Metro Weekly

The Secret of Chucky: How Don Mancini created a contemporary horror icon

Mancini, the gay creator of the killer doll, on why the little monster has endured and endeared for over 30 years

Don Mancini
Don Mancini with Chucky — Photo by: Brendan Meadows/SYFY

“People, they fucking love Chucky!”

Jennifer Tilly is talking rapturously about the murderous, serial killer doll that has held the horror world in its gory grip since first being introduced in 1988’s chilling Child’s Play.

“I have always said the reason why Titanic — and this is my opinion — was such a big success was because of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Without them, you would have nothing. You’d have boats sinking. They had such a simple, true, real relationship that it made you want to see their story through three-and-a-half, four hours, however long it was. That’s what I think with Don. Even though it’s a movie about dolls, he feels like he needs to be real within that universe and not just create cardboard characters that are just there to get stabbed.”

Tilly is hitting the proverbial nail on the head. Don Mancini, the creator of the Child’s Play series, which birthed Chucky, has created a unique, continuous narrative thread that has allowed his creation — a two-foot “Good Guy” doll that is, in fact, possessed by the soul of murderous serial killer Charles Lee Ray — to enter the pantheon of contemporary cinema slasher legends alongside Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and whatever Scream‘s masked personage is called.

After seven films (not including the 2018 Child’s Play reboot that Mancini and company had nothing to do with), the character has found its way to television, starring in its own titular series every Wednesday on both Syfy and the USA Network. Chucky’s new owner, Jake(Zackary Arthur), is a 14-year-old gayby who’s persistently bullied by his jerky peers and intolerant father. As a result, he’s withdrawn, tentative, unsure of himself.

Chucky, whom Jake purchases at a yard sale for $10, senses an opportunity and, after dispensing with the boy’s nosy cat, reveals himself in full horrific splendor. He urges Jake to venture down a darker path and take vengeance on those who would bully him. When Jake initially resists, Chucky petulantly says, “Fine. I’ll do it myself.” And so, the killings begin, approximately one per episode, so far. And they are as blood-soaked and vicious as those in the movies.

“You can do so much more with a series,” says the 58-year-old Mancini, himself a member of the LGBTQ community. “You can evolve the characters. I love the fact that I’m looking at a young, gay version of myself and real representation here. And the possibility of maybe — maybe not — a little romance.” Mancini is coyly referring to the budding friendship between Jake and a schoolmate, Devon (Bjorgvin Arnarson). The pair appear to be sharing a mutual, if cautious, secret crush.

“We wanted it to be really sweet,” says Mancini, who, in addition to his tenure with the Chucky franchise, worked for a season on the grisly, groundbreaking NBC hit, Hannibal. “So often in the horror genre, but also the teen genre, you’d casually see 14-year-old heterosexual couples and their sweet puppy love. And I just thought, why not do that with two boys? Just do the sweet, innocent puppy love thing, because I feel in a way you’re just like, ‘How can anyone object to that? Look at those two kids — they’re so cute together.'”

The idea of Chucky advocating against bullies is a subtext that enriches the series. “I love that Chucky is anti-bully,” says pop culture icon and legendary filmmaker John Waters, who was featured in 2004’s Seed of Chucky and who owns one of two Glen/Glenda figures from that film (it stands, ominously, in a corner of his Baltimore living room, as if waiting to strike). “Boy, Divine would have liked to have Chucky around when he was in high school.”

Chucky
Zackary Arthur as Jake Wheeler, Chucky, Teo Briones as Junior Wheeler, Alyvia Alyn Lind as Lexy Cross — Photo by: Steve Wilkie/SYFY

Waters believes Chucky has endured all these years because “a doll is so un-frightening, that if you can make it frighten people, it’s even better than some big, giant monster lurking over a city. This is a little thing that’s just thrown around, and that gets revenge. And so, everybody really roots for him. And this time he’s against homophobes. He’s on the side I want him to be on even more.”

“Chucky is now an LGBTQ+ ally,” adds Tilly, who entered into the series with 1998’s Bride of Chucky as the demonic doll Tiffany. In subsequent sequels, she played an actual version of herself possessed by Tiffany’s soul, and will appear in the series during its final four (of eight) episodes.

“I am sort of doing a parody of myself,” she says. “You take the worst traits of yourself and then you exaggerate them. I take a little bit of vanity and a little bit of narcissism, but I blow it up.” As for the murderous side of Tiffany? “When you’re playing a murderer, you remember the time somebody stole your parking spot, then you blow that rage up and make it like ninety percent of yourself as opposed to five percent.”

So far the series is a massive hit, and Mancini hints that the story could carry forward for several more seasons. “I’m a fan of long-form storytelling,” he says, a fact borne out by the continuity that flows through the movies and into the series. There are no reboots and do-overs in the Chuckyverse. The story just keeps moving forward, bringing back former surviving characters, typically played by the original actors.

“Don is a Chucky auteur,” says Waters. “He’s somebody that is serious about it. But he also has a great sense of humor about this whole business he’s created, this whole world.”

“Don never wants to repeat himself and that’s why I think the Chucky franchise has endured over 30 years,” adds Tilly. “He is a superfan himself. When they say, ‘Oh, we have a new movie or a television series for you,’ he’s so happy. He’s like an artist with all these paints and a blank canvas. He sits down to write what he wants to see.”

Tilly adds that she’ll more than likely be playing Tiffany as long as there is a Chucky to play opposite.

“Tiffany is in Jennifer Tilly’s bodacious body,” she laughs. “And I just really feel like Don is going to just keep putting me into these movies and television series until the end of time.”

Chucky
Zackary Arthur as Jake Wheeler, Chucky — Photo by: Steve Wilkie/SYFY

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the origins of Chucky. How did you come up with the idea?

DON MANCINI: My dad worked in advertising. So when I was growing up, I was exposed to that world quite a bit. He would try out different campaigns on me and my sisters. It was just something I was aware of from a very early age, how cynical Madison Avenue is. Just that whole business of selling things to people that they don’t really need, the strategies that they devised to do that. Including to children. And so I originally wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected kids.

I was in film school at the time at UCLA. This was the mid-eighties, and the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were super popular. It’s hard to imagine, it seems so quaint now, but people literally lined up for blocks to get these two-foot-tall dolls. Riots even broke out in stores when they would run out of them. That was happening in the zeitgeist.

And so, I thought, there’s my way into a horror story about how marketing affects kids. Being a lifelong horror fan, I had, of course, seen other movies and TV shows with the killer doll trope. But I knew that the innovation here was to link it specifically to the notion that it’s this popular toy in pop culture that every kid wants to have. The idea of this thing that’s specifically marketed to bring your kid friendship and love, but actually brings death and destruction.

So, that was the metaphor for Chucky and what he represented for the zeitgeist in 1988. He’s evolved to become a metaphor for many different things, because that’s one of the things I was trying to do to keep it fresh. You always want to address what’s going on in the world at the time. I think that’s the right prescription for effective horror. So in the TV series, Chucky is now a metaphor for bullying. And Chucky is kind of the ultimate bully, because he comes in the guise of being your friend to the end.

MW: Casting Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky in the original movie was a particular masterstroke.

MANCINI: That was Tom Holland, the director. Tom had worked with Brad on another movie just before Child’s Play, a Whoopi Goldberg movie called Fatal Beauty. Tom liked working with Brad and then brought him into Child’s Play. I agree, it was a complete masterstroke.

MW: Brad has gone the distance with the series, with the exception of the 2019 reboot, which has got nothing to do with any of your films or the show. Why has he stuck around?

MANCINI: I think like any actor, he likes to work, first of all. But I think also he’s tickled, as I am — as all of us are who have been involved with this from the very beginning — that our character has been embraced by the culture to the extent that he has. He loves that.

And he takes it very seriously. We want to hold ourselves to a high standard. I love working with him and, of course, we’ve become good friends over the years. We’ve known each other for a long time. It’s a funny thing, but I think in show business success can be very bonding.

MW: There are so many horror films that get made every year that never catch fire to warrant sequels. What’s interesting is that with Chucky, lightning struck again and again. Child’s Play begat part two, then part three, and then with part four Chucky’s name came into the foreground. That doesn’t happen often. It’s rare, though. It happened with Jason, it happened with Michael Myers, it happened with Chucky. When you say the name Chucky to somebody, immediately, whether they’ve seen the movies or not, they know exactly what you’re referencing. What do you think propelled Chucky into the larger pop culture stream?

MANCINI: I think it’s a combination of things. There is a huge element of luck and lightning striking involved, absolutely. Catching certain cultural waves, I guess. But beyond that, I think there’s something universally primal about the notion of a doll that’s alive. We have a primal reaction to dolls. Which is, I think, rooted in the fact that dolls are distortions of us. They look human, but they’re not. And it’s in that division between what we are, what reality is, and what they are, that there’s just something primally disturbing.

I think another big reason that he’s become so popular is that he’s funny. He’s charming. There’s just something cute and lovable about him. At this point, he strikes me as a sort of ambassador, a symbol of the horror genre and the Halloween season. He represents what a lot of us love about the genre and the Halloween season is the spooky vibes, but it brings a smile to your face. I think that Brad’s performance is absolutely an indelible part of that. And the puppetry — the work from the puppeteers led by Kevin Yagher on the first four films, and since then by Tony Gardner. The puppeteers, some of them go back decades with us. It’s a big team. It takes a village to make Chucky work.

MW: Chucky is tangible, even in the series. He’s not CGI. You feel the realism of that as you’re watching it.

MANCINI: It’s very important we maintain that old-school approach. That’s important to the fans, to the viewers, it’s very important to actors that they have something to act with. That’s huge.

Chucky
Photo by: Steve Wilkie/SYFY

MW: When you think back to the first film, have things changed significantly in the actual operation of Chucky?

MANCINI: It’s definitely gotten easier. It used to be that we would have to build all of our sets six feet off the floor so that the puppeteers could be underneath. Also, for the first three movies — this is kind of hard to describe — but when Chucky is speaking, we would lay down the vocal tracks with Brad months before, the way you do an animated movie. That performance gets put down first.

For Chucky’s mouth to be in sync with the vocal track, there was a live performance [to the audio playback]. So there was a puppeteer whose job was simply Chucky’s mouth. He wore this device that looked like a hockey mask, almost like Jason. The way the puppeteer moves his jaw, it’s wired in the puppet, Chucky moves his jaw. At the same time, the puppeteer is working the lips with little joysticks. Invariably there are times when it wasn’t perfectly in sync. So we’d often lose takes because of that.

Starting with Bride of Chucky, there was this important innovation where Brad’s vocal performance could be locked into a computer and at the push of the button, the mouth is saying the words in sync with the vocal track. So since 1998, we’ve never had to lose a take due to the sync of the lips.

In the first three movies, there’s no CG at all. What we use CG for now is to erase cables coming out of the puppet, or even puppeteers themselves on set wearing the standard green leotard thing and we erase them in post-production. Because of that, now we don’t have to raise all the sets six feet off the floor. And that’s a huge deal. It’s a huge deal practically, but also in terms of savings. It’s more expensive to have to do that.

MW: One thing I like about Chucky, and particularly in the show, is that he devises inventive ways of killing people. The dishwasher murder is a perfect example. And, by the way, who loads their knives facing upward in a dishwasher?

MANCINI: [Laughs.] Some people do. It’s a real thing. I put a line of dialogue in the episode where the cop says, “It actually happens. Happened to a woman in Vancouver a couple of years ago.” That’s true. I mean, it’s rare. But it has happened. And the reason is, as the other cop says, “People have the notion that loading the dishwasher blades up gets them cleaner.”

MW: It made me consider his almost artful way of killing. It’s calculated and conniving. His methods are not sheer brute force. I’m not taking anything away from Michael Myers, but his murders in the latest Halloween films are savage. Chucky’s are generally not.

MANCINI: Well, he’s only a little doll. He’s not like Jason and Michael Myers — these are big guys who come lumbering at you. And you run from them. Chucky operates differently. He’s little, so he doesn’t have the physical advantage. But he has the advantage of his potential victims, his targets, not knowing they’re in the room with the bad guy. They think they’re in the room with the good guy. It says so right on his chest: Good Guy. But he’s lying. He’s a big liar.

Chucky
Chucky — Photo by: Brendan Meadows/USA Network

MW: And yet we love him.

MANCINI: For over a century now we’ve loved Dracula, we’ve loved Frankenstein’s monster. It’s nothing new. There’s something about these dark characters who kill people. It allows us to live out some kind of weird primal fantasy that is cathartic.

MW: Is Chucky driven to murder people just because he can?

MANCINI: Yes. We get into that a bit in the series. We depict his first kill as a child in episode three. So, Chucky is different from Frankenstein. He did not begin as a misunderstood innocent. He’s a different breed. He’s a monster who was just born that way.

MW: As writer, and later director, you’ve controlled the singular narrative throughout all these films. That’s extremely rare in Hollywood. Can you comment on the importance of that to the series?

MANCINI: I feel very fortunate about that, actually. There have been people who create things that are then sidelined. And I’ve been very lucky. The producer who I’ve worked with on all of these movies from the beginning, David Kirschner, at any point he could’ve gotten rid of me. But even going all the way back to the first movie, David asked for my opinion on things. Which is not often the case when you’re a young writer starting out in this business. It’s often not the case when you’re an established writer. Very often writers, people who originate projects, they just get pushed aside. And I wasn’t. So I’m deeply appreciative of that.

MW: I need to revisit the films, but as I recall, they get wilder, and you introduce more humor into them as things progress.

MANCINI: I consciously turned the series into a comedy with Bride of Chucky. And then I went even further with the comedy in Seed. Bride was very successful. Seed much less so. Seed is controversial to this day. People seem to either love it or hate it, although I wear that even as a badge at this point.

MW: Why was Seed controversial?

MANCINI: Because it was more comedy than horror. Some people, they don’t want comedy with their horror. It’s like they’re rejecting Reese’s peanut butter cups. “I don’t want any peanut butter in my chocolate.” “I don’t want your comedy in my horror.” So that was part of it. But also part of it was the character of Glen/Glenda. We were dealing with a lot of explicitly queer themes in that movie. I think if that movie were to come out now, it might have a different response from people.

A lot of gay horror fans and queer kids, trans kids, tell me how much Seed meant to them. And I’m delighted by that. That’s worth much more than big box office. Well, it’s worth as much, let’s put it that way. If you can put a price on that kind of thing, it’s in the millions and millions.

MW: The series, of course, puts a gay person front and center. And not just a gay person, but a teenager, a 14-year-old, who is regularly bullied. It adds a completely new subtext to the storyline. You wonder if Jake is going to turn into a killer himself, as Chucky seems to be mentoring him in that direction.

MANCINI: We wanted to look at what makes a bully. What makes someone exhibit that kind of hostile destructive behavior. Very often it’s a cycle of abuse. And so, we wanted to look at what happens when an emotionally vulnerable kid is lured down a potentially dark path by this seeming friend, who comes to him as an ally. He says, “I understand you. I have a queer kid myself. I’m down with this. We’re going to get back at all those assholes who are mean to you.” But we also wanted to explore what can break the cycle of abuse. What can talk you off that ledge and bring you back? We address that.

Chucky
Chucky, Zackary Arthur as Jake Wheeler — Photo by: SYFY

MW: Zack is clearly out when we meet him in the series. Can you talk a little bit about your own coming out?

MANCINI: Sure. Like a lot of guys of my generation in high school, I was dating girls and seeing boys on the down-low. When I got to college, that’s really when I started coming out.

MW: How did the family react?

MANCINI: My father was a very conservative, traditional-minded, Italian macho guy. So he was not into this. He just didn’t want to talk about it. We never talked about it, even though he did meet a boyfriend of mine. He just never verbally acknowledged, “This is your partner.” It was just my friend. But we went out to dinner and he was very gracious and nice. So I think he knew and was kind of accepting. He definitely mellowed in his later years. He was sick for seven or eight years before he passed away and so I think that had a bit of a mellowing effect on him. My sisters, they were all like, “Oh yeah, we knew.”

MW: Were you bullied in junior high, middle school? Can you recount anything?

MANCINI: There are autobiographical aspects of the character of Jake in the series, particularly the tension with his dad who, in almost cliche fashion, is like, “Oh, you’re not an artist. That’s for girls and weird people.” But was I bullied? Yes. I was bullied a little bit. Mainly bullied by my father really. At school, less so than what Jake experiences. I had this weird armor in a way. My father, ironically, insisted I had to be a jock, because he had been. So I was an elite runner when I was quite young, from the time I was 9 or 10 through high school. So that got me a kind of traditional form of respect in the all-boys prep school that I went to, but I was definitely seen as quiet and kind of a loner.

MW: What reason did your father have to bully you?

MANCINI: Because he sensed that I was gay and that was the big nightmare of his life. I would get punished for playing with girls. I mean, really cartoony cliche stuff. One time my father got home from work and I was across the street, sitting in the front yard with this girl my age, a schoolmate. We were sitting talking and I think we had put dandelions in each other’s hair. I will never forget the look of terror and anger in my father’s face.

He punished me by making me take karate. It kind of conforms to that hilarious Simpsons episode, I don’t know if you’re familiar, but the one where Homer is terrified that Bart is gay. So he decides to take him on a hunting trip and Bart’s like, “I don’t know, a bunch of guys camping in the woods alone? Seems kind of gay to me.” So it’s like, “Okay. You want me to just grapple with guys? Okay!”

MW: The parents in this show are — no offense — uniformly awful to their children in every possible way. It’s alarming.

MANCINI: I think that’s part of the drama of YA and teen fiction. That can be a real emotional drama of a teenager’s life, your relationship with your parents. I mean, solid relationships don’t make for a good horror story. It’s the horror genre, so you want to get at some real anxiety.

Chucky
Chucky — Photo by: Brendan Meadows/SYFY

MW: The kids are remarkably age-appropriate. They don’t feel like 30-year-olds playing teens. How important was that to you?

MANCINI: It was vital, and at various times throughout the casting process there were occasional conversations, not too pressured, but conversations about the possibility of aging the characters a little bit. Because basically that would allow us to cast people 17 and older because they can work on set longer than kids because of the labor laws. So it just becomes less expensive, but I resisted that idea. Chucky, as an antagonist, is tiny. He’s two feet tall and so he has that disadvantage in a way. It would be easy for the whole vibe to spill over into too much absurdity if the kids are too old. Just the sight of a 17 or an 18-year-old with a two-foot-tall doll is more absurd than a 14-year-old.

Before the show came out, people were saying, “How does this work? Why is a 14-year-old kid toting a doll around?” And of course there’s a reason — he’s an artist and is going to use him in his art and then he’s going to sell him and all of that stuff. But 14 felt plausible to me — the characters would feel both physically and emotionally vulnerable to Chucky.

MW: I was surprised by the level of profanity on the show, especially since it’s not being bleeped. Chucky says “fuck” a lot.

MANCINI: A lot.

MW: Is this okay on cable now? Maybe I’m being naive.

MANCINI: It was as much of a surprise to me as it was to you, but when I was pitching the show, me and my fellow producers, we always swam out to that wave and said, “There are two things that have to be maintained for this to work with the transition to TV. We still need a degree of violence, because that’s what the franchise is about. And Chucky is known for saying fuck.” I don’t think we’re the first show on these networks that do this. We probably just do it more than everybody else.

MW: In episode three, Chucky says something that’s bleeped just after he says the word “fucking”. I’m dying to know: What does he say? What was so horrible that it’s bleeped?

MANCINI: He’s cornering Lexi, and what he says is, “This is for Jake, you fucking little Ivankastan.” [Laughs.] That’s what he says.

MW: Do you think there’s redemption within this series for Chucky?

MANCINI: What do you mean redemption exactly?

MW: Redemption for the character. Sometimes an anti-hero, an evil being can evolve into a hero in an odd sort of way, much in the way the character of Hannibal was in that series. Through his protection of Jake, through this weird warped horror prism, is Chucky being redeemed? Maybe redeemed is the wrong word.

MANCINI: Well, I was consciously aware of the influence of Hannibal on me when concocting this show. And I was aware that the relationship between Jake and Chucky was similar to the relationship between Hannibal and Will Graham in the sense that they’re both about innocents who come into the orbit of these very seductive monsters, who start to lead them down a dark path, and they have this dance, and at times there’s real connection between the two of them. Just as Will Graham felt about Hannibal, Jake feels “Chucky gets me.”

Chucky
Chucky — Photo by: Brendan Meadows/SYFY

I think that one of the fundamental fantasies that Hannibal engenders if you’re a fan is that you think, “Well, Hannibal wouldn’t kill me. He wouldn’t eat me. He would regard me as he does Clarice or Will Graham. He would be fascinated by me and then he would go after my enemies.” Which is often how Hannibal was operating.

So I think maybe fans have that fantasy about Chucky as well. And now that he has this relationship with this kid and this is a new thing in the franchise where he’s not committing murders in order to frame a kid, he’s committing murders to get back at the kid’s enemies. And I think there’s something appealing about that in these kinds of fiction. So redemption — it depends on how you define it.

I think Hannibal still remains this unfathomable, bizarre force that doesn’t really follow normal human standards. Because sometimes, one of the things I loved on the show is that sometimes Hannibal killing someone was like an act of affection. That’s what’s so fascinating about the character. Chucky is just as complicated. He’s more complex than some of his brethren in the slasher genre.

New episodes of Chucky air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Syfy and the USA Network. Extended earlier episodes are also available on streaming. Visit www.usanetwork.com/chucky or www.syfy.com/chucky.

Read More:

Harvey Guillén talks Shadows, Reacher, and what might happen if Guillermo became a vampire

Done with performative inclusivity, Angelica Ross is creating her own change

BD Wong on Nora from Queens and the powerful representation of Shang-Chi

Leave a Comment:

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!