The remake of Child’s Play, which arrives in theaters Friday, may not sound like the kind of thing that should stir up controversy, even among cranky horror fans: Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers have all been revived over the years, via increasingly absurd means, so why should Chucky be any different? But the new Child’s Play—the first not to involve the series’ longtime writer, Don Mancini, after six sequels—has inspired more quarreling in the press and online than any other horror reboot in memory. Somewhere, a murderous doll is arranging blood-soaked alphabet blocks to spell out a new message: D-R-A-M-A.
To understand why so many people would get so bent out of shape over a killer-doll movie, you should know two bits of backstory. The first is that the original Child’s Play, a surprise hit in the fall of 1988, was released by United Artists, but—as entertainingly explained by Entertainment Weekly earlier this year—the sequels were released by Universal, which took over the franchise because a potential buyer of UA in 1989 didn’t want to be in the business of these particularly sordid horror movies.
The second is that Mancini, who was still at UCLA when he wrote the screenplay that became Child’s Play (he eventually shared writing credit with the film’s director, Tom Holland, and another writer), has become the non-plastic face of the franchise. He wrote the scripts for 1990’s Child’s Play 2 and 1991’s Child’s Play 3, each of which saw diminishing returns at the box office. Then, after the franchise spent a few years in the dustbin, he took it back out and resuscitated it, memorably, with 1998’s Bride of Chucky, which leaned into the series’ demented comedy and introduced Jennifer Tilly as Chucky’s longtime love interest (both when he was flesh and blood and also in doll form—Chucky, we learn, is anatomically correct). That movie led to Seed of Chucky, which Mancini wrote and, in a first for the screenwriter, directed himself. It follows Chucky and Tiffany’s child, a gender-confused doll known variously as (in a nod to Ed Wood) Glen and Glenda. The film’s dramatization of gender fluidity was, er, questionable, even in 2004, and by the time Chucky and his nonbinary progeny murdered Britney Spears in a ball of flames, it was clear the series had gone off the rails. The movie was not a hit.
But even if the sequels were never especially successful, the franchise remained Mancini’s professional lifeblood. His Twitter account manages to find Chucky tie-ins with everything from Father’s Day to Pride Month, and he continues to write and direct straight-to-video Chucky movies. (The latest, Cult of Chucky, arrived in 2017.) Next, he’s greeting our era of Peak TV with a Chucky television show.
And that brings us, at last, to the drama. Last July, MGM–United Artists, which still owns the rights to the original movie, announced it would fast-track a remake. Mancini had been offered an executive producer credit on the project but was otherwise not asked to be involved. (Instead, as with many fashionable horror remakes, it would be directed by a Norwegian.) Chucky would not be possessed by a serial killer but instead would become an A.I. run amok. And Brad Dourif, who had voiced Chucky for three decades, wouldn’t work on the new movie, either. (In a clever bit of fanboy neutralization, the studio instead brought in Mark Hamill.)
Predictably, Mancini was pissed. He refused the executive producer credit and urged fans to read and share pieces from outlets like the Hollywood Reporter and Slashfilm about how dumb an idea a remake was, mostly because he wasn’t around. (“How am I supposed to feel about a Child’s Play remake that Mancini himself declined to executive produce?” the latter asked.) Horror fan sites like Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting, normally reliable for a steady stream of favorable coverage, sounded notes of skepticism. On social media, fans directed reassurances (“It’s not chucky with out you!”) and Danny DeVito GIFs at Mancini and Dourif in support. When the image of the newfangled Chucky dropped that fall, Mancini couldn’t resist tweeting his displeasure.
It was, in fact, not all Mancini had to say on the subject. Appearing later on director Mick Garris’ Post Mortem podcast, Mancini had thoughts. “Obviously my feelings were hurt,” he said. “I did create the character and nurture the franchise for three fucking decades.” He said the studio’s overtures to him had been superficial—“they just wanted our approval, which I strenuously denied them”—and reiterated that this was about more than money: “It’s not just a paycheck. It’s very personal. MGM’s screwing with that.”
It’s not just Mancini who’s speaking out. Dourif and Tilly too have made their allegiances clear, taking to Twitter to reject the new remake and express support for their killer-doll godfather:
Dourif’s message was a bit more sinister:
Throughout the ordeal, Mancini has insisted that, though his most recent two sequels, Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky, did not make it to theaters, they were well received, with fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Why make a remake, he suggests, when he’s still producing well-liked originals? His premise is technically correct, though neither movie amassed very many reviews, period, and both suffer from a limited budget and overindulgent fan service. Cult of Chucky, for example, opens with Andy—the same boy from the original movie, played by the same actor, Alex Vincent—pulling Chucky’s severed head out of a safe, smoking a joint with it, and then torturing it with a blowtorch. Would this make sense to anyone who hasn’t already watched 12 hours of Chucky movies? Mancini is making movies for the Chucky faithful, and early word is that his TV series is very much in the same vein. It’s hard to imagine the remake will cut too deeply into such an inside-baseball audience. In any case, whatever backroom voodoo curses Mancini has been putting on the new movie seem to be working: The studio has embargoed all reviews until hours before it debuts, typically a sign of low confidence. All the drama seems a little misplaced.
Then again, if it seems odd that anyone would get too worked up about the fate of a killer doll, you have to understand that horror fans are a loyal bunch, and Mancini, in turn, is an unusually faithful creator. He’s brought back stars like Tilly, Vincent, and Dourif for multiple movies, and he even cast Dourif’s daughter, Fiona Dourif, as a lead in the past two sequels. And Chucky himself has, in the movies, expressed a fierce loyalty to his original form. In one scene in Seed of Chucky, in which he ponders a potential new vessel, he may have said it best: “As a doll, I’m fucking infamous! I’m one of the most notorious slashers in history. And I don’t wanna give that up.”