I gotta admit it, I have a weakness for the freaks. No, that’s not a comment on my dating life. (Although...have you seen some of my ex-boyfriends?) It's more a reflection of my love for horror movies with stranger-than-usual protagonists.
Sure, Dracula’s scary, what with the cape and the fangs and the turning into a bat. And Michael Myers, with that hockey mask and the unkillableness, scary also.
But what about a killer doll? (Chucky, returning in “Seed of Chucky,” which premieres Nov. 12.) Or a killer baby? (1974’s “It’s Alive!” and 1976’s “The Omen.”) Killer sewer mutant? (1984’s “C.H.U.D.”) Or a killer deformed Siamese twin who's still mad that he was separated from his normal-sized brother? (Belial from 1982’s “Basket Case.”)
There's something great about a horror movie with a villain who's so weird, you’re not sure whether to scream or laugh.
Start with Chucky, from 1988's “Child's Play.” The redhaired doll looks like a combination of Ron “Opie” Howard and Dennis the Menace, after a few rounds with the ugly stick. He's not cuddly and he's certainly not cute. But then again, neither were the dumpy Cabbage Patch dolls of his era, and if you'll remember, suburban parents were trampling each other to get one to put under the Christmas tree.
At first, Chucky chirps seemingly innocuous sentences like “I’m Chucky, and I’m your friend till the end!” (Cue the Eerie Music of Not-So-Subtle Foreshadowing.) But eventually, a nosy babysitter gets a hammer in the face, and Chucky’s telling the kid that “Aunt Maggie was a bitch who got what she deserved.”
There's a great scene in the original “Child's Play” where Chucky's owner's mom gets suspicious, and fumbles with shaking fingers to open the doll's battery compartment. Sure enough, it’s empty, and just as this dawns on her, Chucky’s head spins around and he crows “Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?”
But along with those kind of genuinely scary moments, there’s a silliness to “Child’s Play,” and to all freak horror movies, that never quite goes away. To the purist, I suppose that ruins the whole movie. But for me, it adds a sense of safety and a bit of humor to a genre that can be overarchingly violent and dumb.
The people behind this genre of horror almost always have a sense of humor about their endeavors. You need only watch the DVD commentaries to find that out.
On the DVD of “Basket Case,” director Frank Henenlotter points out numerous times that the small wad of money his main character is waving around is actually the film's entire budget, in cash. For a particularly gory scene in which Belial goes after the doctor who cut him off of his twin brother, Henenlotter confesses “That’s the pizza we had for dinner. I just put blood on it.”
The message behind the mutantsSome of the movies do attempt a moral message, and some succeed better than others. Chucky may indeed poke fun at the Cabbage Patch craze, but once the doll starts killing, any message about capitalism disappears pretty quickly.
“It's Alive!,” the killer baby movie, spawned (sorry...) two sequels, “It Lives Again!” and “Island of the Alive.” But the original flick seemed to want to make a point, possibly about abortion, possibly about unwanted kids.
After the killer baby is born (it chews through its own umbilical cord, then slaughters the entire delivery team), a doctor accuses the parents of asking about abortion. “Doesn’t everybody inquire about it nowadays?” the father replies. “It was just a question of convenience and we decided to have the baby.” OK, what? Did anyone ever take abortion that lightly?
In this era when legal abortion and the birth-control pill were still new, the movie probably thought it was proposing a daring take on a major issue, suggesting that an unwanted child becomes a monster. But it comes off as just clunky and awkward.
1984’s “C.H.U.D.” has one of the best movie names of all time, especially once you learn that the letters stand for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” (Daniel Stern is one of “C.H.U.D.’s” stars — with a white man’s Afro and sweat stains reaching down to his knees, he's a long way from the “Diner.”)
“C.H.U.D.” is cited in one of my favorite “Simpsons” lines, when Marge tells her husband “Oh, Homer, of course you'll have a bad impression of New York if you only focus on the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s.”
Because the C.H.U.D.s, it turns out, are mutated homeless people forced to live in the sewers and deformed by nuclear waste. Hey, they got three vital issues of the 1980s all in one movie, there: Homelessness, nuclear power and the decline of inner cities.
It’s all up to the monsterBut most freakish horror movies are just out to entertain, and to that end, it’s all about the monster.
It also helps to feature a monster that's somewhat sympathetic. Poor little Belial of “Basket Case” might be horrible to look at, but as the movie progressed we understood what was going on in his mutant little head (he was pretty much just a head, with mutant hands attached). He and his normal-shaped Siamese twin, Duane, had been separated against their will by unfeeling doctors. He didn't set out to be a killer, instead, he had killer-dom thrust upon him.
To the extent that the Chucky franchise has been successful, it's been because creator Don Mancini was smart enough to imbue this plastic doll with a bit of personality (and not just that of the supposed killer who sent his spirit into Chucky).
Chucky's mouthy, he’s mean, and yet he's not above cracking a joke, much along the lines of “Nightmare on Elm Street’s” Freddy Krueger. Audiences don't really know what to make of funny villains. We're supposed to root against them, yet we're used to rooting for those who make us laugh.
Plus, he’s so...not scary. In a world of so many real, wake-you-up-at-night terrors, there’s something just innately funny about a murderous toy. You could dress him up, feed him with a baby bottle. A solidly locked closet door could keep you safe. GI Joe with Kung Fu grip could knock him into next week.
In the world of movie freaks, Chucky is a living doll.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com’s Television Editor