Creepy kids, am I right? The horror landscape has been littered with them as far back as The Bad Seed (1956). Every once in awhile TV too would trot out the killer tots in hopes of alluring viewers with no-good imps and smiling, murderous waifs. One such early effort is A Little Game (1971), an ABC Movie of the Week thriller that leans heavily on the psychology behind stepparent-child relations.
Originally broadcast on Saturday, October 30th, A Little Game faced off against the Top Ten rated The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS and the NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, but held its own due to the already strong ABC brand. The TV movie at this point was a staple of their network, and A Little Game adds the luster it was accumulating.
Let’s open our faux TV GUIDE and see what mischief the little brat is up to:
A LITTLE GAME (Sat, 8:30pm, ABC)
A stepfather has his suspicions that his stepson killed someone while away at military school. Ed Nelson, Diane Baker star.
Robert (Mark Gruner – Jaws 2) is an adolescent boy heading home for the Christmas holiday from military school, and he’s brought with him his friend Stu (Christopher Shea – the voice of Linus in the ‘60s Charlie Brown efforts). They’re greeted at the airport by Robert’s mom Elaine (Baker – The Silence of the Lambs) and his stepdad Paul (Nelson – The Boneyard), who it’s made very clear he holds no affinity for whatsoever.
Between aggressively bossing around Stu and barking at Paul, Robert inadvertently leaves clues for his stepdad that he may have killed a fellow student back at the academy. Paul enlists the help of a reluctant private eye (Howard Duff – Monster in the Closet) to ascertain if there’s any truth to the whispered talk between Robert and Stu. Meanwhile, tensions escalate between Paul and Robert, as the two generations fight for the role of alpha male in the Hamilton household. Who will be left standing, and who will be left for dead?
A Little Game is definitely tell, don’t show; that’s not a bad thing in this case as the “tell” is quite gripping in a way that the “show” could never be. Which is to say that the small screen is more welcoming to the word than images, at least on a limited budget; and certainly with this intimate tale the words are what matter most. The telefilm does build to a (relatively) lively climax, but until then it’s merely words of manipulation and abuse.
It’s the psychology of the piece that hits home, certainly for me. As a stepparent, you try to balance the scale between friend and parent, between bonding and discipline. In Robert’s case, he has an inflated sense of what his father was like before he died in a car accident; at every turn he demeans Paul and compares him unfavorably to his late father. Even as Paul starts to see cracks in Robert’s adolescent armor, through lies and mistrust, he still feels compelled to connect with him for the sake of the family, even if he is an insolent little shit. (And he really is.)
This is all for the benefit of the matriarch, naturally, as both are essentially vying for her affections from different angles; Paul through common sense and a sober lens for her to see what Robert is really like, and he in turn tries to buy his mom’s through theatre tickets and flowers. But the advantage is Robert’s, as he toys with her emotions and plays on her vulnerability and maternal instincts. Side note: the kid will always win.
But most kids are only looking for extra quality time or sparkly trinkets (I guess? I don’t think I’ve ever bought trinkets); Robert however, wields and manipulates with a much loftier goal in mind – the eradication of his stepdad. There’s really no quarter with this kid. Paul, however, proves to be a worthy opponent for the tyke and sees through his lies and ruses.
And this is where the story shines; the two jockey for position at the head of the table, and they have a couple of scenes alone that allows both Nelson and Gruner to really shine. The whole cast acquits themselves quite well actually; Baker’s sympathetic turn as the mother torn between her flesh and blood and her betrothed has a hint of subtle melancholy that show the unenvious position she’s put in thanks to Carol Sobieski (Fried Green Tomatoes)’s surprisingly thoughtful script.
Here, “surprisingly” is not a dismissal of the form, but rather an admission that the setup is there for the Evil Kid sub-genre; that Sobieski and director Paul Wendkos (The Mephisto Waltz) manage to almost side step that completely and still be riveting is kind of a small screen miracle, and one that shouldn’t be dismissed. Or missed.