A bit of a puzzler, in a good way, CHILD’S PLAY is based on a play by Robert Marasco, who I know from his novel BURNT OFFERINGS. That’s a helpful credit; it took me awhile to grasp that this is a sorta quasi-horror movie. Emphasis on the sorta.
Beau Bridges gets a job as gym instructor at his old school, St. Charles, a Catholic boys’ boarding school. The kids love teacher Robert Preston, who’s fun and friendly, and loathe James Mason, who’s strict and cranky. The only thing in Mason’s life besides the school is his mother, who is dying. Preston doesn’t seem to have anything else going on, either, and his devotion to the boys extends to protecting those who are punished for the series of violent acts against other students.
The battle between Preston and Mason is foregrounded, with the violence by the boys played as a secondary theme. That’s the problem, for me, because the nature of this violence is the driving force of the story but is not clarified until the last few minutes. We spend tons of time on Mason’s personal disintegration, but only touch on the reason for the alarming increase in student violence, which leads to confusion–are the boys…possessed? Or is this a LORD OF THE FLIES-like spin on boys being (evil) boys?
Marlon Brando was originally going to play the Preston role but bailed, leading to a lawsuit. No rational person could think Robert Preston is an adequate substitution for Marlon Brando. Being a Sidney Lumet movie, the acting is going to be of a certain level. I’m not a Lumet fan, but he’s never less than competent, with an eye for Method acting quality. You aren’t going to find BAD acting in a Lumet movie. But you’re not always going to find Brando, either.
Beau Bridges’ role could have been folded into one of the priests. It’s Preston’s and Mason’s show, and they do a good job holding the screen. The whole movie is
The photography and music emphasize darkness and an eerie mood in this creepy school. You wouldn’t want to be hanging out in these corridors after dark.
CHILD’S PLAY is an oddity, a mainstream drama that uses aspects of the supernatural horror movie to tell a story about teachers and their battle for the souls of their students. It’s not a subtle supernatural movie like THE LAST WAVE, but a drama with a horror flavor.