Sunday, 24 August 2014

200TH REVIEW: Seed of Chucky (2004)

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Seed of Chucky (USA, 2004)
Directed by Don Mancini
Starring Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Billy Boyd, Reginald Noble

This is the 200th Review I have written since launching Mumby at the Movies.

Horror franchises are invariably subject to the law of diminishing returns. The original Nightmare on Elm Street, Hallowe'en or Friday the 13th were so definitive in their own ways that any sequel couldn't hope to improve upon them, aside from addressing certain technical issues. Even with partial returns to form along the way, these sequels inevitably ended up retreading old ground, even in franchises that didn't start from the top.

The Child's Play franchise seemed to have run its course when Child's Play 3 went straight-to-video, only for Ronny Yu's Bride of Chucky to give it a new lease of life. By abandoning outright horror in favour of self-aware, postmodern horror-comedy, the series successfully embraced its goofier elements and turned them into something disturbingly memorable. Seed of Chucky attempts to carry on where Bride left off, but is far less successful, being ill-thought out and poorly directed.
Playing the postmodern game is a gamble in any genre. Deliberately deconstructing a story, or drawing attention to the artificiality of a given situation, can have the effect of undermining the audience's emotional attachment. The horror genre, like fantasy and sci-fi, relies heavily on the suspension of disbelief: without an audience investing in the characters and their situation, a horror film cannot be scary.
On a narrative level, Seed of Chucky is trying very hard to be Wes Craven's New Nightmare, one of the best instalments of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Craven's meta-horror explored the boundaries between the characters and the actors that played them, nodding toward the films' often fanatical fanbase and poking fun at the absurdities of the film industry. While not as scary as the original, it managed to be both a successful postmodern exercise and a compelling horror movie in its own right.
The biggest problem facing Seed of Chucky is that Don Mancini is no Wes Craven. While his writing skills are not in doubt (at least on the first Child's Play film), he does not have the directorial skill to pull off something so self-referential. Where Craven directed with intelligence, giving the audience both gore and clever subtext, Mancini is content to go for something much more basic and yet pass it off as being clever. The film isn't pretentious in this regard per se, but it makes disappointingly little out of both its premise and material.
There's always a certain amount of pleasure to be mined from actors playing themselves and taking the mickey. Jennifer Tilly has a lot of screen presence, and film fans will nod approvingly at all the references to Bound (her break-out role with the pre-Matrix Wachowskis). But once the basic gag is out of the way - Tilly is a fading actress who 'dolls herself up' to get a part - the film keeps repeating itself until the concept is neither funny or interesting anymore.
Likewise, many of the horror nods in Seed of Chucky are underused. John Waters is a widely respected figure in cult film circles, and casting the director of Pink Flamingos as a seedy paparatso is a nice touch. But his character doesn't get to do much that is endearing or appealing beyond the confines of the initial joke. It's very much a one-joke role, with Waters quickly mining it for all its worth and then spending the rest of his screen time looking confused.
Seed of Chucky isn't all that scary either, though that isn't entirely surprising. The Child's Play series was never an out-and-out frightener, with even the first and best instalment having goofy tendencies and a pretty silly set-up. But while Bride of Chucky made its humour dark enough to give the title character some threat, Seed of Chucky is completely ramshackle, with its few scary moments not being properly supported by the surrounding plot.
Gorehounds will probably find something to enjoy in the numerous grissly death scenes, which are technically accomplished from a props and make-up perspective. The deaths vary in their level of comedic inventiveness, with the disembowling at the dinner table probably being the most memorable. But as far as suspense or terror is concerned, there's nothing in Seed of Chucky which comes together; the horrific moments are sporadic and don't escalate in any particularly successful fashion.
The comedy of Seed of Chucky is equally hit-and-miss. On top of its botched self-awareness, many of the character jokes are laboured. The whole discussion about Glen's gender quickly becomes tired, with the Ed Wood reference being run into the ground and the pay-off with Glen's cross-dressing being unsatisfying. The running jokes about Glen weeing himself through fear are better than the similar gags in Garbage Pail Kids, but that's about as far from a ringing endorsement as one can get.
Most of the funny moments come from the ridiculous nature of a given situation. The film does go the whole hog when it comes to Chucky and Tiffany's preposterous plan to regain human form, particularly when it comes to getting Tilly pregnant. Brad Dourif has always done black comedy very well, as evidenced through his subsequent work with Werner Herzog. And having never shared a scene together in The Lord of the Rings (save in the extended cut of The Return of the King), it's nice to see him and Billy Boyd interacting here.
For all its funny moments, however, Seed of Chucky never becomes any more than a collection of poorly-assembled bits. It never gets to grips with its storyline beyond what is needed for a given scene to pay off, nor can it really decide whether it wants to satirise the film business or just use it as a plot device. There have been many worse horror films and worse films about the film businesses, but there are few horror-comedies which are this actively episodic.
The film also comes up short from a visual standpoint. Bride of Chucky was shot by Peter Pau, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on the brilliant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He retained many of the signature touches of Child's Play while bringing a more tongue-in-cheek sensibility to the lighting. This film, on the other hand, is lensed by Vernon Layton, who shot the equally disappointing Blackball, featuring Paul Kaye and Johnny Vegas.
Like Blackball, Seed of Chucky has a tacky feel to it which works against Mancini's efforts to make us like the characters. The colour palette is far too plastic and glossy to be a proper black comedy or horror film, with the choice of colours and angles lending themselves more to American Pie or the Wayans brothers. Put simply, it feels cheap, and looks far too mainstream to cut it as a proper Chucky movie.
 
Seed of Chucky is a disappointing sequel which is neither funny nor scary enough to hold a candle to its predecessor. For all the moments which produce a shudder from the gore or a snigger from the jokes, it ultimately never makes as much of its premise as it really should. It's not an unmitigated disaster, and there are many worse horror sequels, but it will leave both fans and newcomers feeling short-changed.

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NEXT REVIEW: Step Up (2006)

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