Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Child's Play" is menacing -- building suspense to the finish

Cleveland Press January 27, 1973

The test of a suspense drama is how well it grips it s audience, transmits its feeling of alarm, of tension. Even if there is less there than meets the eye, if it creates the illusion then it is a success.

"Child's Play" comes on strong with its feeling of something ominous, of a pervading sense of evil and for most of its 100-minute length it manages to maintain that notion of undefined menace.

The movie is based on Robert Marasco's successful stage play, adapted and slightly over-written by Leon Prochnik and ingeniously directed by Sydney Lumet.

The setting Is St. Charles, a Catholic boarding school for boys. The strange playing the boys are engaged in is hardly childish however. For some unknown reason they are attacking each other, silently closing in on some chosen victim, hurting him, even maiming him. Strangest of all, the victim doesn't fight back.

Into this setting comes Paul Reis (Beau Bridges), a young alumnus returning as gym teacher. The immediate conflict he walks in on is not that of the boys vs. each other but of the one between Jerome Malley (James Mason), the aging, unpopular Latin teacher, and Joe Dobbs, the popular English instructor.

Malley is something of a martinet, a stern disciplinarian but a scholar. Dobbs is hail-fellow-well-met, a friend of "his boys."

Malley is seemingly paranoid, claiming to be the victim of strange phone calls and obscene mail. For these he blames Dobbs.

Parallel to this specific clash is the less specific malevolence that mounts in the shadowy corridors of the school -- the terrorism, the fights that erupt and finally the maiming that causes the headmaster to close off the school during off-hours and finally to close the school completely.

Marasco's play was about the transmission of an evil force that caused innocents to run amok. Left deliberately vague the solution was acceptable while watching the play and held under its spell.

Screenwriter Prochnik has chosen to be more specific, to spell out a solution, to enumerate specific items that would single out victims.

While this may satisfy those who want concrete answers to their puzzles, it tends to have a tacked-on quality in a play that purposely deals with moral ambiguities.

While the play implied much, the movie tries to say it all. Thus a purposely vague ending worked within its own logic while a more specific conclusion in the movie tends to be a trifle more incredulous.

Both play and movie are strong in its dealing with notions of evil set against a religious background, of suggesting the thin line that divides total love and total hate and the danger in demanding one at the risk of incurring the other.

Few actors can play tortured souls with the skill of James Mason. Given his best role in years this fine performer plays it for all it is worth, a perfect portrait of anguish and suffering, of rigidity suddenly collapsing.

Preston is excellent in the role of a seemingly friendly man, a veneer that covers an underlay of hate. Bridges is saddled with the role of a not-so-bright person who stumbles onto solutions and he does all that can be done with it.

There are fine bits by Ron Weyand as Father Mozian, the headmaster, and David Round s as Father Penny, a sometimes tippling priest who breaks into a soft-shoe dance because " never knows where liturgical reform may lead."

It is director Lumet who makes it all succeed as he concentrates on the strange and murky shadows, the flickering candles, the suggestion of something about to happen. The mood is reinforced by liturgical sounding music as the suspense in certain seen mount.