Pros: Certainly unique and very offbeat
Cons: Kinda dull at times
A genuine oddity from the early 1970s that plays in a somewhat similar manner to director Jack Hill’s 1964 Spider-Baby, 1973’s The Baby follows the story of a young, seemingly idealistic social worker named Ann Gentry who’s given the unenviable assignment of handling the case involving the Wadsworth family. Though this family seems average enough – made up of a single mother and her three children (two daughters, one son) who live in a rather large but somewhat decrepit mansion – the Wadsworths are in actuality far from normal. Their son you see, a twenty-one year old fully grown man, has been diagnosed as being mentally retarded and has lived his entire live as one would expect a nine-month old child to. He sleeps in a crib, tootles around in diapers, and is more or less taken care of and sheltered by his overprotective (and quite possibly looney) sisters and mother. Ann’s main goal throughout the story is to rescue the boy (called, simply, “Baby”) from his family, who she views as having caused his condition through the use of negative reinforcement. As might be expected, her efforts to improve Baby’s life are met with resistance from Mrs. Wadsworth and her two daughters – surly but ditzy blonde Alma and more devious Germaine.
What are social worker Ann’s real intentions in helping Baby?
Directed by Ted Post (who had an up and down career in television and feature films) and written by Abe Polsky, The Baby plays as a sort of deranged drama dealing with a “pretty strange family.” The atmosphere of the piece most often positions the Wadsworth’s as being the villains of the piece, while Ann seems to be the upstanding “white knight” trying to save Baby from his hideous surroundings. This film certainly presents a view at a different time period when the mentally handicapped were seen by most as having extremely limited (if any) potential to have a place of their own in society. The early 1970s as captured in the film clearly wasn’t the era of occupational training or the Special Olympics as it were, but Ann seems to think that with some specialized care, Baby could more or less integrate into society – which definitely was a noble idea at the time. Throughout the film though, a viewer gets the sense that Ann (who we’re told is married, yet her husband never is nowhere to be found) has some issues of her own – she’s living in a rather lavish mansion with her creepy mother-in-law, constantly undertaking a rather extensive construction project in the backyard. Could it be that she has her own, more diabolical motives for helping Baby?
Over the years, this film has picked up quite a reputation as a definitive cult effort, and in some regards it does deserve that recognition. Right from the opening moments which make it clear that Baby’s voice/squeals/crying have been dubbed over using the sounds of actual young children and definitely aren’t coming from the mouth of actor David Mooney, this film is extremely loopy. The diaper-clad character is seen crawling around the sets, twittering instinctively as if his nervous system hasn’t fully developed. He also frequently breaks out into a full-on temper tantrum of sorts for one reason or another and (in one particularly bonkers moment) attempts to suckle at the breast of his babysitter, much to the dismay of his mother. Furthermore, when you’ve got scenes where Alma and Germaine “punish” Baby by using an electric cattle prod – or one when a nude Germaine sneaks into Baby’s crib late at night to do who knows what – it’s clear that this film operates well off the beaten path. I’ve also got to hand it to the film for throwing in a hilarious ‘70s dance party scene in which a scumbag, self-proclaimed “skin freak” (who is easily the shadiest character in a film that’s overflowing with them) attempts to put the moves on any woman in sight. Just watch out for the freaky Alma, who has her own ideas of what constitutes a “good time…”
A showdown straight out of a western between Ann and the Wadsworth’s…
All this said, I found this film to be rather tame considering its reputation – much of the picture is formulaic and predictable as it focuses on Ann’s efforts to win over the Wadsworth family. Still, there’s always the question of whether Ann can really be trusted at all: in an “off the deep end” screwy flick like this, her clean-cut image seems a little too convenient. By the end of the film (which is more suspense/horror oriented), an audience would be left wondering who – if anyone – we’re supposed to be rooting for here. Ultimately, the way the narrative toys around with and juggles character motivations results in some moments of confusion, though I think this is a benefit to the picture considering its offbeat nature.
Though this film very much looks like the low budget effort is really is (special effects are almost non-existent and pretty awful when they do show up; sets are occasionally quite barren), the cast of actors make the film amusing and fun. Anjanette Comer plays social worker Ann who has a wide-eyed fascination with the Wadsworth Baby – the question is why she is so enamored with him. The raspy-voiced Ruth Roman plays Mrs. Wadsworth and is given several moments in which she very nearly becomes a film noir styled “dangerous female” – check out the tight pants/open blouse outfit she wears during some of her furious “…you bitch!…” monologues. Marianna Hill (occasionally sporting one of the most eye-popping “big” hairdos I’ve seen in a while) and the plucky Susanne Zenor play the Wadsworth daughters, both of whom have some noticeable eccentricities. Undoubtedly, the “villain” characters in this film (given some howlingly good/bad dialogue by writer Polsky) are the most intriguing and captivating, though David Mooney does about steal the show as Baby. Probably the performance I liked the most was long-time character actor Michael Pataki in a limited role as Dennis, the quintessential lounge lizard trolling Baby’s dance freakout birthday party. Pataki is sleazy to the extreme and enjoyable to watch as layers on the ham and cheese.
Uh-oh! Someone needs their diaper changed…
Ted Post’s direction in the picture does its job but isn’t anything to write home about from a director known for more action-oriented pictures (such as the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Hang ‘em High). I rather liked Gerald Fried’s music score, which often uses droning and moaning low-pitched string arrangements to add gloomy mood to the picture, but Michael D. Margulies’ ho-hum cinematography perfectly demonstrates why he has frequently found work in television movies rather than feature films. Overall, The Baby (which, at best, might be called a minor psychological thriller) fairly often seems lackadaisical and kinda dull, which is rather unfortunate given that it doesn’t even hit the 90 minute mark in length. It’s probably one that fans of cult movies -particularly those from the 1970s – would want to check out simply since it is so damn strange and wacky, but I’d really only give it a moderate recommendation. There are better films out there.
2011 DVD release from Severin Films looks and sounds decent, with a pair of short interviews with director Ted Post and Baby himself, David Mooney. The widescreen format of the disc is somewhat problematic however given that this film was originally shot full-frame (Image’s earlier DVD release preserves this original aspect ratio and may actually be preferable to the more recent release).
4/10 : A few relatively brief moments of violence and gore, but some pretty substantial weirdness going on in this film. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t given a PG-13 (as opposed to the original PG rating) if it was released today.
3/10 : Mrs. Wadsworth has the tendency to call most everyone around her a “witch” with a “B” (in that glorious “I smoke three packs a day” voice of hers), but that’s about the extent of the profanity here.
3/10 : Some implied sexual encounters and innuendo, but only brief onscreen “make out” sessions and no nudity. Susanne Zenor looks great however as she threatens to bust out of her tight top.
9/10 : One weird little movie that would almost be a must for cult film fans – even if the flick isn’t that great by any standard.
Nothing can overpower a monster’s love: “Nothing’s that important…when it comes to Baby I do all the thinkin’”
Trailer: (WARNING – possibly NSFW due to weirdness!)