James Mason and Robert Preston chew up the scenary in this bizarre, forgotten thriller from 1972, directed by Sidney Lumet, that Netflix happened to recommend to me this evening. It tells the story of two warring teachers at a Catholic all-boys school, with one (Mason) accusing the other (Preston) of trying to drive him out by tormenting his ill mother with sick phone calls, sending him pornography, and turning the boys and the other teachers against him. Into this mayhem comes Beau Bridges, playing one of Preston’s former students, who returns to the school as a teacher and slowly but surely tries to decipher the truth from the lies. Meanwhile, the audience is left wondering quite what this has to do with the pupils of the school turning against each other in ever more serious incidents of physical violence.
Historically, it fits within a decade-long cycle of films with similar themes such as If; Unwin, Wittering and Zigo; The Devil’s Playground; and Absolution. Absolution is the worst of that bunch (although worth seeing for having Richard Burton starring alongside Billy Connolly!), but it at least remains a diverting and entertaining thriller. The same can’t be said for Child’s Play. For all Lumet’s credentials, and the starry cast, this is a leaden mess of a film which, while intriguing, is also ridiculously dull for long stretches. It’s simply not as shocking, mysterious, thrilling or chilling as it could and should be – and ends up as a cross between Village of the Damned and a poison pen mystery with Miss Marple.
Much of the problem here seems to lie in the film’s stage origins. I happen to know the play quite well, having thought about mounting an amateur production at one point, and it has to be said that it works much better as a stage play. Lumet simply fails to pull apart the long sequences with one setting to make it more filmic, and the violence that might be shocking on stage simply isn’t when translated to film. The violent set-pieces amongst the pupils could have been unnerving, perverse, hallucinatory experiences, but they simply aren’t. Ultimately, the film fails most in its conclusion – unanswered questions seem more fitting for a stage play, but here there are just too many loose ends that don’t add up.
Robert Preston overacts like hell from start to finish, although Mason does his best with the material and the direction he has(n’t) been given. In the end, it’s an interesting failure, that it’s nice to see being made available again – but it also makes one yearn for a DVD of the superb Unwin, Wittering and Zigo to show just how good this kind of narrative can actually be.