Horror movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My relationship with them has ebbed and flowed. At first, they frightened me. Seeing Halloween when I was 7 years old (you read that correctly) would result in years of me jumping into bed. I was certain Michael Myers was beneath the frame, waiting to grab me. At age 9, something changed. I saw something that helped me truly understand that movies weren’t real. Then at age 12, I started doing theater. I knew movies weren’t real before, but now I saw them from a “backstage” point of view. For the next two decades, I would find myself devouring and dissecting any horror movie I could get my hands on. My notion of horror and how it affected me would remain unchanged … until now.
Post-Halloween, it’s not that I shied away from horror. My parents had always enjoyed horror movies, as had my older brother. Because of that, it wasn’t long after seeing Halloween that I saw movies like The Shining and Jaws. My parents were always good about explaining that movies weren’t real, but I think that, at such a young age, I still couldn’t fully comprehend that. When you’re young, some things just don’t make sense, while other things make too much sense. Of course, Michael Myers wasn’t real. He’d gotten shot, burned alive, and decapitated and yet still he lived! However, surely Michael Myers was hiding under my bed. It would be the perfect place to grab me!
While Halloween remained a favorite franchise in the Sanford household, it was Child’s Play that would, ironically, free me from the shackles of reason. Here, instead of a lurking behemoth with a butcher knife, I saw a doll, possessed by the soul of a serial killer. Absolute nonsense! I had my fair share of dolls, toys, and action figures, but I knew they would never hurt me. They would protect me! Often, when I had already leaped over Michael Myers’s awaiting grasp, I would still need some calming down. I would imagine my favorite toys, my Ghostbusters figures, coming to life and standing around my bedside, ready to defend me at a moment’s notice. Just like horror movies, the Ghostbusters have been a part of my life for seemingly forever. There is footage of me at my first birthday party, a proton pack strapped to my back, excitedly running around as the first movie played on a small TV. Certainly, Chucky would be no match for them.
On top of not being afraid of toys, I also found Chucky to be pretty funny. My brothers (I have a younger one as well) and I all did. We would have sleepovers with our cousin just as an excuse to get hopped up on Pepsi and watch Child’s Play 3, which I believe was the first film in the franchise that I saw. We would laugh uproariously as Chucky hit a grown man with a golf club and yelled, “Don’t f*** with the Chuck!” The humor, absurdity, and naughtiness of the movies, particularly the sequels, made it even easier for my prepubescent brain to take in. The first film in the franchise is more straightforward horror, but I still had that foul-mouthed fiend to shield me from the horrific implications of what was going on.
As I grew, so did the Child’s Play franchise. It would embrace its campier roots, and I would do the same. I grew to love “bad” horror movies even more than the good ones. As Chucky’s bride Tiffany, voiced by Jennifer Tilly, was impregnating real Jennifer Tilly with a turkey baster full of Chucky’s seed (you read that correctly), I was watching movies like Night Of The Demons and Wishmaster2: Evil Never Dies with utter glee. It is through watching some of the schlockier horror films that my appreciation for the “good” ones increased. The best horror films manage to make you emotionally connected to characters that you are about to see slaughtered before your very eyes. I would not have come to that realization without watching movies that do not even attempt to garner a connection. As I made this revelation, the Child’s Play franchise was being confidently continued by its creator, Don Mancini.
I just want to take a moment to praise Mr. Mancini in particular. I can think of no other horror franchise that has spanned so many movies, over so many years, and remained under the watchful eye of one person. Not only has Don been involved in every film (aside from the attempted reboot), but his role has grown over the years. He has gone from a co-writer with a story-by-credit, to a writer/director, to a writer/director/showrunner. In a business where LGBTQ+ representation is often sorely lacking, especially behind the camera, having an openly gay man lead the charge for his franchise makes his longevity even more exciting.
The Child’s Play franchise is Don Mancini’s baby, and that is how I am going to casually segue into my baby(s)! Just over six months ago, I became a father to two beautiful twin boys. For anonymity’s sake, I’m going to refer to them as Huey and Louie. They are my greatest achievement (aside from marrying the love of my life). When they arrived, I was instantly changed. I wanted to provide for them, comfort them, care for them. To quote the great Willard Carroll Smith, “I knew I’d meet death ‘fore I let [them] meet harm.” However, I think even the Fresh Prince himself would admit that sometimes, you don’t have a choice.
When my sons were first born, Huey could not be laid on his back, even though Louie was capable of laying and sleeping on his back. Twins, right?! If I laid Huey down, even if he was already asleep, he would wake up, vomit all over himself and then start screaming. I felt positively helpless. Here was someone I loved more than life itself and I could not do anything to ease his suffering. Instead, my wife and I both spent months up all night with Huey either strapped to our chests or laying face down on a boppy. These were the only ways he could sleep at the time. We just had to wait until that wasn’t the case anymore.
With Louie, it was a different problem. The poor little dude would just scare so easily. Sometimes all it took was us saying his name when he wasn’t expecting it. They’re both New York City kids. I’ve seen them calmly sleep in their stroller while an ambulance rolled by, blaring its siren. We live next to a highway, and they’ve both slept through a bevy of car accidents. But if I so much as talked too loud (a problem of mine) when Louie wasn’t expecting it, it’d be game over. He’d instantly get the saddest face you’d ever seen and begin to weep. Again, there was nothing I could do about it, and unfortunately, unlike Huey’s nighttime puking, it is a problem that hasn’t gone away.
As the boys started to develop more, each honing their personalities and needs, my time for movies lessened. It’s part of the deal. A movie deserves my full attention and after a day of cleaning up various baby bodily fluids, I would just be too tired. Sometimes, when I was up late with Huey, I would put something on the help me stay awake. Once the boys were on a regular sleeping schedule (thanks to the research and ingenuity of my amazing wife), that was no longer needed. More often than not it wasn’t even possible. Then, Shocktober arrived.
October is my favorite month of the year. It is a time of year where everyone is as obsessed with horror movies as I am. A time when all other movies are thrown out the window in favor of the spooky and scary. In recent years, I have abstained from watching any horror in September so October can feel that much more special. I did not want this year to be any different. I started with the 1988 version of The Blob. A little schlocky, but intentionally so. It was a great way to kick off the month’s festivities. I laughed, I jumped, I pointed at the screen like Leonardo DiCaprio. It was perfect. Then came my next choice: Child’s Play.
With a new show featuring my favorite killer doll soon to grace television screens, still controlled by the great Don Mancini, I thought it would be a great idea to watch every film in the franchise. I started where it all began, excitedly cracking open my Blu-ray case and popping in the disc. I sat back, ready to enjoy a movie I had enjoyed time and time again. My family was sound asleep, I had snacks, I had seltzer, I was ready for a good time. It started, as it always does, with serial killer Charles Lee Ray, played by the incredible Brad Dourif, running from Detective Mike Norris, played by the always enticing Chris Sarandon. They battle through the streets of Chicago until, through an act of desperation, Charles uses voodoo to transfer his soul to the body of a Good Guy doll. I was all in. Then I was presented with the main character, Andy Barclay, played by a then 7-year-old Alex Vincent. I sat there, watching Andy’s first scene, and something inside of me changed.
When we first see Andy, he’s dressed as his favorite toy: a Good Guy doll. A Good Guy show plays on the TV as he excitedly makes breakfast for his mother. I knew this kid. I was this kid. God-willing, my sons would be this kid too. As we find out that it’s Andy’s birthday, we then learn that all he wants, more than anything else, is his very own Good Guy doll. Unfortunately, his mother Karen, played impeccably by Catherine Hicks, couldn’t save up in time to afford one. Despite her best efforts as a working, single mother, she couldn’t provide for her son the only thing that he wanted.
The look on little Andy’s face when he finds out he didn’t get the doll broke me in a way it never had before. I was filled with such sadness, hoping that my kids would never be put in that position. In an ideal world, I would be able to give them anything they ever wanted and they would never feel let down. It was also very apparent to me that this was an incredibly naive thought to have. Life is full of disappointments. Even if they are not let down because of me, one day my children will feel that sting and there’s nothing I can do about it.
As the movie continues, Karen manages to procure a Good Guy doll for Andy. The same doll possessed by the soul of Charles Lee Ray- Except now he prefers his nickname: Chucky. Things begin to go horribly wrong as Chucky goes on a killing spree, forcing his new “best friend” Andy to help and sometimes allowing him to take the blame. As someone that was born a year after this movie was released, I often wonder if people seeing the movie for the first time, having no idea who Chucky was, expected a killer doll. Some trailers I have found spoil that aspect right away, others do not. The movie attempts to keep you guessing for a bit, but not for long. Chucky looms large over this movie, but it’s the character of Andy that made me truly see it in a new light.
When watching it this time around, I wasn’t thinking about the killer doll, I was thinking about Andy. This sweet, good-natured little boy just wanted a doll. A friend. He didn’t know he would soon be carting around a serial killer. Even though he’s telling the truth about Chucky’s escapades, adults are dismissing him at every turn. Even his mother doesn’t believe him (at first). A 7-year-old child, telling the truth like he’s supposed to and yet denied at every turn. He doesn’t know any better. He was me, jumping into my bed. He was adorable Huey, unable to be laid down without vomiting and screaming. He was sweet Louie, crying after a sudden noise. He was scared and there was nothing I could do about it.
The emotion on display by young Alex Vincent makes Andy even more engaging. It’s not just that I love and care for my kids and could see them in the face of this young actor. His delivery, his presence, his ability to portray such sadness and terror. He gives a performance often reserved for movies that don’t have a killer doll in them. I had never felt it like that. Before, I was able to separate myself from the movie and laugh as Brad Dourif screamed and swore through the body of a doll. This time that was no longer an option. This poor kid was helpless.
Then something magical happened. He won. Andy defeats Chucky in the end. He and his mom, in the context of this movie, survive. That would be done away when Andy is tortured in several sequels but in this brief moment, I had hope. If Andy could succeed, could push past his fears just like I did, then my boys could too. By the end of the movie, I felt more than certain that as long as I did my best, my sons would have a good life. Like me, they would no longer need to jump into bed to avoid a monster, and they would get there on their own.
I walked away from Child’s Play feeling better because I had felt worse. Allowing myself to feel for this young boy, to become emotionally connected to him, made the result that much more exciting. It wasn’t as if horror movies had suddenly been ruined for me because of my children. Quite the opposite. My experience with a horror movie, one I thought I knew backward and forward, was enriched by them. One day, it may even be enriched by watching it with them.
I’ll say it again: Horror movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My relationship with them has ebbed and flowed. A movie like Child’s Play once helped me deal with the terrors of make-believe. Then, decades later, it helped me deal with the uncertainties, the helplessness of real life. I still haven’t decided when I want to introduce my children to horror movies. My wife, understandably so, thinks 7 is too young. I would argue that I turned out … acceptably. At the end of the day, Huey and Louie may come across it on their own. They too may see Child’s Play 3 at a sleepover and I’ll be helpless to do anything about it. In that instance, I think I’ll be okay.
The TV series Chucky is set to premiere on Syfy and the USA Network on October 12, 2021. Child’s Play is streaming on Starz.
Header Image Source: United Artists