The Film: The Baby (1973)
The Principals: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor, David Manzy. Directed by Ted Post. Written by Abe Polsky.
The Premise: Ann Gentry (Comer) is a kindly social worker whose life is still reeling from her husband’s terrible car crash when she takes on a new case — the Wadsworth family. The Wadsworth household is run by a hard-nosed matriarch, Mrs. Wadsworth (Roman), who lives with her two adult daughters, Germaine and Alba (Hill and Zenor), and her only son, Baby (Manzy). Baby is a special needs child. He can’t walk or speak, just crawl and goo-goo and ga-ga. Which would be normal if Baby weren’t in his twenties. Ann takes an increasingly obsessive interest in Baby when she starts to suspect that his condition may be a case of nurture, not nature. In other words, the Wadsworths have made him this way.
Is It Good: The Baby is a weird ass movie. Not stylistically weird (no Lynch). Not campy weird (no Waters). Not even gonzo weird. Just quietly bizarre. Its true weirdness lies in how not weird it actually is. If Baby weren’t a full-grown man, most of the movie would seem relatively normal (if a bit B-movie bristly). But Baby is a full-grown man. That’s the gimmick. It is the non-sensational approach to this sensational idea that makes the film feel as truly off (in a good way) as it does. This was an incredibly strange project choice for director Ted Post, especially considering it was done between his two biggest films, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Magnum Force (aka, Dirty Harry II). Not that either of those films are archetypal examples of cinematic normalcy, but they were both sequels to huge mainstream hits. Post is far from an auteur, but making something like The Baby during this phase certainly paints Post as a more interesting filmmaker than his filmography otherwise conveys.
The weakest aspect of the film is the cast. Anjanette Comer does not make the best protagonist. She isn’t a bad actress, but her performance doesn’t really start to click until midway through the movie, and while that is better than nothing obviously it isn’t ideal for any movie. Most of the cast has that B-movie greenness you simply need to accept to watch the film, but David Manzy as Baby tries one’s patience most heavily. His performance, which at times boarders on an SNL sketch level of acting, needs to be tolerated for the movie to work. There is nothing believable about his Baby; right down to the actual baby noises that are dubbed in for him. So you’ll either find this part of the film’s off-kilter charm, or it will be the source of its So-Bad-It’s-Good quality. This is unfortunate, because the presence of Ruth Roman as Mrs. Wadsworth demonstrates that there is a real movie happening here. Roman is fantastic in the film, giving Mrs. Wadsworth a believable balance of heinous malice and pathetic relatability. She is the heart of the film and every time she is on camera The Baby feels legit, and much more than just a B-movie succeeding purely because of its batshit premise. The other standout performance is Michael Pataki in the minor but memorable role of Dennis, an obnoxious and pervy guest at Baby’s birthday party/Wadsworth boozefest, who takes a special interest in Ann.
The Baby very easily could have been more exploitative. And it may have achieved a firmer place in cult film history if it had. It could have pushed Baby’s abuse farther, or gone total softcore with a scene revealing that one of Baby’s sisters visits his crib at night. There certainly are moments that go for OMG exploitation, like when Baby’s babysitter somehow finds herself allowing Baby to mime breast-feeding on her. Yet, there is no nudity here. Post plays it purely as a plot point, and not an excuse for gratuitous close-ups of tittie sucking. This sort of approach risks watering down the “appealing” aspects of the film, but these are the areas that make The Baby work for me. I don’t want the Troma version of this concept. My only complaint is that the concept could have been pushed into different directions further. In a sense, we only get to dabble in the ideas presented to us, and at 84 minutes the movie dives into its climax just as it is getting really interesting. But it has a killer climax and a resolution that takes the film’s batshit concept and turns it up to 11.
Is It Worth A Look: The Baby will only be palatable to a certain sort of viewer. Those looking for something extremely silly and ridiculous will walk away disappointed. As I said, the film’s true absurdity lies in its relaxed approach to the material. And though the film inevitably is categorized as a “horror movie,” those looking for kills or gore will be even more disappointed. Baby doesn’t go around stabbing people. Neither does Mrs. Wadsworth. This isn’t a Slasher flick. Things get vicious right at the end, but if you’re after blood you likely won’t enjoy waiting for it.