“Once trust is gone, it’s gone…”
The leader of any cult must inspire love, but also create an enemy powerful enough to bind the group together. However, once violence is nurtured and unleashed, many leaders have found they can’t just put it back in the box.
In Sidney Lumet’s chilling psychological drama “Child’s Play’ (1972) the cult-like fervour is not borne from religious idolatry, but a far more human enemy. We do not see the seeds being planted, but enter the game as it nears the resolution – the destruction of a hated teacher, where everyone involved is the victim.
St Charles is a church-run private boys school where a series of increasingly violent attacks reveal the layers of bullying that grow out of devotion. Ex-pupil Paul Reis (Beau Bridges) arrives at the school to teach PE, returning to the golden age of his youth, where his mentor still remains – much-loved English teacher Joe Dobbs (Robert Preston).
If Dobbs is a hero to the children, then Jerome Malley (James Mason) is the villain – a strict, old-fashioned Latin teacher against Dobbs relatively youthful hipster. The long-gestating feud between the two men develops into a battle of good and evil for youthful souls, with Paul the nominal innocent hero caught inbetween, trying to figure out which side is right.
The pupils appear to willingly accept punishment if anyone is favoured by Malley, no matter how traumatic. A gym battle results in one losing their eye, but refusing to reveal how or why the violence escalated when questioned. The cult-like obedience reveals a darker force corrupting the innards of the school.
Sidney Lumet was most famous for his strong crime dramas (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), but directed brilliant work across all genres. He was a real actor’s director, insisting on a pre-shoot rehearsal period to really hone the performances and adapted a large number of plays with great success (12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Equus).
If Child’s Play is a relatively minor work, it is because of the stunning number of bona fide masterpieces in his oeuvre. He frames the small cast in simple dynamic arrangements that transcend the theatrical source. This is mainly a chamber piece between the faculty – the boys are relatively faceless – an often silent, malevolent presence primed to explode.
The Grand Guignol setting of the eerie school corridors prepare the audience for a horror movie, hinting at a possible supernatural explanation for the madness seemingly overtaking the school. The comparatively mundane reveal is far more disturbing.
As in real life, evil is all too human.