The Chucky franchise is one of horror’s most solidly enduring efforts. Not every installment is a home run, but even the weakest movie in the series has enough merit to prevent it from being written off.
It’s obvious that much of this quality springs from writer/director Don Mancini’s continued investment and participation. While Mancini shares writing credit on 1988’s Child’s Play with Tom Holland and John Lafia (for changes later made to his script), he was the sole author of every subsequent entry, taking directorial reigns beginning with 2004’s Seed of Chucky and continuing to helm every future installment.
It’s very rare for a franchise to be guided for so long by its original creator. John Carpenter, for example, is famously quoted as saying he sat down to write Halloween II and realized there was no story worth pursuing. Mancini, on the other hand, has found an almost endless trove of material to explore with every new Chucky movie. Nobody would ever accuse Child’s Play 2 and 3 as breaking new ground, but each found ways to tweak the original concept while delivering crowd-pleasing bursts of Chucky carnage. Beginning with 1998’s Bride of Chucky, however, Mancini began carving out a unique identity for every sequel while remaining faithful to the overall continuity and mythology.
Bride is a road trip relationship movie, Seed is a playful meta commentary on Hollywood’s self-absorption, while 2013’s Curse of Chucky moved the franchise into the realm of gothic horror, complete with a houseful of dark shadows and buried family secrets. Now we’re up to Cult of Chucky, which is as inspired as any installment before it. Mancini has grown as a director, channeling his inner DePalma to deliver one of the most visually assured direct-to-video features I’ve seen. And the script continues to be whip smart, toying with the psychology of its protagonist (who has been committed to an asylum) before adding yet another bag of tricks to our pint sized slasher’s repertoire.
Mancini’s heavy involvement in the Chucky franchise is what makes it unique. But the powers-that-be (whether we’re talking about longtime producer David Kirschner or Universal Pictures) deserve credit for allowing Mancini to explore fresh new territory each time out. These guys know they have to deliver the goods, but precisely how they do it seems up to Mancini and his creative team and that’s fantastic. When I popped Cult of Chucky into my Blu-ray player the other night, I had no idea what to expect. And that’s because the franchise is always evolving. Mancini is always keeping things fresh without sacrificing the narrative of previous films. It’s one of the many reasons fans have remained invested for thirty strong years.
Most long-running franchises have started over. Some more than once. Outside of two remakes in 2003 and 2006, every Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie positions itself as the “true” sequel to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic. And recent Halloween news suggests that franchise is about to take a similar route, ignoring Rob Zombie’s remakes in order to go back to John Carpenter’s timeline (ignoring every movie except the first). It wouldn’t be the first time, of course. In 1998 (the same year Bride of Chucky was released) Halloween H20 alienated many longtime fans by wiping the previous three sequels off the map.
Starting fresh must be tempting for any production. Who wants to sort through years of complicated plotlines and unresolved character arcs each time a new movie is to be made? It’s hard to say the “Chucky approach” is the right one and other instances are flat-out wrong, but Mancini’s continued respect for the past is definitely one of its appeals. The way he weaves new and old characters together in a tapestry of funhouse surprises rewards longtime attention, but never at the expense of the current story.
It’s an approach other direct-to-video franchises should consider. We’re living in an age of long-form storytelling. Netflix has conditioned millions of people to binge an entire television season in one weekend, and there’s no reason why an ongoing movie series shouldn’t function in much the same way. Of course, dormant franchises such as The Howling or Hellraiser lack their own Don Mancini, but in a perfect world perhaps they should each have their own “showrunner.” In this age of shared universe filmmaking, it seems reductive for long-running horror franchises to jump through hoops to ignore their histories (wiping out movies and stories that perhaps earned them adoring fanbases in the first place).
And while theatrical horror is undoubtably hot again, the big screen isn’t a route every sequel needs to take. If we can get more Chucky movies that will continue to build on established continuity like the foundation of a house, I’m happy to go the rest of my life without a remake. The same goes for almost any enduring horror property. If lower budgets and VOD releases means more imagination and continuity, as they do with Chucky, then let my living room be the venue for which to premiere them. I’d almost prefer it at this point.
So maybe studios should consider finding their own Don Mancinis: Voices who care and can shepherd properties that are inevitably bound to continue anyway. Cult of Chucky’s one uphill battle is that DTV movies continue to bear the stigma of being “less than” other movies. While that hasn’t been the truth for a long while, the glut of miserable DTV sequels that have flooded the market for twenty years have done precious little to reverse that stance. Right now the Chucky franchise is a diamond in that rough. But considering its ongoing reputation and reception, other studios might want to take note and consider giving their properties the same kind of TLC that Universal has afforded Chucky for so long.