As a critic with a disability I avoided writing about disabled representation for awhile. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a disabled critic writing about disability. Or it might be because the landscape of films dealing with people with disabilities is often fraught with stereotypes and inconsistencies. One of the most common questions I receive is “What movies do you recommend as showing a positive depiction of disability” and my answer, more often than not, is that “there aren’t many.” No movie is flawless, but there are a few I do get happy about for how they portray a disabled character.
One of the films I often shock people with by recommending is Don Mancini’s two recent entries in the Child’s Play series: 2013’s Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky, released in October. The series that infamously birthed the killer doll Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) has transitioned from serious horror to comedic camp and back to horror again. In its most recent features the heroine is Nica (played by Dourif’s daughter Fiona), a paralyzed woman framed by the doll for the murder of her family.
The horror genre has been killing it – pun intended – of late with the creation of original stories with female characters with disabilities (Mike Flanagan’s Hush is another worthy entry). Director Don Mancini himself took some time to discuss with me the nature of disability in cinema, and how he hopes the Chucky films will inspire more screenwriters to add disabled characters to their scripts.
In the 2013 documentary CinemAbility, William H. Macy is quoted as saying he didn’t include any characters with disabilities in a script he was writing, not out of malice but because his brain didn’t think to go that direction. It’s often said that the first thing to learn about being a writer is “write what you know,” and thus you can identify why so many characters are often white, straight, able-bodied men. When Mancini was asked about when he envisioned writing a heroine with a disability he responds:
Since we were rebooting I needed to create a new leading lady, a new heroine for the franchise. The initial thing was how do I make this interesting and set it apart from the norm? I’m always doing that and I try to do that with LGBT representation. I realized that if I had as our heroine a disabled young lady it created an interesting playing field for her with Chucky. One of the things we’re constantly battling is….Freddy or Jason or Michael Meyers in the horror genre tend to be these relentlessly, lumbering, hulking guys, whereas Chucky is a two-foot doll. My whole career people [have said], “Oh, well, Chucky’s not scary. You can just kick him.” So my initial impulse was, “Okay, well I’ll create a character who can’t resort to that and she has to get bolder, braver and more ingenuous in how she fights him.”
It’s refreshing hearing a director discuss this, as oftentimes many aren’t asked about disabled representation by critics with a disability. In today’s day and age, where screenwriting shouldn’t be dictated by experience, Mancini and I both agree there’s no reason why disabled characters aren’t written more. “If people did take themselves out of their own mindset and into the mindset of someone else, whether they’re disabled or gay or trans or a racial minority, then you find the minutiae of their lives which are very interesting, the details of it are very interesting,” Mancini says.
It’s not often I become emotional while talking to anyone, let alone discussing a Chucky movie of all things. But in watching both movies, wherein a woman has a disability from birth, is a sexual being and preservers without being an object of pity, it’s amazing to finally see an eye towards representation that bucks the trend of white-male-late in life disability. In a moment of humor with Mancini I discussed how just the sight of a custom wheelchair in the movie made me happy. Mancini’s response was priceless:
We learned so much about wheelchairs! Until I did this I didn’t know anything about wheelchairs. That’s another aspect of it that you need to consider as a writer and director, that the wheelchair is literally a prop that Fiona has in her scenes. I’m defining a prop in the strictest way which is a thing that an actor has, either in her hands or in this case that she’s sitting in. It’s part of the whole world and a constant part because it’s there with her all the time. Getting it right is really important. We did a lot of research. On both movies we had an expert, a guy who was disabled in a wheelchair; he was our technical adviser on both movies. We consulted with him and he was on the set with us.
And this is why the Chucky movies deserve credit. Too often in the era of “based on a true story” films about disability, there’s no need for outside research. The “true story” negates any need for further authenticity because the subject vouches for it. Hearing a director discuss things like “research” and a “technical advisor” were both sources of happiness and hope for the future. In the grand scheme of things they aren’t massive accomplishments, but it’s looking towards an eye at wanting to tell stories about characters with disabilities that aren’t strictly geared towards Oscar bait. While watching each Chucky movie, it’s fascinating to watch how Nica navigates her home, increasing the suspense because the challenges – which, for many would be nothing – are heightened.
Mancini and I talked about several other things but it was impossible to ignore his discussion about trying to represent the disabled community. Yes, the movie isn’t flawless – Fiona Dourif, though wonderful, doesn’t truly have a disability – but Mancini doesn’t hide his acknowledgment of the system that limits true disabled representation. And, sometimes that’s all that’s needed to start a discussion. Are the Chucky movies the best films in the world? No. But they’re doing more towards opening up original stories about people with disabilities than mainstream Hollywood is! Who’d have thunk?