“It was Dark Shadows,” Don Mancini says without hesitation when asked via Zoom what lit his flames of love for the horror genre. “It’s one of my earliest memories. I remember asking my mother, ‘What is a shadow?’”
The ABC daytime soap opera with a supernatural twist, which ran from 1966 to 1971, was a hit with young folks of the time. They would rush home from school to catch the campy serial in its late afternoon time slot up against the likes of NBC’s Match Game.
The creative genius behind the Child’s Play franchise and the Chucky TV series, debuting October 12 on Syfy and the USA Network, also gives a hat tip to the 1976 film classic The Omen. The supernatural film inspired Mancini to reexamine traditional narratives of the genre while also focusing the creative and professional direction of his life. The Omen scared him so deeply in part due to his Catholic upbringing.
“I’m happily lapsed now, but at the time, I took all of that very seriously,” says Mancini, who was chilled by the idea that the Antichrist could be living among humanity in the form of a young boy. The movie didn’t push the boundaries for stories and characters in the mind of the young Mancini as much as it destroyed them. And, of course, there was the visual buffet of graphic gore. “The decapitation of [actor] David Warner…I’d just never seen that kind of gore before. And it’s like, OK, I’m gonna make this my life,” Mancini explains. “I’ve been decapitating people ever since.”
Like in his earlier movies, Mancini is pushing new narratives and identities for his characters in Chucky. His protagonist, Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), is a 14-year- old gay boy and doll collector who finds Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) at a yard sale. As expected, there’s plenty of gore as the bodies of bullies and other townsfolk start piling up. Mancini is as excited about the storyline of young Jake discovering and exploring his sexuality as he is about the affirmation that type of representation on the screen can bring.
“I know as a 14-year-old, when I went to see movies like The Omen or Carrie or The Fury…Christine is another one…where a bullied kid gets supernatural revenge, you know, none of those movies has a single gay character in them. So I think it’s good to give kids who are horror fans someone to identify with,” he says.
Chucky was created by Don Mancini, a gay man, and several of the films feature queer characters and themes, including Chucky’s child Glen. In the new Chucky series for Syfy, the main character is a queer teen boy named Jake. The Chucky TV series is currently streaming on Syfy.
As for his film career, Mancini, 58, found the horror genre to be “a hospitable place” for him as a young gay man starting out in his 20s — although he admits he was “relatively discreet” around studio executives about his identity. “I was never aware of being discriminated against…particularly as a gay guy,” he says. “Although, you know, it’s possible that I was and didn’t clock it… because it’s certainly — even more than it is now — was very much a straight white male club.”
Today, Mancini has nothing but praise for young actor Arthur, also 14-years-old, and best known for his roles on The 5th Wave and Transparent. Mancini knew Arthur was the right actor for the role. The story includes a budding romance between Jake and his friend, Devon Evans (Björgvin Arnarson). And Arthur’s understanding of the part shone through — even via a virtual audition.
“Zack was able to straddle the notion of a kid who was very closed down and kind of anti-social, but he lit up in the presence of his crush,” Mancini gushes. “And Zack is…this 14-year-old kid doing this by himself to a video camera.”
He describes his protagonist as “very vulnerable to the seductive patter of a charming bully like Chucky,” who very soon turns from the guise of a protective guardian angel and reemerges as the sadistic brutal killer audiences have come to expect.
Mancini is excited about Chucky — not just because it’s continuing his line of the franchise, but because this latest iteration allows him to help evolve the horror genre one character, story, and decapitation at a time.
This article is part of Out's 2021 Design issue, which is now out on newsstands. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.