Below is a spoiler free review of the series premiere of Chucky, titled “Death by Misadventure,” which airs on Syfy on Oct. 12.
For all the franchises that come and go, the Child’s Play series has been a steady presence in the horror world since the first film came out in 1988. Aside from an ill-fated reboot, Chucky films have all been written by Don Mancini, who has been consistently fleshing out his world’s mythology with each new entry. Mancini continues the serial killer-possessed doll’s killing streak onto television with Syfy’s Chucky, which promises to reunite multiple stars from Child’s Play history as Chucky resurfaces in Hackensack, New Jersey. But the premiere smartly focuses on its new characters, giving Mancini (who also directs this episode) a chance to adapt some classic elements of the Child’s Play movies for the small screen, as this new crop of slasher bait learns the hard way what happens when you take your eye off that damned doll.
Chucky’s (Brad Dourif) latest “friend ‘til the end” is 14-year-old Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), an introspective old soul struggling with bullies, his sexuality, and alcoholic father Luke (Devon Sawa) at home. Jake’s sensitive manner and his wry sense of humor make him an easy hero to root for, especially in the face of the outsized amount of crap dumped on him in this first hour. It’s impressive that he’s as likeable as he is, considering he’s got a destroyed-doll art collection in his room that would make Sid from Toy Story blush, but Mancini’s always had a knack for making weird things likeable and Arthur helps sell it with his thoughtful performance.
It’s Jake’s strange artistic vision that leads him to purchase the Chucky doll at a yard sale, and the premiere delights in drawing out the reveal of Charles Lee Ray, the murdererer whose soul is bound to the Chucky doll. Most of the premiere sticks with the Child’s Play first act ethos of showing what Chucky has done rather than seeing him do it, and tying these deeds to Jake’s in ways that don’t reflect well on a kid who’s already a social pariah. This episode is devoid of scares, but close-ups of Chucky’s pupils dilating or eyes slowly drifting towards a closed door do a great job building tension. Of course, Chucky isn’t the kind of guy that stays quiet for long, and comes to Jake’s defense with a very creative (and quintessentially Chucky) ventriloquism act during a school talent show.
Still, Chucky is as crass and entertaining a slasher as he’s ever been, and brought to life with a mix of practical and visual effects that feel invisible when he’s not doing anything too elaborate. The first episode even paints him in somewhat of a heroic light, as Chucky’s attacks are provoked by cruelty inflicted on Jake by others. The Child’s Play series has gone back and forth on just how sympathetic with the doll it wants us to be, and the series premiere doesn’t offer a definitive stance on that yet, but the flashback to Chucky/Charles Lee Ray’s childhood, which bookends the episode, promises that we’ll at least learn more about the killer’s origins. That dive into Ray family history is surely what will draw Child’s Play franchise vets like Alex Vincent, Jennifer Tilly, and Fiona Dourif into the fray, but the premiere doesn’t get ahead of itself in introducing them just yet. Chucky (so far) manages to walk a fine line between old and modern mythology in a way that leaves the show accessible for returning and new fans alike.
Chucky: The Series Gallery
While Jake’s a complex, interesting character, most of the other Hackensackians we meet are practically begging for Chucky’s knife. Aside from the grieving Luke and his crush, true-crime podcaster Devon (Bjorgvin Arnarson), most everyone else Jake encounters is a thinly drawn bully just waiting for retribution. Slasher movies are able to get away with leaning on archetypes for their supporting characters because hey, why waste time on a co-ed about to be run through with a machete? But if we’re going to be spending week after week with these characters, there are only so many cartoonishly awful popular girl shenanigans I’ll be able to take from Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind). There’s no tried-and-true recipe for adapting a slasher series to TV — we’re in barely charted waters here — but if the Chucky series wants to surprise as it continues along, it’s going to have to flesh out some of the secondary characters so they’re slightly less-obvious targets.