into buying cheap, hastily-produced garbage (just think of what poor Pinhead has been forced to do over the course of the Hellraiser series, or what those poor pies have been subjected to in the American Pie series). Given this, it's a pleasant surprise to discover that good ol' Chucky's first straight-to-video installment is not only on par with its predecessors, but superior to most of them.

The tale is set some twenty-five years after the events of Child's Play, in which a creepy-looking doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer went on a murderous rampage. In the years since, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif, Deadwood) has racked up a considerable body count, and he seems eager to add a few new notches to his belt. Chucky is delivered to the home of Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif, True Blood), a paraplegic who lives with her overprotective mother Sarah (Chantal Quesnal, La Femme Nikita). Within a few hours, Sarah is dead. The police rule her death a suicide, but c'mon: this is the sixth Chucky flick, and we all know what's up.

A few days later, Nica is joined by a handful of guests: her sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti, Get Smart), Barb's husband Ian (Brennan Elliot, Double Jeopardy), their young daughter Alice (Summer H. Howell), Alice's nanny Jill (Maitland McConnell) and a priest named Father Frank (A Martinez, General Hospital). Because we've seen other horror movies, we know that these people will probably get picked off one-by-one until until the inevitable showdown between Chucky and The Final Girl (which will probably be either Nica or the kid, but you never know – maybe the priest will end up being the protagonist).

Chucky has long been one of one of the goofier slasher movie villains, which is probably inescapable when you're a red-haired doll with a fondness for corny kiss-off lines. Comedy has been a part of the Chucky series from the beginning, but the fourth and fifth installments more or less gave up on the scares and allowed the series to wander into the realm of self-parody. This time around, writer/director Don Mancini – who has penned every installment of the series – takes a stab at making Chucky creepy again. It works. I'll probably have my horror movie credentials stripped away for saying this, but it's actually a creepier and more imaginatively-crafted movie than the first installment. Roughly 90% of the film takes place within the confines of Nica's home, and the restrictions of working in a confined setting seem to inspire higher-than-average creativity. It also helps that Joseph LoDuca's score (his first contribution to the series) is an atypically rich piece of work, eschewing cheap synthetic thunderclaps in favor of elegant, melancholy themes.

Mancini waits a long time before he actually allows us to see Chucky in action, initially presenting the character as nothing more than a lifeless, dead-eyed doll who somehow manages to move from room to room on his own. However, we certainly see the results of the character's off-screen shenanigans, as strange things start happening and bodies start piling up. There's a terrific early sequence that frames a family dinner as a form of Russian roulette: we know that Chucky has put rat poison in one of the bowls of chili, but we don't know which one. It's a tremendously suspenseful sequence, and it doesn't conclude in the way you're expecting it to. Chucky isn't above just straight-up stabbing someone, but he'd rather concoct an elaborate deathtrap if the situation allows it.

Most of the performances aren't worth writing home about, but Fiona Dourif (Brad's daughter) does a fine job as the disabled Nica. While some of the other supporting players suffer from the sort of overacting or stiffness that often plagues low-budget horror films, Dourif delivers a consistently convincing – and even affecting – piece of work. Her dad continues to bring gleeful menace in his voiceover work as Chucky, but gets the opportunity to do some memorable live-action work in the film's third act (which features a terrific black-and-white sequence that elegantly ties this film to Child's Play in a strikingly direct way).

The film builds to a fairly exciting climax, but the movie struggles to wrap things up: the final handful of scenes offer an awkward combination of fan service and sequel bait, stuffing in some clumsy cameos and needless last-minute twists. Still, these fleeting moments can be forgiven, as they're preceded by a tight, nasty little horror movie that makes Chucky scary again for the first time in decades. I'd like to see the little dude back on the big screen again, but props to Mancini for making a valiant effort to give his iconic demon doll a second wind.

Curse of Chucky

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2013