Cult Of Chucky (2017) ★★★½

Everybody’s favorite murderous doll Chucky returns for his seventh outing of mayhem, as does series creator Don Mancini, crafting one of the most wild and bizarre Child’s Play films yet, Cult Of Chucky, that simultaneously feels like left-field fan fiction and franchise canon at the same time. Featuring a veritable treasure trove of characters and Easter eggs, that hark back through the last three decades of storylines, Mancini pulls off the unthinkable for a series so old and played out, by giving faithful, longtime fans what they want, and taking the material in a bold new direction. The result is a pleasant surprise that will hopefully keep Chucky, or some form of him, back in business for many films to come, something I never thought I would say.

Those without a healthy temporal lobe storage of Chucky lore would do well to brush up, or skip this installment altogether, as Mancini kicks things off with a gigantic WTF moment involving young Andy from the first two films (Alex Vincent), all grown up now and storing his childhood Christmas present’s head, a Good Guy doll possessed by the spirit of a satanic serial killer, in a wall safe in his apartment, which, whenever a Friday night date doesn’t pan out, he takes out and proceeds to torture with blowtorches and knives, taking consolation in Chucky’s screams. The question one immediately asks, considering the 2013 revival Curse Of Chucky, which involved another whole slew of killings, is how can there be more than one? Or is there? Hence the CULT of Chucky.

Picking up where that one left off, Cult Of Chucky follows the paraplegic Nica, having just survived a brutal massacre at her house at the hands of Chucky, into a mental institution where she is made to believe that the doll was merely a psychotic manifestation, masking her own culpability. As part of her therapy her doctor brings in a Good Guy doll of his own to help her face her psychosis, and soon murders begin occurring at the hospital. Is it Chucky? Is it the cult referenced in the title, or some form of mental transference? The fact that Mancini is able to juggle this notion for any length of time is a testament to his passion for the material, and applaudable, even though it is a question quickly discarded for good old fashioned horror. In fact much of this plot thread recalls one of the best entries in the Nightmare On Elm St. series, Dream Warriors, which similarly followed a group of mental patients whose therapy included persuasion that Freddy Krueger was just a figment of their imaginations, and the film is only the better for the comparison, if for no other reason than Mancini is actually able to float the uncertainty for a period of time. There was never any doubt that Freddy was real, but here, even watching Chucky dispatch poor patients in increasingly brutal and hilarious ways, the question persists.

Most of that is due to the acting of Fiona Dourif, daughter of horror character actor legend Brad Dourif, who has been the distinctive voice of Chucky since the series began in 1988, and she was only seven. Cult Of Chucky allows her much more room for expression that the previous entry where she was the typical screaming horror heroine, and the fact that it could all be in her head, especially considering the lengths Mancini went to tie her backstory in with the serial killer Charles Lee Ray, is always on the table, and it’s a notion that pays off in the end even as the story commits to a path. And that’s where this film surpasses its immediate predecessor, which was mired in unimaginative genre tropes, here breathing an air of unpredictability – an anything goes mentality – into something we’d thought we’d seen all the sides of. The hallmarks remain, such as Dourif’s brilliant line readings, specifically one scene where a particularly gruesome death is met with Chucky proclaiming “sometimes I scare myself,” and his cackling laugh, a talent he clearly passed on to his daughter, but you’ll have to see that for yourself.

Of course there’s only so much Mancini can do on a modest budget, and for a film that, unlike the original and subsequent entries, won’t see a prestige release in theaters. Because of that, and the current meta-climate of horror films, there’s no hope of a return to the chilling, outright horror of the film that started it all, and giving more than a passing consideration to the storyline, it barely holds up. But by truly embracing its self-referential nods it makes up for scares what it delivers in fun, manipulating and toying with characters that have been with him most of his life. I’m normally one to chastise something that comes across as fan fiction, like the most recent Star Wars film, which felt genuine in only the manners by which it stroked your personal connections to Lucas’ originals, but the difference here is that Mancini is not a fan, he’s the author, and while his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, the effort is no less genuine for it. It’s important that the characters he’s shared with his audience for the last three decades, almost the length of time I can vividly recall, are not treated like pawns in a game of box office draw, but instead growing from seeds planted long ago. And if you are one of the many who are truly friends to the end, Cult Of Chucky will undoubtedly be something you’ll want to play.

The Verdict: Rave