One of many early '70s chillers cranked out by the studios in the wake of Rosemary's Baby, Child's Play charts the nasty tension erupting at a Catholic boys' school between two of its firmly entrenched teachers. English instructor Joe Dobbs (Preston) is genial and beloved by most of the students past and present including Paul (Bridges), a student from ten years ago now returned to teach gym. Meanwhile the older Jerome Malley (Mason), who is crumbling under the strain of caring for his dying mother, strikes fear into the kids with his strict Latin lessons and is being subjected to prank phone calls and porn magazines mailed to his home. There's something wrong with the boys, too, who are first seen drawing blood from one of their number in bed and smearing a cross on his forehead. Another kid gets beaten up on the basketball court and has one of his eyes torn apart, while a third is bloodied and trussed up in the chapel where a Jesus statue once stood. Who, or what, is behind all this evil mayhem?
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Child's Play is the fact that it's the only horror film (sort of) directed by Sidney Lumet, a disciple of the Golden Age of Television who'd just come off the bizarre triple header of The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, and The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots. In fact, this film marks the close of his "arty" period before he went into his most famous crime mode with Serpico the next year, followed by Murder on the Orient Express and Dog Day Afternoon. So where does this one fit in? That's tough to say, but it's fascinating to watch three very different lead actors bounce against each other.
Mason's often sinister brand of urbane charm is the biggest asset here, as a viewer's normal tendency to peg him as the villain gets thrown into doubt every few minutes. Meanwhile Preston, best known as the charming con man Harold Hill from The Music Man, is an interest last-minute replacement for Marlon Brando. The ambiguity of his role would be a tough sell for any actor, and apart from a peculiar closing scene that's maybe a shade too nebulous for its own good, he walks a fine tightrope here between paternal compassion and possibly dangerous manipulation. That leaves Bridges, a rising star at the time who basically has to look befuddled for most of the running time. One of the real unsung stars here is actually composer Michael Small, delivering a genuinely scary score in a similar mode to his acclaimed work two years before on Klute. Thanks to his subdued but hair-raising compositions, even a simple shot of students standing in a doorway can make a viewer feel deeply uneasy.
Not surprisingly, Child's Play (which has no connection to the later Chucky films) was based on a stage play, in this case a Tony-winning work by Robert Marasco (author of the excellent novel Burnt Offerings), which originally featured Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle, and Ken Howard. That would have made for a very different film, obviously, but what we have is an effective, oddly haunting little thriller released in the final hours before The Exorcist changed the game completely. Despite its pedigree, the film was never released on home video before the Olive Films release and repeatedly popped up on critics' and viewers' most wanted lists. Even TV airings were exceedingly rare, with dupey copies passed around among fans who'd been unsettled by this film during one of its infrequent appearances.
Thankfully the Blu-Ray version in particular proved to be worth the wait, as it's quite a beauty. The elements have been kept in excellent shape over the years, and the film's essential balance of light and shadow is rendered intact with an accurate transfer featuring deep, inky blacks and an accurate rendition of the original color schemes (including some brief but potent bursts of the color red at key moments). There doesn't appear to be any significant image processing at work here, as the film grain looks moderate but natural and a few fleeting flecks appear here and there. The 1.78:1 framing looks satisfying as well, adding slightly to the sides compared to the open matte versions shown on TV while losing some extraneous room at the top to balance out the compositions more accurately. A fascinating and often weirdly disturbing film finally rescued from oblivion, and definitely recommended to horror fans who like their scares on the smart side.