By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Zackary Arthur, Bjorgvin Arnarson and Alyvia Alyn Lind
Directed by Don Mancini, Dermott Downs et al.
Written by Don Mancini, Harley Peyton, Sarah Acosta, Kim Garland, Mallory Westfall and Nick Zigler
Of all the celebrated slashers who first massacred the big screen in the 1980s, Chucky is the one most adaptable to the TV series format, since he can be sitting right under the characters’ noses with none of them aware there’s a murderer in their midst. It also helps that Don Mancini, who first created the deadly doll and had an increasing creative stake in the movies ever since, is on board Syfy and the USA Network’s CHUCKY as a guiding force. Under his direction/supervision, the show (based on the four episodes provided for preview) maintains the most recent sequels’ combination of horror, humor and slightly off-kilter reality.
CHUCKY returns the franchise to its roots as a boy-and-his-doll saga, albeit with a protagonist who’s older than Andy Barclay was in his first two adventures. Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) was introduced in last week’s premiere as a troubled, gay 14-year-old with a disapproving, abusive dad (Devon Sawa) and a dark side expressed through sculptures made from doll parts. After he picks Chucky up at a yard sale, the possessed plaything (as always, voiced by the great Brad Dourif) begins preying on Jake’s worst instincts, while also serving as his avenger. That first episode peaked with creepy/morbidly amusing setpieces of two of Jake’s enemies getting different sorts of comeuppances.
Though there’s more murder in store as the second installment (premiering tonight) gets started, Mancini and his team have resisted making CHUCKY a body-count show. There’s plenty of young-teen angst and drama, as Jake becomes attracted to classmate Devon (Bjorgvin Arnarson), who has a true-crime podcast and happens to be the son of the detective (Rachelle Casseus) investigating the slowly rising body count. Jake is tormented in school by entitled mayor’s daughter Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), and he winds up going to live in the mansion of his uncle Logan (also Sawa) and aunt Bree (JASON X’s Lexa Doig)–whose son Junior (Teo Briones) has a thing for Lexy, who strings him along while also fooling around with another of Jake’s bullies, Oliver (Avery Esteves). And when Lexy’s little sister Caroline (Carina Battrick) eventually encounters Chucky, she decides she wants him to be her best friend too…
On top of all that, CHUCKY sprinkles in flashbacks to the childhood of Charles Lee Ray, revealing how he became the serial killer we met at the beginning of the first CHILD’S PLAY. Though the origin story wasn’t necessarily necessary, this material is brief enough that it doesn’t become distracting–and it must be said that it includes one of the most shocking moments in these first episodes. (Sharp-eared fans will also appreciate a callback to the original movie at the end of the fourth installment.) When Chucky gets busy in the present day, there are some good, punchy scares, though just as important is the atmosphere brought to the overall show by cinematographer Colin Hoult, production designer Craig Sandells and composer (and EVIL DEAD franchise regular) Joseph LoDuca. They create a heightened reality in which it’s easy to accept that a supernaturally imbued doll is running around killing people; a hospital exterior, and Devon and Lexy’s bedrooms, are right out of a David Lynch project.
The whole thing is held together by Jake’s conflicted, damaged characterization, with Arthur maintaining sympathy as Jake becomes tempted by Chucky’s encouragement to strike back against a world that doesn’t understand or support him. The actor has good “chemistry” with the Dourif-voiced doll, and the supporting cast all get to have their moments too, particularly in a confrontation between Logan, Bree and Lexy’s parents (Michael Therriault and Barbara Alyn Woods) in the hospital. The characters do have their inconsistent moments, and CHUCKY (like, admittedly, every other show on TV these days) leans a little too much on pop songs, both old and new, as aural scene-setters. Yet it overall remains true to the tone of the movies that preceded it, and this jump to the small screen hasn’t dulled Chucky’s edge; he even tweaks a TV standard by introducing the opening recaps (starting on the third episode) with “Previously on fuckin’ CHUCKY…”
Yet throughout the first four eps, there is a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop–the one that will bring in the heroes and villains of the previous movies. It’s no secret that Jennifer Tilly, Fiona Dourif, Alex Vincent et al. are set to reprise their roles in this incarnation, and there are a few little teases of them scattered across this quartet of shows. Given how much is already going on in CHUCKY, it should be a lot of fun to see how those familiar faces are incorporated into the scenario.