Barring Brad Dourif, is there a single name more synonymous with Chucky The-Killer-Good-Guy-Doll than Don Mancini?! Don't think so. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Mancini has, in some form or fashion, authored every single CHILD'S PLAY iteration, including the upcoming October release of CURSE OF CHUCKY, which he not only wrote, but directed as well. Talk about knowing where your bread is buttered! In fact, Mancini only has two or three total filmmaking credits outside of the CHILD'S PLAY realm (more on that shortly), with his authorial pull in the creepy-doll franchise elevating over the years from screenwriter to exec-producer, to producer and ultimately director. It's safe to say Chucky is his baby! A baby that turns 25 years old this year...a timely benchmark for a checkup, in my humble opinion. You know what that means yo...time to slip Mancini under the lens for dissection. You game? Good. Let's open up Mancini's dedicated body of work and give it a thorough examination!
Come on now, how can the co-creation of a character that has endured for 25 years NOT be Mancini's finest achievement?! It has to be! The original CHILD'S PLAY, co-written and directed by Tom Holland, has not only held-up extremely well over the years (hard to do with such a practical FX laden production), it obviously went on to become a mega-powerful brand-name unto itself...inspiring a triple-decade long franchise, never mind the innumerable creepy-doll imitators and venal rip-offs. And Mancini has been there every step of the way...essentially increasing his role every time out. Interestingly, in his original conception of the 1988 original, Mancini wanted to toy with the audience a bit longer, making us wonder if Andy was actually doing the killing instead of the Chucky doll. That would have been a nice touch of ambiguity, MAGIC style, but who knows how darkly irreverent and flat-out comedic Chucky would be in the preceding films...or if such a plotline would even warrant sequels at all.
For me personally though, CHILD'S PLAY still has one of the all time hair-raising moments in any horror film I've witnessed. It's the scene where the mom, finally suspicious of the doll, finds the unwrapped packaging the doll came in. She notices an unused battery pack in the box. She then stumbles up to the doll sitting on the coffee table, picks it up, holds it close, only to see a sweet-faced, cherubic plastic doll smiling back at her. Karen then slowly flips the doll over, reaches for the battery console...and just as she opens the chamber to see a vacant battery-pack, Chucky's head rapidly spins around, blinks, and innocently utters "Hi I'm Chucky, want to play?" before dropping to the floor and rolling under the couch. Seriously, that scene is masterful, and no matter how many times I see it and know it's coming, it always gets me. A testament to the direction and editing, sure, but if it were not on the page to begin with, that scene couldn't be possible. And without that scene, I'd argue CHILD'S PLAY would have nowhere near the impact it had then...and even now.
Not that I'd even label it is worst per se, but SEED OF CHUCKY is no doubt Mancini's shclockiest, most-over-the-top piece of work...and that's saying a lot! Finally getting a chance to direct in 2004, Donny M. seemed to fully revel in the camp and kitsch his franchise had mounted up over the decades and, like a fat fuck in a doughnut shop, he seemed to push that shite even farther. He upped the silliness quotient in a big bad way, look no further than the casting of Redman and John Waters in that regard. Or the films tagline: "Get a Load of Chucky!" Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the film a good deal, and even feel it's a tad underrated, but for a first time director, I felt the tone was too cartoonish, too overtly comedic to match the true terror of some of the earlier CHILD'S PLAY flicks. It felt less like a scary Chucky flick than a out-and-out parody, an entertaining one, but a parody nonetheless. I don't think it's a coincidence then that for CURSE OF CHUCKY, Mancini pulled a 180 and harked back to the mysterious, suspenseful roots of the franchise...completely eschewing the Bride and Seed angle for a tension-filled story about an imperiled little girl instead. A wise move in my eyes (in John The Arrow Fallon's eyes too, read his review here).
It's safe to say Don Mancini's trademark touch is the depraved tongue-in-cheek humor he continually imbues the CHILD'S PLAY films with. Not just in the classic one-liners spouted by Chucky, which are hilarious on their own, but later in the character(s) played by Jennifer Tilly. She f*cking rocks in these films, in large part due to the hysterical lines Mancini lends her. Granted, the humor has evolved (or devolved to some) into cartoonish levels in recent outings, but likely only out of audience demand. Remember, those first two films in the franchise were just a serious tonally as they were humorous, and it really wasn't until CHILD'S PLAY 3 that that, much like the Freddy Krueger character in the ELM STREET flicks, Chucky started to become his own gimmicky punch-line. Still, it's been well over 20 years and I'm still quoting shite like "Presto, you're bald!" and "Don't f*ck with the Chuck"...classic lines written by Mancini and delivered perfectly by Dourif. A bloody good marriage indeed!
If for no other reason than obscurity, or sheer variety for that matter, the hidden gem in Mancini's writing resume must go to his debut script for the 1988 horror-fantasy CELLAR DWELLER. Not so much for the film itself, as John Carl Buechler (TROLL, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD) couldn't quite execute the material into classic status, but for the cool premise and off-the-rails character that the great Jeffrey Combs would eventually agree to play. If you've not seen it, CELLAR DWELLER is a fun little monster movie about a comic-book artist (Combs) who falls victim to one of his ghastly fictional creations...a rabid werewolf-bigfoot hybrid. But even after his death, the monsters remains dormant in the cellar of Combs' abode for decades. That is, until a new batch of unsuspecting artists rent the place. Yup, show-time...Mancini and Buechler style!
CELLAR DWELLER is late-80s cheese at its most pungent, but the unique story and comic-book sensibility really sets it apart. For the most part it's a single-set location, where Mancini does a nice job of writing suspenseful, claustrophobic scenarios that feel inescapable. Unleashing a big hairy beast in said location only ratchets up the tension, which mounts steadily until we get a heart-pounding chase scene through the cellar and the rest of the house. Not a great film, but definitely an unknown in Mancini's resume, and one that shows glimpses of the potential he'd bare out in full over the next three decades.
As mentioned above, the most imminent project on Mancini's slate is CURSE OF CHUCKY, due in theaters October 8th. The flick not only marks Don's second directorial feature almost a decade after SEED OF CHUCKY, it seems CURSE OF CHUCKY will omit the story action of that flick and pick up right after the events in CHILD'S PLAY 3. Of course, Bard Dourif returns to voice the iconic killer doll, but this time out, his own real life daughter Fiona Dourif will play the embattled heroine who must protect her 5 year old niece from Chucky. A nice variation. Peep the official plot synopsis below:
After the events of Child's Play 3, Nica, a young woman forced to a wheelchair since birth, has to regroup her sister, Barb and her brother-in-law, Ian for a funeral after the death of her mother. While dealing with Barb, Ian, along with their 5-year-old daughter, Alice; Nica receives an odd package - a creepy doll. After people start showing up dead, the fearless Nica soon suspects that the creepy doll is much more than just a doll.
Pretty dope if you ask me. Not just for the sly meta-Dourif angle, as Fiona will ultimately square off with her dad Brad - but for the fact it's a little girl tormented this go around. No more Andy to fuss over, and given Chucky's perverted sense of menace, his interactions with the 5-year old Alice are sure to be that much more disturbing. I also dig how it's the little girl's niece who must protect her, somewhat redolent of the relationship between Andy and Kyle in CHILD'S PLAY 2...a bond I always thought felt as strong as any in the entire franchise. You can also tell just in terms of tone and structure, CURSE OF CHUCKY is going to be much more austere and far less campy...a shift I wholeheartedly welcome!
Love him or hate him, no one can refute Don Mancini's status as the godfather of Chucky. Point blank, full stop. Over the last 25 years, the dude has increased his role as the authorial voice behind the CHILD'S PLAY franchise. He co-wrote the original, solely penned the preceding three films, wrote and directed the last two. What other filmmaker has that kind of consistency in terms of creative control? Wes Craven maybe? Mancini is basically peerless in that regard...a man who has, every step of the way, shepherded a beloved horror character from inception to major pop-icon. Well done Donny, we're all grateful!