As another summer draws to a close, horror fans are flocking to the cinema to be scared out of their wits for a few days with the return of FrightFest – screening more than sixty genre films to the kind of loyal audiences whose prime aim from the big screen is a big scream.
The schedule includes Leatherface, a Texas Chainsaw Massacre origins story, zombie film It Stains the Sand Red, darkly comic dating movies Bad Match and Double Date, a haunted house teen horror Ruin Me and the South Korean The Villainess, which screened at Cannes.
But what to pick to open such a blood-filled extravaganza? The latest in a horror franchise that’s been running since the 1980s, of course. The killer doll Chucky, first seen in 1988’s Child’s Play, returns in Don Mancini’s Cult of Chucky. Drawing on a number of characters and storylines that have weaved through the previous instalments, Mancini – who’s been writing the films since day one – sets the latest episode in a remote mental institution, in the middle of winter. A little One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with some Shining thrown in, perhaps…
One of the residents of the institution is Madeline, a troubled mother, played by US-based Canadian actress Elisabeth Rosen. She’s been a jobbing actress since the early 1990s, including roles in The X-Files, The Outer Limits, The West Wing and last year’s World of Warcraft.
With an eclectic CV, Rosen was excited to become part of the Chucky world. “When I talk to people about Chucky, especially young men, they light up,” she enthuses. “They’ve grown up with Chucky, like he’s not a killer, but the male side of the psyche.” But she believes the real reason that the killer doll has lasted so long is his wicked sense of humour. “When I read the script, I was struck by his odd sense of right and wrong. He’s so funny. Compared with all the other killers, Freddy, Michael – Chucky is more cryptic than frightening.”
It’s the more psychological elements of the film that attracted her to the role. “I was originally up for another character – an angry, bitter divorced woman whose husband had cheated so she set his house on fire – I could imagine feeling that upset. But then I was sent the script and Don cast me as another character – a young mother. I think motherhood is so stressful on women and I’ve had so many friends with children who are overwhelmed – so I wanted to make a story about all the women I know who didn’t feel supported in their relationships. They felt they wanted to be perfect but could not and had no-one to talk to about it. They wanted to be the best parent they could be but feared be judged. My character has a little boy – I chose to play this character for every woman who had boys – raising your first child is overwhelming – what if you make a mistake? I took the film for this serious reason, even though it’s very playful. I wanted to take it beyond a horror film and make it so that people could go and say ‘I understand how that person feels – she’s not crazy, she’s scared.’ Mothers have been very grateful, saying ‘I feel like you’re going to be showing something I could never tell anyone I feel all the time.'”
And for Rosen, the film is very much about mental illness – what is real and what is not – and how good people can do bad things under pressure. “I connected to the idea of a lot of people in therapy. People are coming undone. People go to horror films to have a release of anticipation and stress – this story was really honest because it covered people exploring their own madness.”
The film had a relatively low budget and Rosen points out that there was no CGI involved in anything that she did. In Cult of Chucky, there’s a scene in which the doll’s arm is coming out of her mouth. “I held that hand down my throat for over a minute, without blinking or breathing. I had to practice and do a lot of training, so that I have breath control.” Much of her work on the film was just with the puppeteers and the director. During the arm down the throat scene, Mancini was in another room, watching on a monitor and counting down the seconds for her. She regards him as one of the most talented and intelligent directors she’s met during her career. “I’ve never worked with a director that I’ve had that kind of relationship with,” she recalls. “He’s truly a treasure.”
Throughout her career, she’s always tried to do as many of her own stunts and action sequences as she can. One of her proudest moments is when she had to tumble down a spiral staircase in The Outer Limits. There were nails sticking out of the stairs and she was wearing just her underwear, with no-where to hide any padding. “I had two minutes to learn how to do it and had bruises on my back for a month. But it was fun and it looked good.”
Seeing Cult of Chucky get its world premiere at FrightFest in London is “extremely important” for Rosen. “I really value the UK audience. My mother is British. I love British films They’re a huge influence for me. I hope one day to win a BAFTA and my secret acting fantasy is to play Q in James Bond.”