There is a treachery that comes with making a movie with a generic name. The trouble is that another film will invariably come along with the same title, causing confusion for fans and followers of both movies. For example, many do not realize that, before it was an Uwe Boll videogame adaptation in 2005, Alone in the Dark was an awesome Jack Sholder slasher movie in 1982. Creature was an eerie Klaus Kinski science fiction vehicle twenty-five years before it was a forgettable modern-day monster movie. And, in the early seventies, a decade and a half before the name would be co-opted by a terrifying talking Good Guy doll named Chucky, Child’s Play was a bona-fide psychological thriller directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet.
Child’s Play stars Beau Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys) as Paul Reis, a graduate of the St. Charles Catholic Boarding School who comes back to the institution to teach physical education. Upon his return, Paul finds one thing is exactly as he left it – the bitter feud between the kind and affable English teacher, Joseph Dobbs (The Music Man’s Robert Preston), and the cold and cruel Latin professor, Jerome Malley (James Mason from Lolita and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). During his orientation, Paul helps to break up a fight which badly injures the hand of a young man named Travis (Our Time’s Christopher Man). On his first day of class, Paul leaves a student named Banks (Paul O’Keefe from “The Patty Duke Show”) in charge of his class for a few minutes, and the other students beat him severely enough to cause him to lose an eye. In both cases, neither victim will point the finger of blame at the guilty boy or group of boys, keeping silent about their assailants. One thing is clear: the students seem as divided as the faculty, with the boys split between supporting either Dobbs or Malley. Paul finds himself not only trapped within the power struggle between Dobbs and Malley, but caught up in the strange and terrifying happenings surrounding the entire student body of the school.
It is an understatement to say that Sidney Lumet was an important filmmaker. As a director he was responsible for some of cinematic history’s most important films, including Network, 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. He has made musicals (The Wiz), mysteries (Murder on the Orient Express), and everything in between. Child’s Play is his foray into horror movie making. The screenplay was adapted from a play by Robert Marasco (Burnt Offerings) by Leon Prochnik (Four Eyes and Six-Guns) and, as is the case with many of Lumet’s films, the theatricality of the material is evident. Child’s Play fits right in with more iconic supernatural horror films of the seventies like The Omen and The Exorcist.
The hallmark of Lumet’s direction is his ability to coax fantastic performances out of his actors, and Child’s Play is no exception. The script is very wordy, relying on spoken exposition more often than not, but the principals are never boring when they speak; on the contrary, James Mason and Robert Preston are at such polar opposite ends of the acting spectrum that they are like fire and ice onscreen, with Beau Bridges caught in the middle. The catholic school setting and the clerical characters make the verbosity of the script almost necessary, with deep conversations that are sporadically interrupted by horrifying events. Child’s Play is a very subliminal horror film, low-key and subtle, and Lumet wouldn’t have had it any other way.
That is not to say that Child’s Play is all talk. It actually contains some extremely suspenseful and terrifying sequences. The scene where Banks is left in charge of the class is a perfect example. Right after Paul leaves, the boys slowly yet deliberately surround Banks, without a word, letting the audience know that they have been waiting for just the right time to enact their devilish plan. It’s chilling in its execution, with Lumet effectively capturing Bank’s terror in the face of the horrific gang assault. Most of the scenes with the boys are like this, and Lumet knows how to play them perfectly. Child’s Play doesn’t need ghosts or monsters to scare its audience; it does it by looking at the dark side of human nature.
An interesting side note about the cast of Child’s Play pertains to someone who is not in it; the role of Dobbs originally belonged to Marlon Brando (The Godfather). Brando backed out when he realized that James Mason’s Jerome Malley was the better role. Brando was replaced by Robert Preston, and production on Child’s Play continued.
In addition to a legendary director getting stellar performances from a first-rate cast, Child’s Play also has one of the most underappreciated scores in the horror canon. The music, written by experienced Hollywood composer Michael Small (Audrey Rose, The Stepford Wives), is a smart combination of pop-classical fare and ancient Gregorian chant that is both dramatic and eerie. The soundtrack is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen or Lalo Schifrin’s music from The Amityville Horror – childlike and sacred, extremely creepy in its innocence. The music in Child’s Play is an unsung masterpiece of horror soundtrack work.
While the newer Child’s Play is better known to popular audiences, Lumet’s masterpiece should not be overlooked. Aside from a title, the films have nothing in common. Taking nothing away from Chucky and his tongue-in-cheek franchise, Lumet’s Child’s Play is a more pure horror film and is bound to inspire many more nightmares.