Funny, how time desensitizes us. When I was eight years old, I thought Child’s Play was one of the scariest things I’d ever seen. Today, it’s more likely to elicit a chuckle than a scream. So it goes with all these “killer toy” movies; once the stuff of nightmares, the notion of your favorite Teddy coming to life and stalking you with a fireplace poker now seems almost quaint. That being said, the sub-genre can also be a lot of fun. So in honor of the Christmas holiday, when kiddies all across the country will be ripping open their presents in hopes of scoring whatever the hell kids are hoping to score these days, I’ve put together a list of the ten best “Killer Toy” movies. Ah, nothing says holiday cheer like scaring the living shit out of your little niece or nephew.
It’s not quite as good as the Karen Black version from 1975, but this made-for-TV `90s update of the killer Zuni fetish doll vignette is a worthy follow-up. Based on the short story “Prey” by Richard Matheson, this one is scripted by Dan Curtis and William F. Nolan, who wisely shake things up a bit by moving the location from the high-rise apartment of the original to a near-deserted police station/crime lab. There’s a good buildup of tension, as well as a few decent jump scares and gory (for TV) scenes. The fetish doll (as in the original) is more ridiculous than scary, but if you’re looking for a solid 30-minute thrill ride, it’s more than worth your time.
What makes this one slightly better than the ’96 version, other than the novelty, is that it builds up quite a bit more sympathy and back-story for its young victim (here played by iconic actress Karen Black). There’s nothing all that scary about it, but what it lacks in true horror it makes up for in pure relentlessness. Richard Matheson adapted from his own short story, and especially for a made-for-TV movie from the mid-`70s, it’s pretty dang bloody. The pint-size killer is, yes, laughable, but what do you really expect from a short film about a killer Zuni fetish doll? Regardless, it all climaxes in a genuinely unexpected ending, with a closing shot that’s actually pretty chilling.
Take me to task for ranking Child’s Play 2 higher than Trilogy of Terror if you must, but this sequel to the surprise 1988 hit is a fun ride, and better than it has any right to be. This is a bit heavier on the comedy than the first installment (in fact, I would compare Chucky’s increasingly jokey trajectory to that other horror icon Freddy Krueger), but that’s part of what makes it such a solid little flick. Brad Dourif provides more great voice work as the murderous doll, who this time around follows unlucky little Andy to his new foster home in an attempt to transfer his soul into the boy’s body. The finale in the Good Guy factory is a blast and features some great effects work.
In contrast to the self-aware Child’s Play series, Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Wannell took the serious route in their attempt at starting a new “killer puppet” franchise. And while it didn’t work, Dead Silence is at the very least a damn good attempt. While I tend to prefer this sort of silly premise to be executed with a wink and a smirk, I have to admit this movie actually worked its way past my defenses and ended up being pretty dang creepy and entertaining. The Mary Shaw legend crafted by Wan and Wannell is actually pretty cool, and the puppets themselves are scarier than you’d think from looking at the lame poster art. Truth be told, I actually like this stand-alone film better than any of the Saw movies.
I can hear the haters already – how could you put this classic episode of one of the greatest TV shows of all time at #6???!!! Are you crazy, Chris Egghead the master douche???!!! FAIL FAIL EPIC FAIL blah blah blah. Well, get over it. This is indeed a classic Twilight Zone episode, featuring the sinister pigtailed doll “Talky Tina”. See, Daddy is an asshole, and when he threatens to take Talky Tina back to the store from whence she came and sends poor little stepdaughter Christie running upstairs in tears, the doll (Christie’s subconscious?) starts talking some mad scary shit. Turns out she isn’t kidding, as Tina goes on to prove that not only is she indestructible, she’s also one vindictive little bitch.
God, how I miss this show. Leave it to Chris Carter (with a little help from master of horror Stephen King, who penned the episode) to tackle the killer doll sub-genre with such aplomb. The episode begins with Scully taking a vacation up to Maine – that is, until crazy shenanigans start to do down and the female detective discovers that a pissed-off-looking little girl and her strange attachment to a creepy talking doll just might have something to do with it. Like the best X-Files episodes, “Chinga” functions as a solidly-crafted little mini-movie in its own right, with a pint-size killer that appears to have the power to force otherwise normal adults to slice their throats open and shit. As a bonus, the episode also features some truly classic back-and-forth between Anderson and Duchovny that nearly made me weep with nostalgia.
Yeah, that’s right: I fucking like Seed of Chucky. It was the worst of the franchise, you say? Hmm, ok. Try watching Child’s Play 3 again and then come back and tell me that. Seed is a damn good time, and props to the filmmakers for adding an original spin to the story by making little Chucky (aka Glen/Glenda) a sensitive English lad (clever) rather than a cold-blooded killer (at least initially) like his Daddy. The movie is almost surreal in its over-the-top-ness, with Jennifer Tilly playing herself and little Chucky, Jr. questioning the murderous tendencies of his parents. The whole thing doesn’t make much sense, but that’s not really the point. The creators were obviously on a mission to out-weird all the previous entries, and they succeeded. Maybe not for all tastes, but I think it’s underrated.
It’s rare for a horror franchise to so radically change direction this late in the game, but Bride of Chucky proved there was still life left in the series after the lackluster Child’s Play 3 (a film that series creator Don Mancini even admitted was due to him running out of ideas). Bride stands as the second-best entry in the Child’s Play franchise after the first one, and credit can go to a number of elements: clever writing, awesome effects work, inspired casting (love her or hate her, Jennifer Tilly was perfect for this part) and slick direction by Freddy vs. Jason director Ronny Yu. When it comes down to it, the Child’s Play series is pure camp – and this entry proves the holders of the franchise are not only in on the joke, they’re intent on fanning the flames.
I know you’re all going to hate me for including four Child’s Play movies in the top ten, but let’s be real: in the scheme of killer toy movies, these babies are practically Shakespeare. Child’s Play isn’t scary necessarily (unless you count a few well-timed jolts); rather, the key to the movie’s success is the fact that writer/creator Don Mancini is well-aware his premise is more silly than frightening (he reportedly based Chucky on the Cabbage Patch Dolls that were so popular in the `80s). At the same time, Child’s Play also functions as a tightly-plotted little thriller, with Chucky the killer doll instantly joining the ranks of Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers in the pantheon of iconic `80s slashers.
After directing the splatter classic Re-Animator and the sci-fi horror From Beyond, Stuart Gordon helmed this little gem, released in 1987 to little attention (although it had greater success on home video). Dolls didn’t enjoy the popularity (or marketing dollars) of the Child’s Play movies, but Gordon’s unique directorial style (love that wall-slamming P.O.V. shot during one of the kill scenes), a memorable cast of characters, and truly inspired special effects make this top dog among killer-toy movies. Dolls was executive-produced by Charles Band — the man responsible for the schlocky Puppet Master series and pretty much every other killer doll/puppet/toy movie since — but he never bested this film. Why? They were all missing one key ingredient: a visionary man like Stuart Gordon behind the lens.