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Horror’s TV renaissance: Greg Nicotero, Don Mancini & more on small-screen scares (and Chucky’s good looks)

By Benjamin Bullard
Chucky Child's Play 2

You can’t censor Chucky — you can only try to contain him. With theaters closed and blockbuster movies in a holding pattern, horror’s long-creeping renaissance on TV is poised to grow into something approaching a full-on phenomenon, as fans continue to scream for chills and thrills on the small screen.

Whether it’s long-running TV classics like AMC’s The Walking Dead, or newer projects like Netflix’s Locke & Key, or SYFY and USA’s Chucky (from horror master Don Mancini), television is becoming the go-to place for viewers to get their hair-raising fix more than ever before. But adapting iconic franchises from the comics and the big screen for slow-burn, episodic TV definitely comes with challenges and rewards that set the small screen apart from the movie box office.

Thankfully for tons of die-hard movie fans, duct-taping Chucky’s foul mouth shut isn’t one of those challenges. On Saturday, AMC’s horror-centric Shudder network took the opportunity at Comic-Con@Home to bring Mancini and Chucky collaborator Nick Antosca (Channel Zero), as well as Meredith Averill (Locke & Key), Jami O’Brien (NOS4A2) ,and Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead, Creepshow) all together for a socially distanced chat about what makes for good scares on television — including Chucky’s famous trash talk.

“When Nick and I set up Chucky at the SYFY channel,” Mancini explained, “one of our first things we had to make sure of is that Chucky could drop his F-bombs. Because it’s such an intrinsic part of his character, it would just seem wrong if he couldn’t — and, fortunately, before we signed on the dotted line, they confirmed: Yes, he can.”

Nicotero. meanwhile, marveled at how the environment of creative openness has changed in the years since he first fell in love with the genre. TV has come a long way from the days when studios “told us we couldn’t do [certain things] in movies, as recently as 10 years ago,” he said. “The stuff we get away with in The Walking Dead in Season 1 was more than George Romero could get away with in Land of the Dead.”

Nicotero, who’s currently waiting to put the finishing touches on the second season of his Creepshow TV anthology, credits video games with turning a younger generation of fans on to small-screen gore and scares — "a lot of kids who were playing House of the Dead or Resident Evil,” he noted. That, he explained, is "one of the reasons why I think The Walking Dead initially reached out to a really broad group of people," adding that it bridged an imaginative gap that allowed gaming to do “a lot for opening [things] up for horror television.”

Antosca said there’s always something more serious and real in the best of TV horror that helps ground all the screams and blood-letting. “The horror that we love, and that really lasts, is about something else,” he explained, citing Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining as, at heart, a chilling story of an abusive father who upends the expectation he’ll protect his family. Grounding horror tales in something real, he added, allows creators “to explore the sense of pervasive dread all around us — which is more true right now than ever.”

Taking a movie icon like Chucky, who made his debut in the 1988 film Child's Play, and diving deeper into a character-driven series for television comes with its own challenges. But Mancini said there’s one surefire way to compensate, on TV, for the pint-sized slasher’s larger-than-life big-screen presence: just make sure the camera zooms in tight.

“This is simplistic, but: more close-ups. More close-ups and less wide shots is really part of your marching orders. But, you know, Chucky’s handsome,” he quipped. “He can take it!”

On the serious side, getting the chance to spread Chucky’s horror spree over multiple episodes means fans will actually get to know the killer doll in a way they never could in theaters. “That [episodic] real estate allows us to get more into the characters than we can in any individual 90-minute movie,” Mancini explained. “That’s to me the biggest opportunity that I saw in taking our franchise from film into TV, was to really make it more of a story about characters than it had ever been before — including Chucky’s character, by the way.”

With new or in-progress seasons already underway for every one of Saturday’s panel guests, it’s safe to say that small-screen horror is having a moment. Creepshow’s second season was already in production before the pandemic put Nicotero on temporary pause. Netflix gave Locke & Key the Season 2 green light back in March, while NOS4A2 is midway through its second-season run right now at AMC.

Then, of course, there’s Chucky, which is waiting in the wings to bring pint-sized slasher scares off the big screen and straight into your living room. Featuring the return of Brad Dourif, who’s teaming with Mancini to reprise his unmistakable role as the voice of the demon doll, Chucky has a double date set with SYFY and USA when the series makes its chilling debut at both networks next year. (SYFY, SYFY WIRE, and USA are all owned by NBCUniversal.)

Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of Comic-Con@Home 2020.