The past decade’s boom in horror TV – from blockbusters like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story to new versions of Scream and The Exorcist to, most recently, attempts at prestige such as Them and Lisey’s Story – has been part of an inevitable, yet mostly unrewarding, evolution for the genre. The unkillable low-budget, high-profit success of horror continues to prove an unwavering audience blood-thirst but there’s a dilution in its small-screen transfer, a failed reconfiguration that leaves us wanting less rather than more.
Horror films, by and large, tend to err on the shorter side, an awareness that terror is best served in smaller, punchier portions (Halloween, The Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Witch and The Blair Witch Project all around or under 90 minutes). There are exceptions within so-called “elevated horror” (a term I despise for its condescending implications yet one that’s easy short-hand for films like Midsommar, Hereditary and Get Out) but the majority tend to get in and get out without a breath wasted. So this creakily overstretched expansion of often thinly plotted stories to multiple, hour-long episodes tends to dissipate any tension while also exposing a niggling slightness. In Don Mancini’s new Chucky TV series, based on his long-running Child’s Play franchise, we get what would have been an 87-minute story told over six-plus hours, a big ask for even the hardiest of hardcore fans and a close-to-impossible one for anyone else.
Its launch follows just two years after a surprisingly smart big tech big-screen remake that found something to say about nature v nurture and corporate cynicism in the moments when an evil doll wasn’t trying to kill Aubrey Plaza. But Mancini’s rehash of his own material isn’t really interested in bringing anything new to the table, replaying beats that have been replayed to death, a curiously unambitious series that already feels like a relic, like it was made in the 90s as a desperate cash-in and quickly forgotten about. The set-up is familiar to anyone who’s seen a Child’s Play movie before: a misunderstood kid (arty outcast Jake, played by Zackary Arthur) comes across a murderous Chucky doll who proceeds to then destroy the world around him.
There’s only one vaguely interesting formula tweak here and it’s Mancini’s decision to make his protagonist queer and then to handle it with a refreshingly casual sensitivity. Gay characters are almost invisible within mainstream horror and young gay teens are similarly absent from pretty much all genres so there’s something kinda radical about the show’s backgrounded queerness, without the need to smugly back-pat for how woke it’s being (there’s even time for a sweet-natured romantic subplot and an amusingly odd discussion that proves that while Chucky is a violent mass-murderer, he is not a homophobe! Chucky said gay rights!). Jake is gay and it’s accepted, and unlike, say, the obnoxious characters in HBO Max’s eye-rollingly “of the moment” teen drama Generation, it just is. But Mancini’s writing only ever works on the most basic of basic levels, something that was just about fine for a throwaway sleepover slash-em-up, but in trying to etch out archetypes (the bitch, the jock, the geek etc) with even shallow end of the pool depth, he drowns fast.
The soapy humdrum of these stock characters’ lives is of negative interest and the show only predictably comes crashing to life when Chucky, still manically voiced by Brad Dourif, is wreaking havoc. There are some decent, somewhat inventive kills but there’s an imbalance in how much violence Mancini, and his cable overlords, want us to see, with some murders clumsily edited for a PG-13 crowd and others leaning into something harder. To pad out the show’s length and to extend a universe that is already well past capacity, Mancini decides to offer flashbacks to the youth of Charles Lee Ray, the killer who possesses Chucky, to show how he went from angelic-faced boy to hardened murderer. But questions are being answered here that no one was ever curious to ask in the first place (it’s fan service for a fanbase that barely exists).
Chucky has never been a character who needed any more explanation than “evil doll who kills” and, while Mancini avoids adding an overly serious amount of grit (he’s mostly aware of the inherent silliness of the whole thing), we’re still spending far too much time exploring something that really doesn’t need to be explored. It’s as redundant as giving the shark in Jaws an origins tale. Chucky belongs in the dark and that’s where he should have stayed.