Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Mason, Robert Preston, Beau Bridges, Ron Weyand, Charles White, David Rounds, Kate Harrington, Jamie Alexander, Brian Chapin, Bryant Fraser, Mark Hall Haefeli, Tom Leopold, Julius Lo Iacono, Christopher Man, Paul O'Keefe
Written by: Leon Prochnik, based on a play by Robert Marasco
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 100
Date: 12/12/1972

Child's Play (1972)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Slaughter School

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sidney Lumet was one of the most dependable of Hollywood directors, good with actors, and willing to take chances every so often with his material. He began directing live television in the 1950s and brought that kind of energy to all his subsequent film projects, starting in 1957 with the impressive debut 12 Angry Men and ending fifty years later with the equally impressive Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. In-between, Lumet made a lot of films that, even if they had interesting parts, just weren't that good. Child's Play is one of them.

Based on a play by Robert Marasco, Child's Play takes place at an elite boys' school. Jerome Malley (James Mason) is the much-loathed Latin teacher, and Joseph Dobbs (Robert Preston) is the much-loved poetry teacher. This year, strange things have begun to happen. The boys have begun to fight quite a bit more often than usual, and the fighting leads to more serious injuries. Meanwhile, Jerome has begun to receive threatening letters and phone calls at home, which disturbs his ailing mother. Jerome thinks Joseph is behind the threats, but it seems as if Jerome is just delusional.

Into this tangled web comes a new gym teacher, who was a former student at the school. Paul Reis (Beau Bridges) does his best to make peace with everyone, but soon finds himself stuck in the midst of this bizarre, ever-escalating psychological and physical violence.

At first it seems as if something supernatural is going on here, like some kind of mass demon possession, but it's not quite that simple, or rational. The story's buildup and suspense is based on very little, with only one possible twist. So, meanwhile, Lumet is forced to focus on intense scenes of acting between the three main characters, which he sustains as best as he can for a long 100 minutes. He has three very good actors, and their different styles -- Mason's elegance, Preston's camp, and Bridges' good-guy nature -- bounce off of one another quite well, but it all goes downhill before it builds to anything.

Nevertheless, Olive Films has rescued this one from obscurity and made one more step toward completing Lumet's long and impressive filmography on DVD. Their Blu-ray looks striking, emphasizing the film's deliberately drab colors. There are no extras. (Note: Not to be confused with the "Chucky" films, also called Child's Play.)

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