Child's Play 3

“This Means War”: Subverting Gender Roles, Authority and Tough Guy Tropes in ‘Child’s Play 3’

The success of Child’s Play 2 made it abundantly clear that Chucky was destined to be the next big horror icon. It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. Both Freddy and Jason were running out of steam. In fact, both franchises would announce their so-called “final” entries right around this same time. The genre needed a recognizable face with fresh blood and Chucky happened to be it. But the sequel was so successful that another entry was green lit right away. Without ever taking a breath to consider the approach, Child’s Play 3 was rushed into production. It opened in theaters less than nine months after the release of Child’s Play 2. That, more than anything, is often cited as the reason for its presumed failures, even by series creator Don Mancini.

After all, the heavily derided Seed of Chucky has seen a lot of people come around on it in recent years. Cult of Chucky may be divisive, but response was generally favorable and it definitely has its fans. But Child’s Play 3 is really the forgotten child of the franchise, with plenty of people ranking it dead last. And that’s a shame, too, because it’s a much smarter movie than its given credit for, and considering how quickly it was released after Child’s Play 2, that’s kind of amazing. At first glance, it takes the typical Chucky formula and applies it to a gimmick of a change in setting. It’s “the one at the military school.” That, I think, causes a lot of people to roll their eyes at it. But there are inherent themes boiled into the DNA of Child’s Play that the third movie brings to the forefront and gives a tighter focus in some remarkable ways.

In Child’s Play and Child’s Play 2 there’s a strong theme of consumerism, of the corporate greed behind the toys, and on the toy market of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in general. In the first, Good Guys are everywhere. There are constant commercials and Andy has Good Guy PJs and eats Good Guy breakfast cereal. When the doll comes to life, Chucky commits his first murder with a Good Guy brand hammer accessory. In the second movie, this is further embodied by having the entire third act take place inside the actual Good Guy doll factory.

Child’s Play 3, from the beginning, pretty much announces itself as an attempt to move beyond that. It does this pretty bluntly, by killing the PlayPals CEO from Child’s Play 2 in his expensive penthouse with his own toys. Chucky strangles him to death with a Yo-Yo and from that moment the movie and the franchise in general are basically off to explore new topics. Still some themes from the first, such as Chucky’s struggle with the concept of masculinity and Chucky’s hatred of authority figures, are given even deeper treatment than they had previously seen. More than that, though, Child’s Play 3 is also a unique movie in the fact that it’s one of the only slashers ever where no female characters are killed. That, I think, stems from the film’s deeper themes, particularly the way it subverts and comments on gender roles and tropes of the masculine hero.

First and foremost, there’s Chucky’s continued battle with authority, which is worth pointing out as we make the transition to a military academy. This was a theme that really came to the forefront in Child’s Play 2. There’s a distinctly anti-authority mentality to child which especially made sense for the first two, as they had a child protagonist. In fact, Chucky is basically—in part, at least—a child’s id run rampant. That was a major aspect of the original, of course, when Andy spent at least a portion of the movie as the prime suspect for Chucky’s crimes. That theme goes all the way back to the original script. Before Tom Holland’s rewrites that introduced the voodoo aspect, Mancini’s script was titled Blood Buddy. Instead of the doll being possessed by the soul of a serial killer, it was a doll that had synthetic blood as a marketing ploy (to sell Good Guy brand band-aids) that the Andy character made a blood pact with, unknowingly bringing it to life in the process. The original script seems an interesting kind of childhood Jekyll & Hyde story, as Chucky was targeting people Andy was subconsciously angry with, without the boy even knowing he was doing it. Child’s Play and Child’s Play 2 obviously feature a very different doll, but scenes like killing the teacher with her own ruler or snapping the mean foster dad’s neck definitely have heavy echoes of that.

Child’s Play 3 kicks Chucky’s anti-authority streak up to a whole other level. First and foremost, he takes out the series’ biggest authority figure yet in the opening minutes by strangling the CEO of PlayPals Toys. Then, though, it’s off to military school. Even though Andy has grown up a bit as a character, he’s a troubled teen spat out by the foster system with more problems with authority than he’s probably ever had before. The Colonel has no sympathy for him, even when he admits he’ll “cut him some slack,” and he’s relentlessly targeted by Lieutenant Shelton, his direct superior who takes every opportunity to let him know how superior he is. Chucky, of course, does both of these characters in, but it’s the ways in which he kills them that really highlight some of the movie’s deeper themes.

These characters, like many at Kent Military Academy, like to present themselves as the baddest of the bad. Nobody can shut up about how badass they are, whether it’s Shelton’s notoriety as a hardass or the Colonel’s impressive war record. That’s the irony of it all. Both are hard-edged soldier types and both are killed by an androgynous little doll. Shelton is gobsmacked by Chucky and totally freezes in the moment, he’s not even aware that he’s been shot until he’s already lying on the ground dying. Colonel Cochrane, however, takes it even further. This man’s a decorated war hero and everybody celebrates how tough and fearless he is. It’s the ultimate subversion of the tough guy trope, then, when this character takes one look at Chucky as the doll lunges at him with a knife, and promptly suffers a heart attack and dies.

That’s one of the things that so great about Child’s Play 3. Not only is it a slasher where every female character makes it out alive (and there are girls at the school) but it’s one that constantly challenges gender tropes in general. All of the tough guys are cannon fodder. They’re taken out left and right, especially during the shocking (and admittedly nonsensical) paintball scene. But then we have our heroes, each of whom are worth examining in this context.

First and foremost, there’s Andy. He’s grown up a bit—which has to be weird for people who watched sixteen-year-old Andy Barclay nine months after eight-year-old Andy Barclay in Child’s Play 2—and is kind of a shy loner. He’s our Ripley, for the most part, but he’s not actually the most adept at doing things until he’s in the moment. Until the threat of Chucky looms large once again, he’s content to just keep his nose down and try not to draw attention to himself. He’s still a shy and quiet kid and not by any means what you would consider a typical action hero, especially compared to all the guys around him who probably do think that that’s exactly what they are. This is a guy who’s kind of stuck between childhood and adulthood, who’s trying to grow up but is still relatively famous for being the kid who told the world his doll was trying to kill him.

Then we have Tyler, a kid who’s in the same place Andy was in years ago—literally, in fact, as he becomes Chucky’s new target to transfer his soul into. Tyler’s the youngest main character by far, but he’s still a little older than Andy was in the first movie, and that’s important to note. This is a kid who takes school very seriously, but is also very lonely, showcased by how quickly he latches onto Andy and then Chucky as soon as he realizes that Andy’s going to be making friends with the older kids. Tyler himself is widely considered too old to be playing with a doll like a Good Guy, something that Colonel Cochran notices and even penalizes him for. Tyler is desperate for a best friend, which Chucky absolutely preys on. In fact, this is Chucky at his most predatory, as we’re seeing all of the scenes of manipulating that friendship that we never actually got to see in the original. Still, while Tyler might be Chucky’s targeted victim, he’s a hero as well who shows tremendous bravery, especially for a kid his age going through everything he’s forced to deal with.

Without a doubt, the most relentlessly picked on student at Kent is Andy’s roommate, Whitehurst. Everyone from Shelton to the barber thinks he’s a disgrace to the school and they all waste no time telling him that. He’s pathetic, he’s awful, he’s a coward. These things are beaten into him over and over again. Whitehurst, the scaredy cat who would be a disposable victim in so many other movies, instead gets to have an actual arc. He sees Chucky, he knows what’s going on and immediately gives into those things everyone says about him, that he’s just weak and terrified deep down. But he finds his moment, and when no one else sees a grenade that Chucky throws into the crowd, it’s Whitehurst on instinct who leaps onto it and sacrifices his own life to save everyone. He’s not just saving his friends. Whitehurst is saving the people who hate him, too, the ones who think he’s less than dirt, proving himself to be a full-blown hero in the end.

Of course, there’s no better reversal of the traditional tough guy gender tropes in Child’s Play 3 than the fact that the film’s most confident and capable character by far is a woman. I’ve often hoped that, even if Child’s Play 3 never gets the attention it deserves and has its Halloween III moment, that I at least hope characters like De Silva and Whitehurst can eventually get more credit, because they’re legitimately great. Right from her introduction, she’s one of the most captivating characters in the franchise. First, she calls out Shelton for picking on Whitehurst, then she has the gall to repeat what she said to his face. When he makes her do pushups as a penalty, she does them with absolute ease. The embarrassed look on Shelton’s face as he watches it happen is priceless, too. And when he demands she do them one-handed, hoping to re-assert his authority by making her fail, she does those too.

I’m hard pressed to think of another horror sequel that introduces a character more succinctly than that, summing up exactly who they are and exactly what they can take in a single scene. De Silva’s the one teaching Andy how to fight, how to shoot, she’s the one who kisses him first, there’s no shortage of agency and strength there. When she gets shot, though, she still gets to be scared, still gets to showcase that she is in a lot of pain and I think that’s really important. Even the most capable character on the screen is still realistically portrayed and vulnerable, especially after they’re nearly killed.

Of course, these themes of gender roles and tough guy tropes are prominent in Chucky as well, as this character has been presenting an over-aggressive image of masculinity from the moment he opened his mouth in the first movie. It is, of course, grandstanding to try and hold on to an illusion that he’s the same supposed tough guy serial killer he used to be rather than the doll he’s become. Chucky’s desperate to hold onto some sense of intangible manhood, and that largely defines his personality, especially in this movie. Despite all of the things that happen to him at Kent, it’s not until De Silva and her friend put lipstick on him and get him dolled up that Chucky finally utters the phrase, “This means war.”

Child’s Play 3 has caught some criticism over time for the abrupt change of scenery for its third act, which is fair. For a movie largely set at military school, it’s jarring to close out at a carnival. First and foremost, though, the entire carnival sequence and haunted house finale are simply great set pieces, even though they don’t hold quite match the show stopping Good Guy doll factory sequence of Child’s Play 2. Much more than that, though, I think the climax of Child’s Play 3 absolutely works on a thematic level. It circles right back around to the beginning of the film, with Colonel Cochrane reciting Corinthians to Andy, with the classic “when I became a man, I put away childish things.” In some ways, that’s a mission statement for the whole movie, but one that cleverly inverts the phrase, playing with notions of growing up and what exactly it means to be a man—if it even means anything.

Andy’s friendship with the younger Tyler is really the bridge that helps us get to that radical change of scenery. Even the hardassed Sergeant Botnick likes to play with toys when nobody’s looking. With Tyler, though, it’s a friendship that builds and is tested as the film goes on and one that works even better when taking into account that Tyler is such a similar character to the way Andy was portrayed when we were first introduced to him. By the end of the feature, we’ve got Andy fighting to save Tyler inside a carnival, a perfect representation of sheer childhood wonder. It ultimately seems to suggest that growing up isn’t about putting away childhood, but rather confronting it. Andy fires a gun for the first time defending this kid, but in a weird way it brings him full circle because this was his own childhood. Saving Tyler reconnects Andy with a youth spent fighting for his own life, hopefully allowing him to finally move on.

Child’s Play 3 might have been a rushed production with no small degree of controversy behind it, might have come out before people had really even digested the previous one—or even gotten used to the notion of Chucky as a horror icon in general—and the fact that it works despite all of those elements only makes it that much more impressive. It’s amazing that it works as well as it does, on as many levels as it does, intentionally or otherwise. It’s a smart, crafty, subversive film that I hope will eventually come to be recognized as one of the better horror sequels of the 1990s. I’m not expecting there to ever be a cultural shift of opinion on this movie, but, you know, “a good soldier is always prepared.”

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