When director Tom Holland first sat down to rework Don Mancini's script Blood Buddy, it was a nut he couldn't quite crack. The story was about a doll that came to life at night and got up to all sorts of mischief as the unchained id of the little boy it belonged to. But horror films are best when they have a bad guy, and Holland felt like there wasn't enough danger there.
Then, "like a flash out of nowhere," as he now describes it, he came up with the serial killer Charles Lee Ray. "Once I had that, I knew who Chucky was," he says. In Holland's rewrite, Charles Lee Ray aka the Lakeshore Strangler, who's just been shot by police in a toy store, performs a quickie voodoo ritual and transfers his spirit into a nearby Good Guy doll, a sort of animatronic version of a My Buddy doll. Mancini's script went on to become the 1988 movie Child's Play, and though Holland, who directed, is listed as a co-writer, you could say he gave the franchise its soul.
Nearly 30 years and six sequels later, the horror veteran says he's wowed by the film's longevity. "It’s sort of amazing to me actually," he says. "Not just Child’s Play but so many of them, so many of them that I was involved with." He also wrote and directed the original Fright Night, wrote the 1983 sequel to Psycho ("the best script I ever wrote," he says) and co-wrote the punk cult classic Class of 1984. Back in the ’80s, Holland says, horror was Hollywood's "redheaded step-child."
"I was put down for it all my life [working in horror] within the Hollywood community," Holland says. "I think of all the movies that everybody in town was talking about that were Academy Award–nominated or won, and I’ll tell you, the vast majority no one remembers now. And Child’s Play is still clicking along, and Fright Night, you can't stop it — I’m totally amazed; it never occurred to me."
On Saturday, Child's Play screens at this year's Screamfest Horror Film Festival in Hollywood, and Holland hangs out for a Q&A afterward.
Kids have always been suspicious of their dolls — the grinning, unblinking humanoids who silently stare into the darkness all night, plotting, planning, oh God, oh God — but Child's Play crystallized that fear and gave it a name. In Roger Ebert's overwhelmingly positive review, he cuts to the core of what makes the film scary, saying, "Child's Play is better than the average False Alarm movie because it is well made, contains effective performances, and has succeeded in creating a truly malevolent doll. Chucky is one mean SOB."
He continues, "The movie also has an intriguing plot device, which is that nobody, of course, will believe that the doll is alive. Little Andy tries to tell them, but they won't believe him. Then his mom realizes that Chucky is moving and talking, even though his batteries were not included. They won't believe her."
Holland still gets excited talking about the batteries scene. Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), the single mom who purchased the Good Guy doll for her son Andy (Alex Vincent) and who has seen the doll be profuse in its chattiness, goes to discard the box when — gasp — the batteries fall out. This sets into motion an eight-minute, almost dialogue-free set piece in which Holland had to convince the audience that an adult woman is being overtaken by a 2-foot-tall bundle of plastic and cotton batting (granted, occasionally played by a significantly more substantial little person in costume).
The no-one-believes-me device Ebert mentions in his review is a Holland staple. In Fright Night no one believes Charlie that a sexy vampire (played by Chris Sarandon, who also played Officer Mike Norris in Child's Play) lives next door. In Cloak & Dagger, which Holland wrote, no one believes that Henry Thomas' character Davey saw a murder take place. For Child's Play's target audience, tweens and teens, a killer doll is scary and maybe a little funny, too. But not being believed is genuinely terrifying. "In order for a movie to work, the audience has to care to connect with some of the people in peril," Holland says. "It’s really hard to pull off in fantastic circumstances ... but the audience wants to go with it. Then you start caring — can this mother save this little boy?"
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Holland wasn't involved in any of the Chucky sequels — the most recent of which, Cult of Chucky, hit VOD just this month — but he says he's glad Mancini took the character and its mythology and ran with it. "I have nothing but praise for what he’s done," Holland says. "It’s all good becuase it’s continued the legend of Chucky." For his part, Holland is currently promoting How to Scare a Monster, a picture book he wrote that serves as a sort of safer way for kids to be introduced to horror. Child's Play was intended for teens, but lots of kids saw it much younger than that (myself included), lots of My Buddy dolls found their way to the city dump and lots of kids grew into horror fans for life.
If scaring a generation of young people is part of his legacy, so be it. "I was looking for a strong, kick-ass movie where I could scare the shit out of you and make you laugh in the next second," Holland says. "That’s why it feels like a roller-coaster ride — that’s what it is."
Child's Play with Tom Holland Q&A, Screamfest Horror Film Festival, TCL Chinese Theatres, 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Sat., Oct. 14, 4 p.m. screamfestla.com.