The Baby (1973)
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"Nothing in this nursery rhymes," declared the posters for the 1973 film The Baby, a perhaps too-cute tagline that doesn't really do justice to the movie's off-kilter strangeness.
Produced independently on a low budget, but helmed by a well-known director of the time, Ted Post, The Baby has achieved cult status for its bizarre and twisted story of sadism, imprisonment, sexual perversity, and psychological anguish -- all in a movie that takes place mostly in and around placid-looking houses. The Baby is usually labeled a horror film, but it can be more accurately described as a demented, often campy, psychological thriller with elements of horror and an extreme twist ending. It plays almost as if directors John Waters and cleavage-obsessed Russ Meyer had gotten together to collaborate on a weird updating of Cinderella.
The story centers around a highly dysfunctional family: an evil mother, Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman), her two sexy, cruel daughters, Germaine and Alba (Marianna Hill and Suzanne Zenor), and her son, Baby (David Manzy). Baby is actually a twenty-something who wears diapers, sleeps in a crib, and can't walk or speak (except for baby gurgling, unrealistically dubbed in). He is kept in this infantile state by the females in his family. The mother has what is to her a very good private reason for refusing to allow Baby to develop mentally into an adult man, but she tells social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) that Baby is mentally retarded and cannot be cured. As one of the daughters explains, "Baby was born backwards. He's been that way all his life."
But Ann doesn't buy it, and spends more and more time and energy trying to get to the bottom of the Wadsworth family secret and to give Baby the life he deserves. Ann has her own issues, it's soon clear, and the events that follow are at once shocking and lurid -- as well as highly campy, thanks to on-the-nose dialogue and sometimes shrill overacting. Whether one finds it disturbing, or too ludicrous and silly to be truly unsettling, it is nothing if not unique, and one bizarre scene after another forces us to keep watching. To see one sister slip naked into Baby's crib, to see the other sister torture him with a cattle prod, and to see Ruth Roman, a fine actress of past studio films like Strangers on a Train (1951), yell "you bitch!" as she defends her crazy family, is to want to know how this yarn could possibly end.
It also makes one wonder how the movie ever got made. According to news clippings at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library, Baby writer Abe Polsky sold his script in 1968 for $10,000 to producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts, who planned to produce it for Cinema Center Films. But the movie kept getting delayed, probably because of script and casting issues due to the odd subject matter. Start dates came and went, and at one point veteran shock-master William Castle was attached to produce. But by 1972, a frustrated Polsky sought to buy back his script. Cinema Center wanted over $35,000 for it, but eventually agreed to the original sale price of $10,000. After the buyback, despite his pricing victory, Polsky blasted Cinema Center in the press. "Those idiots didn't know what they were sitting on," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "They were damn fools, and I hope to prove them wrong in spades. I hope the picture makes a bundle. I hope it's another Willard (1971)."
It wasn't. But at least Polsky managed to set The Baby up at another independent company, and in 1972 it went into production under director Ted Post. Currently (as of 2013) 94 years old, Post was at the time of The Baby an established veteran director with huge numbers of television credits. But he also worked in feature films -- indie low-budgeters as well as star-laden studio pictures like Hang 'Em High (1968) and Magnum Force (1973), the latter of which he directed very soon after The Baby. In 1978 he released one film of each type: the Chuck Norris action movie Good Guys Wear Black and the fine, low-budget Vietnam war drama Go Tell the Spartans, starring Burt Lancaster.
For the most part, however, Post chose to employ a very functional, plain style for all his work, resulting in feature films that tended to look like television. And The Baby is no exception, which is unfortunate, for some heightened style might have lent it greater weight.
The film was not reviewed by The New York Times until 1980. Critic Richard F. Shepard called it "too obvious, except in its surprise ending, to be first-rate... There's nobody to like or root for among these repellent types, not even Baby, who seems a kvetchy sort. But your imagination is challenged.... It will divert you for the moment."
Composer Gerald Fried, veteran of a wide range of work from early Stanley Kubrick films, to westerns like Trooper Hook (1957) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958), and episodes of Gilligan's Island and Star Trek, supplies a surprisingly strong string score for The Baby. For his next film as composer, the documentary feature Birds Do It, Bees Do It (1974), Fried would rack up an Oscar® nomination.
And actor Michael Pataki pops up in a very '70s party scene as a guy named Dennis, boyfriend to one of the sisters. But he also tries to seduce Ann with this classic, and very unsuccessful, exchange: Dennis: "Hi, I'd like to pay you a sincere compliment. You've got beautiful skin." Anne: "Don't tell me you're a dermatologist." Dennis: "No, just a skin freak."
Producer: Abe Polsky, Milton Polsky
Director: Ted Post
Screenplay: Abe Polsky
Cinematography: Michael D. Margulies
Film Editing: Bob Crawford Sr., Dick Wormell
Cast: Anjanette Comer (Ann Gentry), Ruth Roman (Mrs. Wadsworth), Marianna Hill (Germaine Wadsworth), Suzanne Zenor (Alba Wadsworth), Tod Andrews (Doctor), Michael Pataki (Dennis), Beatrice Manley Blau (Judith), Erin O'Reilly, Don Mallon, Joseph Bernard, Virginia Vincent, David Manzy (Baby).
By Jeremy Arnold