One of the great things about Child’s Play is that the origin story for Chucky (Brad Dourif), the homicidal doll and, let’s face it, the star of the movie, is kept to the first 15 minutes of the movie. It’s a quick, ably-filmed chase scene, with some voodoo mumbling and FX-enhanced clouds. From then on, even as the characters wish to figure out how the soul of a serial killer inhabited the body of a child’s toy, there’s not much more exploration involved, needed or welcomed. All the scenes investigating Chucky’s voodoo practices (...LOL) do more to move the plot along than explain things (“Chucky needs to transfer to a new body soon! ...also voodoo has arbitrary limitations!”). At a tight 87 minutes, Child’s Play’s at a pretty good length for a story like this, which plays the tension straight (something that its later sequels - and I like Bride of Chucky a lot - don’t do quite as well).
Yes, the idea of a murderous doll is possibly the silliest idea to become a 4-sequel (and planned remake) series in mainstream horror. But the brilliant thing Child’s Play accomplishes is to cleave itself into two movies, generally not at the same time. The first focuses on young Andy Barclay, the poor child who received the doll. For this half of the movie, the movie depends on adults not believing the kid. His mother and the police think he’s a kid who doesn’t respect the gravitas of the situation. Understandable, but from the perspective of a child (which I was when I first saw this movie), it’s terrifying. This chunk of the movie is the most effective.
(Plus, there’s the weird scene where Andy’s in a mental facility with a doctor who’s even more terrifying than Chucky - what’s a hospital for children doing with electric shock therapy strong enough to fry a guy?)
The second story of the movie plays on Karen (Andy’s mother, played by Catherine Hicks)anxieties as a parent to create the tension. Once Chucky is revealed to, indeed, be a doll possessed by the spirit of a murderer, her plot becomes a rescue mission. The movie from her perspective is a weaker one (this woman in her mid-30s seriously can’t overpower the doll?), but necessary. It’s notable that once Chucky’s revealed to the adults in the movie, it becomes much more of a cliche-ridden action movie, for better (a scene where Chucky tries to strangle the cop that “killed” him in a car, then tries to kill him while he’s trapped in the wreck) and worse (where Chucky’s revealed to be alive and bites and pulls his way out of Hicks’ grasp. Again, how is he somehow stronger than her?).
Taking multiple perspectives, dividing the movie roughly in half actually keeps it together. This is probably the maximum amount of horror movie you can get from the premise. It’s a testament the whole thing that it doesn’t become campy until the climax, where Chucky gets the better of two adults who know he’s alive and Andy via the magic of false endings and Brad Dourif’s superb voice acting. The biggest flaw, really, is asking adult actors to struggle with a doll a third their size and look scared. It’s almost admirable how un-killable they made the doll in the last 13 minutes of the movie.
Some individual scenes stand out. About midway through the movie, Chucky kills his former accomplice who left him to die. There’s a great tension as Andy is running around the bad neighborhood while Chucky’s victim is waving his gun around, unable to see the doll. (Chucky’s a pretty stealthy dude.) Similarly, the scene where Chucky tries to kill the detective that killed him manages to find the perfect way to trap a full-grown adult in a situation where it’s plausible that an evenly-matched fight scene between a doll and a man can occur. The makers of Child’s Play also managed to pull maximum theatrics from their death scenes, whether it’s frying a dude or hitting a woman with a hammer so she falls four stories out a window. That’s par for slasher flicks, but considering the villain, it’s worth a shout-out.
The Wikipedia page for Child’s Play mentions that it was originally conceived as a mystery, making audiences guess if Andy or Chucky is the killer. This plays out for the first half of the movie, when Chucky’s barely shown saying anything out of the ordinary or moving, but two deaths happen in his and Andy’s presence. This story has its limits, of course, and if Child’s Play were written like that, it would probably live on in the annals of bad horror twists. As it is, they actually hit a pretty decent halfway pitch for the premise. Maybe it’s unfortunate that - at best - the premise lends itself to only an above-average but not great horror movie, but hey, they got there.