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Having failed to make any kind of impression upon its
initial release, the 1973 thriller THE BABY would be just another forgotten
movie if it wasn’t so very, very odd. The director, Ted Post, was best-known
for helming mediocre second installments of two famous franchises, namely
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and MAGNUM FORCE, the first sequel to DIRTY
Post’s cinematic style must have seemed dated even at the
time, with static compositions and the kind of impersonal staginess that made
even his most expensive films look like TV movies. Yet that quality is exactly
why THE BABY seems so bizarre; if this were played as high camp or noxious
sleaze, it would make sense. Instead, we’re given a movie that looks and sounds
as plain and square as an Afterschool Special, one that just happens to feature
the perverse, sordid story of a family of women caring for a mentally deficient
adult man as if he were still a defenseless baby. It’s the kind of flick that
begs viewers to ask, “Did anyone making this movie realize how weird it is?”
Recently issued on its second DVD edition by Severin Films,
THE BABY draws its inspiration from a true story. Apparently, once upon a time,
an adult woman was claimed as a baby in order for a family to collect welfare.
This was extrapolated by screenwriter Abe Polsky into sadistic matriarch Mrs.
Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) destroying the lives of anyone who gets between her and
her son Baby (David Mooney, credited as David Manzy), a full-grown man who
spends his days in a crib, fussing and crying but never speaking, acting like a
normal, healthy infant but looking like a sensitive actor fresh from a touring
company of GODSPELL. When social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) suggests
to Mrs. Wadsworth that Baby could possibly be given some special education and
develop mentally, Mrs. Wadsworth narrows her eyes and fumes that “I’ve raised
three children and believe me, I ought to know what’s best for my own child.”
Sounds like an average day at the movies, right?
Scene after scene of THE BABY plays out with inexplicable
unpredictability. The social worker attempts to tell her superiors several
times that someone needs to intervene on the Wadsworth family’s situation, and
she is rebuked several times on the basis that she is spending too much time on
the case. What? Why is a social worker having such a difficult time gaining the
necessary assistance to prevent systematic abuse? Before you can dwell too long
on that question, the film forces you to consider a pretty young babysitter
(Erin O’Reilly), who is left alone with Baby and allows him to suckle her
breasts in such a sweet, unassuming way that you can’t tell if we’re supposed
to be sympathetic to her or not.
It would help if Baby’s condition was ever fully explained
to the audience. Is he mentally challenged? Is his condition purely
psychological? Are we supposed to support the babysitter’s choice to treat Baby
as an adult, or is she nursing him in an attempt to go along with the premise
that this man has the needs of an infant? When caught in the act by Mrs.
Wadsworth and her two daughters, the three women beat the babysitter
sadistically and “punish” Baby with an electric cattle prod. By the end of the
sequence, the audience is completely confused. Even filmgoers in love with
moral ambiguity will watch THE BABY and scream at the screen, “What the hell am
I supposed to be feeling here?”
While expert character actress Roman brings honesty and
conviction to the fuming Mrs. Wadsworth, Baby’s sisters nearly push the film to
MOMMIE DEAREST levels of hilarious melodrama. The pigtailed Alba is played by
Suzanne Zenor, who was almost famous once as the girl Suzanne Somers replaced
on THREE’S COMPANY (legend says you can still see her in the distant beach shot
of that show’s opening credits) and she’s a hoot in THE BABY, resembling a
sexed-up caricature of a farmer’s daughter and delivering every line in a tone
of barely suppressed rage.
Her sibling Germaine is played by Marianna Hill (remember
her from THE GODFATHER, PART 2? She’s Fredo’s embarrassing new wife who gets
thrown out of the Corleones’ party for making a scene), who for the length of
the film basically just glides around looking seriously mentally ill. No,
really, something about the woman’s piercing eyes, toothy smile and crazy mane
of hair makes you think, “She could not look any crazier if she tried.” Then
she shows up in a party scene covered in makeup, her hair in a shock of curls,
and she looks even crazier! At that same party, we get some of the movie’s only
comic relief in the form of a sleazy swinger who hits on the social worker by
humorously hinting at his desire to drug and rape her.
Speaking of the social worker, she seems like a
squeaky-clean, vanilla heroine with the best of intentions for the length of
the movie—at least before a climax that sees her burying people alive and an
ending that reveals her intentions to be a little more selfish than previously
supposed. Oh, that ending! It’s practically an M. Night Shyamalan twist, changing
our protagonist’s motivations entirely and re-explaining what already made
sense, instead of explaining any of the parts that made no damn sense.
That’s THE BABY in a nutshell: a collection of moments that
seem clear and straightforward even while they add up to “What the hell were
they thinking?!” Post brought a similarly unremarkable lens to an incendiary
subject with THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT, the movie that asked the question, “Would
high school be better if everyone was naked in class?” As for THE BABY, you
probably know by now whether or not it’s the kind of movie you’d enjoy. It
can’t be denied; there’s still an audience for oddities such as these.
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