'Chucky' Mastermind Explains Why the New Sequel Needed to Be the Goriest Yet
After seven movies, Chucky has the facial scars to prove his staying power. The killer doll's latest entry, Cult of Chucky unites the franchise's main characters (Andy, Tiffany, Nica) for a game-changing mindfuck set in a mental hospital.
"I don't want to ever make the same movie twice," says Don Mancini, who's written all seven of the doll-starring films. Fittingly, Cult is another reinvention, a psychological trip resembling Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island -- until Chucky experiments with a voodoo spell, forms a small army, and begins an unrepentant killing spree. Following Cult's arrival to Netflix and other VOD platforms, we spoke to Mancini about Easter eggs, what the sequel means for the franchise, and what he wants to do next.
Cult of Chucky, with all its head and face trauma, feels like the goriest entry of the franchise yet. What made you want to push that envelope?
Don Mancini: I wasn't conscious of it when I first wrote the script. I clocked it during pre-production, when I was becoming more and more aware we were sending one actor after another to Tony Gardner and Adrien Morot to have their heads cast. This movie is the goriest of all the movies, in fact. With the specificity of the violence to the head and the face, I wondered, What does that say about me? And I came to the conclusion that it must be some sort of metaphoric expression of my own freak-out about aging -- you know, looking in the mirror and seeing the rotting.
The deployment of the violence in this movie is very strategic, though. We don't really have any gore until the halfway point, which I think is a good way to do it because it's cool to have it build up like a pressure cooker. The first big release is the scene with the character Claire [Grace Lynn Kung], where Chucky causes the skylight to come crashing down on her, with all those beautiful shards of glass, and she gets decapitated.
That decapitation scene is very surreal.
Mancini: It was important to me to keep everything kind of weirdly beautiful. As a filmmaker, one of the reasons I'm interested in the horror genre is I'm sort of of the [Brian] de Palma, [Dario] Argento school. I'm really into the incongruous beauty of horror. That one scene where Nica stomps Dr. Foley's [Michael Therriault] head to smithereens? After she's finished, it looks like a Dick Smith creation from, like, Ghost Story. Or like the cover of an EC Comics.
What goes into coordinating a face-smashing scene?
Mancini: It's a little tricky, because you have to have the heads cast months in advance before you actually shoot the scene. For example, in the case of Claire, her face is almost impassive -- because she looks up and we go into de Palma dreamtime at 48 frames per second and she looks up and sees her own impending death and a tear drops from the corner of her eye. But she had to affect that look way before we shot the actual scene. Same with Michael Therriault. I had to direct him into that ghastly, open-mouthed horror expression way before shooting it.
The Chucky sequels are interesting to me because they're technically continuations, but almost every movie hits a different subgenre. What's your sequel philosophy, and why do you think you've been able to keep making these movies?
Mancini: It's so hard to get anything original done in Hollywood now, but they do want to make sequels, so I just try to seize that as an opportunity. Any good story is about surprising the viewer and subverting their expectations. When you're dealing with a sequel, the viewer comes to it with all kinds of preconceptions. So that provides me with an opportunity to fuck with that and pull the rug out from under you. I actually find making sequels fascinating and kind of fulfilling in that way. I like to think that even though we're making sequels, they're kind of originals because it's really important to me that each one has a different feel.
With Cult of Chucky, I wanted to do something very different from the last movie, which was very gothic. Or, you might have a certain expectation, knowing that this movie is a mental hospital movie, so I didn't want to do what you would expect: the crumbling, Dickensian ruin. Aesthetically, we'd kind of done that with Curse of Chucky. Instead, I wanted to go the other direction: very modernist, minimalist, black and white in color, which really excited me creatively, because we'd never seen Chucky operate on that aesthetic canvas before.
What made you want to subvert those preconceptions, if Hollywood doesn't often go for truly original work?
Mancini: It's partly just a philosophy that I've developed over the course of doing this. By the time we'd done Child's Play 3, the lesson I'd learned with that movie was that I was starting to repeat myself. That was a problem, and it could, if I wasn't careful, spell the end of it all. When it came time to do another one, with Bride of Chucky, I thought, OK, I need to do something radical. So we turned it into a comedy, which in retrospect was really the best thing we could've done, because I think that set a precedent for us to be the horror franchise that was willing to be fluid. I think that's really helped keep us alive.
I also think I've learned a lot from working in television the last few years [Mancini has recently worked as a producer and writer on Hannibal and Channel Zero], because what I'm doing is similar to serialized television. It's all about the long game, and about telling stories about characters and relationships and squeezing as much drama as you can out of those. We have 30 years and seven movies behind us now, so as a writer I always approach it character-first. I think, OK, what is Nica like now, after her experiences in the last movie? What would happen if Nica intersected with Tiffany? What would happen if Tiffany intersected with Andy Barclay. Come to think of it, where is Andy in his life now?
I appreciated the shout-out in Cult to your former employer, Hannibal (RIP).
Mancini: I loved working on that show; it was a fantastic experience, and I think there's a lot of Hannibal DNA in this movie. Obviously, it takes place in an asylum, and we're dealing with psychiatrists and hypnosis. There are even some similar shots, like when Nica is in therapy with Dr. Foley and I have them in dueling chairs, facing one another against the windows.
When I came up with the line and shot it, Fiona [Dourif, who plays Nica] was just kind of rolling her eyes, like, C'mon, Don. And I was like, "I'm telling you, this is the biggest laugh in the movie!" She thought I was just being self-indulgent. So I was like, "Look, 99% of people who see this movie are going to have no idea that I worked on Hannibal!" The real reason it's fun is that idea of Chucky being a fan of the show. Of course he would be! He's just expressing what all us horror fans are thinking: Why did they cancel it? It was the best thing in the world!
Yeah, I like picturing Chucky, sitting on the couch for a nice night in with Hannibal.
Mancini: Yeah, just sitting there in front of the television set, wondering, "When are these guys gonna kiss? They're obviously in love. C'mon, Hannibal and Will Graham!" He'd probably ship them hard on Twitter [laughs].
Are there any other Easter eggs along those lines you want people to look out for?
Mancini: There's a lot, but another one that might fly over the heads of some people is the lunch-room moment. The very first shot is an overhead rotating shot of a round, white bowl filled with red chili. It's an homage to one of my favorite scenes in Curse of Chucky -- the dinner scene, where Chucky poisons the one bowl of chili.
This movie ends with Andy's life essentially being spared. Why? What's going through Chucky's head?
Mancini: It's not really that simple, because there are several Chuckys at that point in the story. Chucky-slash-Nica walks out and reunites with Tiffany and drives off, but they've left one living Chucky doll in that asylum. The last we see of that Chucky is in the day room, after he's drilled the character Malcolm through the head. We see him put the drill down, take his little perch on the couch, lean back, and go into what he referred to in Bride of Chucky as Barbie mode, where he just affects the doll pose.
This is something we'd never done in a single shot, by the way. It's something I'd long wanted to do. I talked with Tony Gardner about it, and so we developed, technologically, the ability to do it, so that we now have a Chucky who can go from 0 to 10, or in this case 10 to 0, all in a single, unbroken shot.
But the fight's not over. Chucky has the upper hand now. Andy's locked in that room, in that padded cell. So I think Chucky, in the form of that doll, is just biding his time. It's sort of like Catherine Tramell at the end of Basic Instinct. You know, she's got Nick Curran in her bed and the ice pick under the bed, but she's gonna wait, because she doesn't have to hurry. That's what Chucky's doing. He's biding his time and savoring the moment, playing with his mouse before going in for the kill. Also, it's just the fun of the cliffhanger. Someone referred to this movie as the Empire Strikes Back of the Chucky series, and I think that's very apt. We leave all the characters in a cliff-hanging position that's hopefully very surprising for all of them.
The final shot was definitely unexpected.
Mancini: It's very Bound, but also a bit Thelma and Louise: two women driving off together in this beautiful, old car. What does it mean? For Chucky to be in the body of a woman now? It was extra fun because it's Fiona Dourif, and she physically resembles her dad [Brad Dourif, the longtime voice of Chucky], and she's channeling her dad. It was kind of irresistible. Also, the gender side of it is something I've been doing since Bride of Chucky. I like injecting gay identity into my franchise. I don't know if it's perverse, but it's like, hey, I can't stop [laughs]!
How is the Chucky in the doll different from the Chucky in Nica's body?
Mancini: They're kind of a hive mind in a way, because they're all Chucky, but it was important to differentiate between each of them, especially when they were on screen together.
You're referring to that joint stabbing scene?
Mancini: Yeah, I rewrote that scene over and over and over again in pre-production. Having the three dolls together, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors going on there, effects-wise, to convey the illusion that they're sharing the screen. Because we don't have three dolls, and we don't have 30 puppeteers, which is what it would really take to do that all live together.
I struggled with that scene, because I think initially I was concerned about making it too goofy. That's one of the things I've been accused of over the years, particularly with Seed of Chucky -- a lot of the most hardcore horror fans really don't like their Chucky with funny. That's why a lot of people applauded Curse for going back to basics, as it were, but I didn't want to do the same thing. I wanted to see, experimentally, how far I could up the comedy quotient without relinquishing the bona fide creep factor.
So in my first few passes of the stabbing scene, I think it was a little flavorless, because I was afraid of being too goofy. But I realized, I mean, Chucky is a funny character, and there's a huge opportunity for an explosion of fun with this scene. The key, and this sounds like a no-brainer in a way, is that [the different dolls are] brothers, and they love one another and doing what they do together. When that finally dawned on me, I was able to write the scene.
That joint scene reminded me of the stab-happy kids from Candle Cove, the SyFy show you wrote for. Where did you get the inspiration to stage that the way you did?
Mancini: You know what's funny is I was on set the night we shot that scene, where the kids all kill the character Jessica. Because we do Channel Zero in Winnipeg, the same place we do the Chucky movies. I'd long thought of the multiple Chuckys before that point, but I remember when we were shooting that on Channel Zero, thinking, like, Are we all going to hell? We've got all these children committing murder. It's like, Oh my God! Nick Antosca, I think his inspiration was probably more in line with [David] Cronenberg's The Brood, you know?
But what I really took a page from was something like Gremlins. I love Gremlins, and I think that I have a little bit of Joe Dante, Tim Burton in me, in that it's hard for me to resist the winking funny part of horror. That was one of the appeals of Gremlins: You see all these guys and they're kind of brothers, similar to the three Chuckys. I probably owe a debt to Joe Dante.
You've gone gothic, you've tackled the psychological thriller -- what subgenres do you want to hit next?
Mancini: It sounds glib, but I still honestly want to do a musical. I don't know that people are necessarily clamoring for that, but that's something I'd love to do. I have to be careful about what else I say because I have other ideas, and I may actually do one of them next, and I don't want to give it away. One of the nice things about Chucky is that he's proven himself to be a very versatile character, ranging across different genres and tones.
Where can we expect to find these characters in the next installment?
Mancini: I hope I've set the precedent that I don't do anything cavalierly. Like in Curse of Chucky, just having that little taste of Andy [after the credits]? Well, now we have a pretty decent main course of Andy in this one. So goes it with Kyle, with this movie.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.