You only Chucky twice: The strange story behind the two Child's Play franchises
Don Mancini was in his early 20s, and still a film major at UCLA, when he wrote the script which would change his life. The screenplay was only the second Mancini had ever written and concerned a fatally shot serial killer who transfers his soul into a doll. The plot was partly inspired by his father’s experiences working as a pharmaceutical company’s liaison to ad agencies in New York.
“Because of my exposure to the world of advertising and marketing through my dad, I was very aware from an early age of the cynicism inherent in that world, particularly selling products to children,” Mancini recently told director Mick Garris on the latter’s Post Mortem podcast. “Madison Avenue refers to children as ‘consumer trainees’ and I discovered that as a child. I thought, I wanted to write a dark satire about how advertising affects children.”
Mancini’s hope was that the script would help him get an agent, which it did. But the screenplay would also birth a franchise — in fact, it may have birthed two. Mancini’s script was optioned by a young producer named David Kirschner and ultimately directed by Tom Holland (Psycho II, Fright Night). Released by MGM/UA in November 1988, the film, titled Child’s Play and starring Brad Dourif as the voice of the murderous doll Chucky, was a huge hit, grossing over $32 million in the U.S. and close to another $10 million around the world. While the script was polished by both Holland and another writer, John Lafia, Kirschner insists it is Mancini who should be regarded as the father of Chucky. “Don deserves a thousand percent of the credit for this,” he tells EW. “He was the young UCLA student that wrote the screenplay, and that screenplay made its way to me, and I fell in love with that, and that was the beginning of everything.”
Child’s Play has inspired six sequels, all of them featuring Dourif’s deliciously menacing vocals, and all of them written by Mancini, who also directed the last three in the series. Mancini is currently working on a Chucky show for SYFY with producer Kirschner and Nick Antosca, the creator of the same channel’s critically acclaimed anthology horror show Channel Zero. He also plans to make more movies about his killer doll.
But there is another Chucky in town. In July last year, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that MGM had fast-tracked a remake of the original Child’s Play film from It producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith. This franchise reboot was to be directed by Norwegian filmmaker Lars Klevberg (the as-yet-unreleased Polaroid) and written by Tyler Burton Smith (Kung Fury 2). The following September, EW exclusively revealed the first image of the “new” Chucky from the MGM/Orion Pictures movie which had just started shooting in Vancouver with a cast led by Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, and young actor Gabriel Bateman.
“I was just 12 years old when the ’88 movie came out,” Grahame-Smith told EW at the time. “It scared the hell out of me. I watched it again and again. It’s a special movie for me.”
“It’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be surprisingly emotional, and we also want it to be fun,” Klevberg said of his remake, which will be released June 21. “So, it’s a really good mix.”
The news that Chucky will face a rival in the marketplace disturbs Mancini, who fears the Child’s Play remake may adversely affect his and Kirschner’s own plans for this pint-sized, but iconic, character.
“You know, it might be different if we were finished, but we’re hardly finished,” he says. “We would prefer not to have our brand muddied.”
How in holy hell are there two active Chucky franchises? Arguably, the person most to blame for this peculiar situation is no one associated with either project, nor even anyone who is still alive. No, the villain of the piece, if you’re looking for one, is an Australian venture capitalist and Rupert Murdoch wannabe named Christopher Skase who in 1989 attempted to purchase MGM/UA, the company which produced and distributed the original Child’s Play.
Skase was the majority shareholder in the Brisbane-based Quintex Group which, according to a contemporaneous report by the Los Angeles Times, claimed $2 billion of assets in resorts and television broadcasting and programming. In March 1989, it was announced that Skase had struck a deal to buy MGM/UA from Kirk Kerkorian, the studio’s controlling shareholder. The deal would ultimately fall through and Skase later became Australia’s most famous fugitive when he fled the country in 1991 to evade criminal charges over the collapse of Quintex, finally dying of lung cancer in Spain in 2001. But Skase’s abortive plan to buy MGM/UA would have a huge impact on the Child’s Play franchise whose second entry, Child’s Play 2, was set to start shooting on Oct. 15, 1989, with Kirschner producing and Lafia directing.
“We made the first film very successfully [at United Artists],” says Kirschner. “It was a big surprise for them, honestly, a very big surprise. [Then] Dick Berger, who was [head] of UA at the time, said, David, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to tell you this, but there’s a man by the name of Christopher Skace, of a company called Quintex out of Australia, and they’re about to buy UA, and he does not want to make horror films.’ He said, ‘As insane as this is to all of us, of a film that was so profitable for us, we’re going to give it back to you, free and clear.'”
Kirschner did not immediately understand the gift he had been handed.
“I was upset,” says the producer. “It was just like, ‘How could you guys do this?’ My attorney said, ‘David, just let it go.’ What he said to me was, ‘In the next 24 hours you’re going to have every studio in town bidding on this.’ Sure enough, five studios in town made offers, because the first one had done so well.”
According to an Aug. 21, 1989, story in the Los Angeles Times, Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, 20th Century Fox, the Price Co., Carolco, New Line, Disney, and Universal all expressed interest in taking on a Child’s Play sequel. Kirschner was still pondering the matter when he got a call from Steven Spielberg. The producer had gotten to know the Jaws filmmaker when they worked together on the 1986 animated film An American Tail, which was based on a concept by Kirschner and produced by Spielberg’s Amblin company. The director was close to Universal chief Sid Sheinberg who asked Spielberg to see if he could convince Kirschner to make the studio Chucky’s new home.
“Steven said, ‘David, listen, I would like you to give Universal the first shot at this,'” says Kirschner. “Give them your wish list of what it is that you want, and if they don’t meet that, then I’ve done what Sid Sheinberg has asked me to do.’ And so I said, ‘Great, let’s move forward with it.’ Steven really is the one that brought it over to Universal. It was Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy [Spielberg’s producer and Amblin cofounder] who that made that happen.” (Thirty years later, Spielberg would actually get to work with Chucky on his 2018 film, Ready Player One.)
Directed by Lafia and written by Mancini, Child’s Play 2 was released in November 1990 and grossed $28 million, beginning a longtime partnership between Kirschner and Mancini on the one side and Universal on the other, which would prove fruitful for all parties. “We’re really proud of that relationship,” says the producer. “We’re proud of the job we’ve done for the last 30 years in making Chucky a very very relevant cultural icon.”
Child’s Play 3, made by future Lost and Game of Thrones director Jack Bender in 1991, earned just over $20 million domestically and was the last in the series to bear the “Child’s Play” moniker. After that, Chucky himself would himself get title billing, starting with 1998’s Bride of Chucky. Directed by Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason) Bride featured the franchise debut of Jennifer Tilly — who voiced Chuck’s partner in both love and crime, Tiffany — and rapidly became a fan favorite. The film was also a major hit, grossing almost $51 million at the box office and finally giving Mancini, who had once again written the script, enough clout to persuade Kirschner and Universal to let him direct the next entry, 2004’s Seed of Chucky.
It is rare for one creator to have the kind of continued and crucial input on a long-running horror franchise which Mancini can claim. He has also proven loyal to his actors, repeatedly casting not just Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly but also Alex Vincent, who played the Chucky-owning Andy Barclay in the first Child’s Play, and Dourif’s daughter Fiona, who portrayed the lead role of Nica Pierce in both 2013’s Curse of Chucky and 2017’s Cult of Chucky. While Mancini has worked as writer on non-Child’s Play projects, including the TV show Hannibal, he is best known for his work on the Chucky films and beloved by many horror fans for it. “David and I often like to think of ourselves as the Albert and Barbara Broccoli of the horror film world,” he says, referring to Albert R. Broccoli, one of the original producers of the James Bond series, and his daughter, who now produces the franchise with her half-brother, Michael G. Wilson “We have nurtured this franchise as a family over the course of 30 years and we have been very very loyal to all the players behind and in front of the camera. That’s something that’s really important to us.”
Mancini has at times tested the loyalty of his fans, most notably with his directorial debut, Seed of Chucky. Easily the most controversial Chucky — at least until the Child’s Play remake — the movie found the openly gay Mancini exploring themes of sexual identity by introducing the character of Chucky and Tiffany’s child Glen/Glenda, who is neither male nor female. Seed earned $17 million at the U.S. box office, around half the take of its predecessor. Mancini remains proud of the film but returned to a more straight horror vibe, in every sense, for Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky. “Our fans, after Bride and Seed, had really just been vocal about wanting Chucky to go back to his straight-up horror roots,” Mancini told EW shortly before the release of Curse in 2013.
Curse and Cult proved less controversial and achieved a much higher Rotten Tomatoes than Seed, but neither received theatrical releases in the U.S. Was Chucky’s long-running streak as a big screen attraction over? One company which didn’t think so was United Artists. While Kirschner and Mancini had the ability to sequelize the original Child’s Play movie, UA maintained the right to remake Tom Holland’s original movie. With Mancini’s Chucky series no longer a presence in cinemas, the company decided to do just that through its Orion Pictures subsidiary. UA also approached Kirschner and Mancini to see if they would come on board as executive producers. The pair declined.
“They came to us and asked us to have this nominal involvement in what they were doing after we had just made two movies that had done extremely well,” says Mancini. “So, it’s hard not to feel a little insulted by that.”
While the existence of dueling franchises is unusual, it is not unique. Two James Bond movies were released in 1983, with Roger Moore starring in the Broccoli-produced Octopussy and Sean Connery appearing in a “rogue” 007 tale called Never Say Never Again. Two years later, a pair of zombie films were released, Day of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead, both of which were sequels of sorts to director George Romero’s 1968 horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. These dueling projects were the result of a professional parting of ways between Romero and his Night co-writer, John Russo.
Of course, these examples predate the internet age, when fans have the ability to publicly enunciate their opinions about their favorite franchises and the direction, or directions, in which they appeared to be headed. The subject of the Child’s Play remake has exercised horror fans like few before. In the eight days after Orion released the film’s first trailer on Feb. 8, the clip’s official posting on YouTube was watched an impressive 10 million times and attracted a remarkable 20,000 comments. These ranged from the supportive (“Okay, let’s be real here. This movie actually looks fairly decent”) to the ambivalent (“Going to be tough to top the original. Hasn’t been done since 1988”) to the out-and-out negative (“Oh sweet Jesus not again”).
Awareness of the project has been, ironically, increased by Mancini and Tilly’s showing of disdain for it on social media. The day EW premiered the first look at the revamped Chucky, Mancini posted on Twitter a meme of Mariah Carey holding a sign which reads “I don’t know her” along with the message “THIS IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY ON THAT SUBJECT.” (The meme was inspired by an interview Carey once gave on German TV in which she claimed to be unaware of the existence of pop rival J.Lo.) Tilly too used Twitter to greet the film’s first trailer. “New ‘Chucky’ movie?” Tilly wrote, alongside a photo of the actress with her doll character. “Ummm…no. Tiffany and I are gonna sit this one out.#NotmyChucky.”
The creators of the new movie, meanwhile, have been careful to acknowledge their debut to Mancini and the original movies.
“Everyone is a huge fan of Don Mancini,” says Child’s Play remake director Klevberg. “[If] he was making this movie with us it would be really amazing, but we understand he has his reasons. We are extremely grateful to him and will always be. He’s someone I look up to.”
It’s possible there could be enough love to go around for both franchises. The last few years have seen a remarkable revival in horror as a whole and the killer doll subgenre in particular with the success of the Annabelle series, whose third entry will be released July 3 and 2016’s The Boy, whose Katie Holmes-starring sequel is currently in production. Even the low budget Puppet Master series had its own reboot last year with Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, with a script by Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler and a cast which includes Thomas Lennon and genre legends Barbara Crampton and Udo Kier.
Might the folks behind the respective Chucky projects yet become “friends ’til the end”? With Child’s Play, it seems, anything is possible.