Published Nov 24, 2012As was the status quo for the '80s, Child's Play, like most horror films of the era, reiterated the dominant cultural anxiety of familial dissolution, exaggerated the perceived abnormality and social immorality of a divorced working mother trying to raise a child on her own. More specifically dreadful at the time was the concept of a woman trying to raise a son on her own, not having the understanding of masculinity necessary to help a boy develop into a well-adjusted man; at least, according to the writers and filmmakers at the time, who were of course primarily male.
Much like Death Valley another'80s horror film featuring 7th Heaven actress, Catherine Hicks, this critique of women and society in peril finds Karen (Hicks), a divorced woman, inadvertently neglecting her son Andy (Alex Vincent) while trying to make ends meet, which results in his endangerment. The distinction with Child's Play is that Karen's neglect is imposed by economic demands and a callous homosexual employer, who, similarly falling outside of the nuclear family paradigm, has no empathy for, or understanding of, the traditional family unit.
Indirectly, this shows some progress throughout the years, since 1982's Death Valley punished the single mother for sheer selfishness, having the indecency to put her romantic needs ahead of her child, whereas 1988's inadvertently campy horror Child's Play posits her as more of a misguided and incompetent victim, unable to perform a dual gender role both in ideology and in capital capacity.
In such, her intentions are good, even when she agrees to buy a Good Guy doll from a homeless man in a back alley for her son on his birthday. But, in bringing seedy merchandise and the criminal element into her home, she sets up her impressionable son for negative influence, which is exaggerated by the narrative conceit of a voodoo-conscious serial killer inhabiting the plush doll, coaxing Andy to take him to crack houses and assist him with various murders.
Of course, this horror of consumer merchandise works on two levels, since Karen, in addition to introducing her son to the criminal element—herself working outside of the legal economic system in purchasing black market goods—also imposes a set of values and marketing ploys on her son by allowing him to engage in mass, assimilative, trend. The very existence of the Good Guy doll and its abundance of marketing tie-in's (collector's sets, add-on's, TV shows, etc.) represents capitalist horror, by imposing a set of values and personal measurements on a child that leads to a lifetime of social identity as a consumer performance of compounding show and tell.
Resultantly, even after the illogical police work and many amusingly choreographed fight sequences play out—in addition to a well-constructed, genuinely creepy moment when Karen realizes her son's talking toy has no batteries—the assertion is that Andy, imposed with gender dysphoria and capitalist greed, is damaged for life in lacking a male role model. The narrative even goes so far as to impose mental illness on Andy when he's in the midst of the whole Cassandra crisis with his talking doll.
More amusingly, the perceived saviour of the film is that of male authority, with a police officer (Chris Sarandon) showing interest in the helpless mother and her son, making their struggles and supernatural assertions legitimate when otherwise they would merely be the ramblings of a crazed woman and her sick, presumably homosexual, son.
It's this backwards thinking and amusing male simplicity that give the initial entry into the increasingly campy, self-conscious and ludicrous franchise its singular significance. Amidst introducing a fascinating villain—that of mass marketed indulgence—it also works as a time capsule for an era where a change in the nuclear family dynamic caused crisis and panic in a fascinating and patronizing manner.
Child's Play screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Birth of a Villain series on Saturday, November 24th at 10pm. (MGM)