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The blockbuster hit The Godfather overshadowed a host of 1972 Paramount releases that came and went from theaters in record time. One of the most elusive titles from that year is Child's Play, a moody borderline horror film set in a Catholic boys' school. Horror writer Robert Marasco's 1970 Broadway play ran for 343 performances and was nominated for a Tony. Its producer David Merrick quickly set up a film deal. To adapt the play Merrick tapped Leon Prochnik, an avant-garde surrealist whose previous claim to fame is the still-popular experimental short subject The Existentialist.
Merrick then recruited the celebrated director Sidney Lumet to work with a trio of stellar actors with very different performing styles: James Mason, Marlon Brando and Beau Bridges. After (reportedly) discovering that James Mason's character was the plum part, Brando suddenly backed out. Stage great Robert Preston of The Music Man was hired to take his place. Paramount gave the show an Oscar push by opening it in December, but the dark and moody film was promptly forgotten in the holiday rush.
Child's Play is a somewhat murky mystery with satanic overtones. Think of the academic rivalry of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie crossed with the purported Loudon possessions played in subdued key. Gym teacher Paul Reis (Beau Bridges) returns to teach at the same boys' school that he attended ten years before. Welcoming him back is the exceedingly popular English teacher Joseph Dobbs (Robert Preston), who is quick to demonstrate his hold over his pupils. But Dobbs' colleague Jerome Malley (James Mason), an instructor in Latin and Greek, is thoroughly despised by every boy in the school. Malley berates and harasses his students under the seemingly paranoid delusion that they're conspiring against him -- he receives mysterious threatening phone calls at home, where he's trying to care for his beloved dying mother. Malley insists that the rival Dobbs is orchestrating the persecutions to force Malley's retirement, and take over Malley's coveted position as senior class leader.
Paul would like to stay clear of this bitter rivalry but cannot because of another factor. Various unexplainable acts of violence are occurring after hours in the dorms and the chapel. A student that might inform to one of the priests becomes the next victim. The disturbing brutality has a cultish aspect: the victims are complicit in the cover-up, even one boy whose eye is gouged out.
Malley's accusations become so erratic that the priests think he is making up the personal persecutions to get back at Dobbs. Paul begins in Dobbs' camp but is swayed by the passion and anguish of Malley's protests. When news comes that Malley is receiving pornographic magazines in the mail, the schoolmaster resolves to force him into retirement. That brings the violent incidents to a head, threatening the existence of the school itself.
Accomplished actors James Mason and Robert Preston give their characters compelling depth. Preston's Dobbs is the masculine Jean Brodie figure, a teacher with an unhealthy influence on his young students. Could they be carrying out the persecution of Malley under Dobbs' guidance? James Mason's Malley reminds us a bit of John Mills' Col. Barrow in Tunes of Glory, a good man under intolerable pressure. Malley has become such an emotional wreck that his effectiveness as a teacher is sorely compromised. He very well could be faking the personal attacks to lay the blame on Dobbs. The capable young actor Beau Bridges must convey a range of reactions as the tyro teacher. Unsure of his new colleagues, Paul finds himself in a teacher's nightmare, trying to keep order among a group of prep school boys that behave like half-hypnotized Manson followers.
Despite its top-notch acting and tense storyline the show has real problems, some of which must be assigned to choices made by director Sidney Lumet. The academic rivalry aspect is brilliantly handled, but not the actual mystery with its nagging hints of supernatural intervention. We see these students acting as an organized gang, choosing one of their own to torment or maim like something out of Lord of the Flies. Although a pattern in the crimes becomes apparent to all, individual inquiries yield no answers and nothing is done. Since the police are never called in we have to assume that the Catholic schoolmasters fear a scandal that might reflect badly on the institution -- an angle that connects with real-life scandals about long-term child abuse involving Catholic priests. But Child's Play doesn't explain why the wealthy parents of a boy whose eye has been gouged out would take the matter so lightly. Considering the eventual body count there is no way that this chain of events could end in anything but a detailed police investigation.
Lumet's visual choices suggest a gothic atmosphere, making the students' macabre crimes seem a prelude to supernatural horrors that never arrive. Unsubtle Halloween-like lighting marks the Joseph Dobbs character as a potential villain and possible puppet master of his pupils. Several incidents in the film foretell events in William Friedkin's The Exorcist. The priests carry on practical discussions of how to handle the creepy violence. Overstated, jarring music by Michael Small is overlaid at odd moments. In the most pointed parallel priests enter the chapel for morning prayers to discover that the altar has been vandalized. A bloodied student student victim is tied where a statue of Jesus should be.
After all the moody buildup Child's Play concludes as a vaguely unsatisfying mystery. Perhaps this gap was less strongly felt on Broadway, what with the stylization offered by the stage. Although the film sorts out the fates of the characters well enough, the blasphemous-supernatural content remains an unsatisfying question mark. We are ultimately forced to guess what it all might mean.
Olive Films' Blu-ray (and separate DVD release) of the 1971 Child's Play is an excellent encoding of this former rarity. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld's dark images are finally viewable in a clear presentation, uncut and at the correct aspect ratio, allowing us to stop worrying that we've missed something. The transfer element has its share of white specks during the titles but is basically in fine shape.
Around the same time Sidney Lumet directed the equally obscure Sean Connery police brutality film The Offence. He soon returned to higher profile features starting with the mainstream hit Serpico. Oddly enough, an equally neglected Paramount release from 1971 is Unman, Wittering and Zigo, a mystery about a new teacher (David Hemmings) in a private school who discovers that his predecessor may have been murdered by a conspiracy of schoolboys.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Child's Play Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.