Michael Myers. Freddy Krueger. Jason Voorhees. Sure, they're frightening. Why wouldn't they be? They've escaped from asylums for the criminally insane. They have razors for fingers. They wear masks. People, they're humans -- or at least the human-sized spawn of the evil undead.
But please, concede the challenge of creating a major horror movie icon out of a 24-inch plastic doll in red sneakers. Wearing a pair of Baby Gap-style overalls. Wielding a fruit paring knife.
Now that is genius.
In the modern pantheon of slasher stars, one stands alone as the weirdest and most revealing in the pop trash zeitgeist: The foulmouthed brat with teeny tiny weapons, the diabolical scamp from Satan's own play date . . .
Oh, harrumphing parental types and tsk-tsking cultural mavens, scoff if you dare. But in his circle, Chucky is huuuge. He is bigger than the critics. Over his 16-year film career, his four previous movies -- "Child's Play" 1, 2 and 3, then "Bride of Chucky" -- have earned more than $180 million at home and abroad at the box office.
Chucky is the subject of Internet chat rooms and the rap song "Fire Ina Hole" by Redman and Method Man. Chucky was the guest commentator for CBS's NFL pregame show on Halloween. He has shared billing with the late great John Ritter. The coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden, is now known far and wide as "Chucky." As a compliment.
And now Chucky is back on the big screen, in "Seed of Chucky," which opens nationwide Friday, and in which the evil doll proves he can do more than mince, chop and dice. He can do comedy. Oh, he still kills. Most heartily. (A reckless Britney Spears look-alike is one of his victims.) But now he does it in a film starring Jennifer Tilly, John Waters and the rapper Redman. It's a real genre-blender -- guts and gags -- with plenty of inside jokes about Hollywood, giddy rip-offs from popular movies (scenes straight out of "Body Double" and "Rear Window") and more dolls, including the introduction of Chucky Jr.
Don Mancini has been here for the whole long ride. He is Chucky's creator, and there are worse ways to become a millionaire. Mancini pulls up a chair at a luxe Los Angeles brunchroom to share an egg-white omelet and berry plate and to talk about psychopathic toys. He is jet-lagged, lean, dark-eyed, and has a garish Head of Chucky ring on his finger, which he fiddles with, twisting the doll's neck, as he bites into a strawberry.
Chucky is, we learn, actually the spawn of Cabbage Patch Kid and the overactive imagination of a lifelong horror fan. Chucky was born at UCLA, when Mancini was an undergraduate there. His father was in advertising, and young Don used to think: Isn't it creepy how toymakers sell their products to children?
"I wanted to write something dark," says Mancini, who had just taken a screenwriting class. "It was the '80s, Cabbage Patch dolls were really popular, and it just hit me."
Dolls had been used in horror entertainment before. In the "Talking Tina" episode of "The Twilight Zone." In 1975's "Trilogy of Terror" with Karen Black. But Mancini took the doll concept and ran with it. He teamed up with producer David Kirschner (who actually designed Chucky) and lightning struck.
"What is it about dolls?" Mancini repeats. "It's a primal thing, I think, like the scary-clown phenomenon. A distortion of the human form. They look human, but they're not. Dolls are also supposed to be symbols of innocence, childhood and happiness, and when you twist that and make it scary, it's just wrong. And very effective."
In the beginning, in the 1988 "Child's Play," we watch as the serial killer Charles Lee Ray (played by Brad Dourif, who does the voice of Chucky in all the films), mortally wounded and dying in a toy store, uses a voodoo spell to transport his unholy soul into a Good Guy doll named Chucky. A little boy's mother brings the doll home, and Chucky (without his D batteries!) begins his murderous rampage.
He pushes a babysitter (natch) out the window. He blows up his former crime partner. Etc. Etc. Until, eventually, Chucky is thrown into the fireplace by the kid's mom (being plastic, he hates open flame) and is incinerated. Or is he? Hence the sequels.
Slasher and horror movies had their heyday in the 1980s (with the "Halloween," "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" series), but by the mid-'90s, the genre had begun to lull and dull. Then Wes Craven transformed the form again in 1996 by making horror funny, with his critically acclaimed box-office blast "Scream."
Mancini saw the trend and decided to follow, turning "Bride of Chucky" into a comedy in 1998. Chucky gets married to the helium-voiced and pillowy-bosomed Jennifer Tilly, who first plays her human character (meow!) and then is transformed (by voodoo) into Chucky's murderous moll-doll, Tiffany, who looks like a cross between Courtney Love and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The latest incarnation takes the Chucky franchise farther. Much, much farther. People, hold on. In "Seed," Chucky and Tiffany are in Hollywood. Unknown to them, their little lost child (born in a splatter of gore at the end of "Bride") has been used and abused as a ventriloquist's dummy by a talentless fraud in Europe. The child escapes. Comes to Hollywood to reunite with the parents. But there's one problem.
The androgynous waif is a gentle soul who wouldn't hurt a fly. In one teary scene, the child asks Chucky and Tiffany why they kill. Chucky answers that everyone's got to have a hobby. Tiffany admits she might have a problem and begins a 12-step program (but, alas, she slips).
"So metaphorically, it's about family discord and domestic abuse," explains Mancini, who is saying this with a straight face as he eats his fruit. "If you were to do this story with real people it would be disturbing and very sad."
We interrupt: Wait a minute -- meaning that if you had a little human child who was the son of real-life human serial killers, that wouldn't be as funny?
"Exactly," Mancini says. "That would be really, really disturbing. But the fact that they are dolls gives you this distance. It's really about how a child is screwed up by screwed-up parents, but because they are dolls, it is hysterical. Or at least I hope so."
Whoa. This is getting heavy, people. Because there is more. After the child (who has very big watery eyes and fangs) rejoins Mom and Dad, they pull down his pants and find that he or she has no, um, definitive parts. Tiffany wants to raise the doll as "Glenda." Chucky wants a "Glen."
"Because their child is not anatomically correct," Mancini says, "it's gender-confused. Fun to use that in a satirical way. So the movie is kind of about Chucky dealing with his gay son. It's funny, but a modern family dilemma." (One could argue that anatomical incompleteness has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but sometimes it's best not to try to make too much sense of the World of Chucky.)
Because of such blending, Mancini says the Chucky movies draw a most interesting demographic to the multiplex: the splatter-horror genre fans (think teens and twenties with a Friday night buzz), and the "urban" demo. "Lots of blacks. Lots of Latinos," Mancini says. That is why, for example, they decided to cast the rapper Redman in "Seed" as a hip-hop movie producer who meets a bad end in a dinner table scene involving Tiffany and a carving knife. "Oh, he just relished his death scene," Mancini says. "Just loved it."
And finally: Mancini, who mentions that he is gay, says that gay audiences have embraced Chucky. Why? Part of it may be the appearance of Jennifer Tilly, who has been a fixture in gay pride parades and the like. To amp up the camp, Mancini brought in filmmaker John Waters to play a relentless paparazzo who gets his comeuppance.
As for pulling in a gay audience, Mancini says, "this is just a theory. But the horror genre lends itself to a stylized presentation, to grand gestures, to a kind of theatricality. There are big emotions -- fear, terror and love. And aesthetically, a great sense of artifice."
Hmmm. We express a drop of skepticism and Mancini says, well, that's what test audiences and marketing surveys say. "And when you're dealing with a two-foot-tall doll, it's obviously absurd anyway. And the audience gets that."
So are there plans for another installment, the sixth in the series? Do movie houses make money off popcorn? Coming next: Chucky the musical. "I'm only half joking," Mancini warns.