I can’t imagine anybody thinking that the recent reboot of Child’s Play is a great film. It has all the markings of a movie that a studio tosses a little money at, knowing that horror is a pretty dependable return-on-investment, hoping that it can last about a month in theaters before moving into the streaming market, where it will get rented fairly consistently by Gen Xers hungry for 80s nostalgia. Nonetheless, it actually isn’t all that bad either. The comedy mostly works, the scares are pretty effective, and production quality makes it all believable enough for a fun night out.
In addition, the way this film re-imagines the original gives the viewer something to think about, perhaps in ways its predecessor never could have. The social commentary here is actually pretty interesting. In fact, as I write this sentence, I might even make the case that the film is pretty close to great after all. There is an important political message buried in this revision of an icon of Ronald Reagan’s decade, and it’s one we should probably pay attention to.
Director Tom Holland’s (the one who isn’t Spider-Man) original Child’s Play (1988) probably remains the superior horror film. For those unaware of the premise, the movie introduced the world to Chucky, the possessed doll that became an instant horror icon, spawning multiple sequels even before this reboot.
In Holland’s original film, Chucky is born when serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the amazing Brad Dourif) is mortally wounded in a gunfight with the police and invokes a Voodoo ritual to transfer his soul to the nearest object, a “Good Guy” doll in a toy store. When Chucky finds his way into the home of young Andy (Alex Vincent), he begins his quest for revenge against the partner who abandoned him and the cop who killed him (Chris Sarandon), murdering everyone in his way.
Lars Klevberg’s 2019 remake completely changes the premise, removing magic from the mix altogether. Here, Chucky (Mark Hamill) is an A.I. powered doll that connects to other pieces of technology produced by the Kaslan Corporation. Think of an embodied form of Amazon’s Alexa. An exploited factory worker in Vietnam, in an act of workplace vengeance just before his suicide, removes all the technological safety protocols from a unit, creating a powerful, murderous A.I.
In both films, murder and mayhem ensue from each premise, but the film’s share a few important themes, and that continuity helps shed some light on what this new film is trying to do.
First off, they both feature strong single mothers. In the original, Catherine Hicks (apparently preparing for her future iconic mother role on Seventh Heaven?) was the hard-working, widowed mother of Andy, Karen Barclay. In the new version, Aubrey Plaza adds some scruff and dysfunction to the character, but retains her dignity, commitment, and strength. The original film undermined cultural assumption about the power (and necessity) of men. Chris Sarandon’s cop is either an obstacle or someone to be saved throughout most of the film. Klevburg seizes on this theme and uses it to his political advantage in the remake.
In addition, the new film retains the original’s emphasis on economic precarity. Both films depict cities under extreme economic hardship. For instance, neither version of Karen can actually afford the coveted Chucky doll for their child and must resort to alternative means to do so. Originally, Karen buys the cursed doll from a homeless man (from a LARGE homeless community). In the new version, she has to blackmail a coworker into not sending the returned doll back for destruction. In both cases, the women are poor and they live in desperately poor conditions: in the remake, the city could be from a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Clearly there is an economic critique in both of these films.
Any good remake should make significant updates, however, and Klevburg’s version introduces several significant changes (in addition to the A.I. aspect of the character).
First of all, Chucky’s motivation is utterly different. Brad Dourif’s Chucky was motivated by criminal insanity and vengeance. Mark Hamill’s version of the villain shares much in common with 2001’s HAL. His motivation is more human, as he seeks Andy’s love and then, later, self-preservation.
The remake also quite appropriately introduces the subject of cell phones and social media as an important theme. This version of Andy is older than the original, and like most pre-teens, he spends a significant part of his life immersed in screen technology. The kids in this film are rather brutal to one another and the only real community that forms between them is mediated by technology: phones, games, and, yes, Chucky himself. Klevburg’s film is absolutely trying to say something about alienation and loneliness and their relationship to technology.
Another change is in the characterization of Chucky’s corporate creator. In the original, Chucky is a “Good Guy” doll, a product connected to a popular cartoon. While certainly the film makes the whole enterprise out to be silly (a kind of parody of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of the 80’s), the corporation isn’t really responsible for the mayhem. That was all on the demented Charles Lee Ray.
The blame is radically relocated in this version. The Kaslan Corporation immediately takes the role as villain here. It’s public face, the Jeff Bezos-like Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson), is both pitchman and apologist for the company, which wields a terrifying amount of control into the lives of this world’s people. After viewing this film, it’s hard not to ask “what if Alexa went bad and started…oops.” This is a world in which the corporation controls the very desires of its citizens.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that, where the original film begins in a store, this one reaches its climax in one. Whereas the first film was a rather simple supernatural revenge film, this one is a large-scale indictment of consumerism. And in the movie’s horrific climax, it is consumers at large, not particular individuals in Chucky’s way, that are terrorized (if seeing gallons of blood sprayed into the face of a screaming child bothers you, this movie may not be for you).
The power that the Kaslan Corporation holds over consumers is in full view in the crowd’s almost orgasmic anticipation for the new version of the A.I doll. This misplaced desire is punished in Chucky’s elaborate, blood-soaked retribution.
The consumerism of this film of course functions in the context of a massive, global economic system. The exploitation of consumer desires and imagination is inseparable from the exploitation of Kaslan’s employees. The horror begins, after all, when a worker in a Vietnamese factory is finally pushed too far by the profit-exploiting demands of Henry Kaslan’s company.
Chucky has been one of horror’s great icons for three decades and running. To re-imagine the franchise in the way that Lars Klevburg has here is a bold and welcome move. The world has changed a lot since the 1980s. The original Child’s Play poked brutal fun at a certain consumer madness in Reagan’s America, but this new version is an unblinking gaze at the consequences of Reagan’s free-market optimism. By giving the world over to market-justice and corporate profits, Reagan’s 1980’s replaced awe-inspired wonder with cold materialism.
Klevberg’s remake of Child’s Play recognizes where that all leads. It also replaces magic with materialism and the message seems to be that in a world without magic, our imaginations are corrupted by mere consumerism.
Election still wins by a landslide
Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.
The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.
Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).
But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.
Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.
A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)
More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.
Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.
Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.
What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.
“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.
“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)
Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.
That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.
Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”
But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.
After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.
While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.
Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.
Whose ego is that?
Election was originally released in April of 1999.
Film Review: It Chapter Two
The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans
The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.
It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.
The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material).
It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.
The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.
As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.
Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas now
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes