Ted Post, 1973
Starring: Anjanette Comer, Tod Andrews, Marianna Hill, Ruth Roman
Social worker Ann Gentry takes on a new case with the Wadsworth family, whose adult son, only known as Baby, has never progressed past infancy. Ann soon gets the idea that Baby’s controlling mother and creepy sisters, Germaine and Alba, are keeping him from developing on purpose and she becomes determined to rescue him. At first, Mrs. Wadsworth and her daughters become angry and threatening, refusing to allow Baby to go through with testing or any psychological evaluations, but then they suddenly change their minds and invite Ann to Baby’s elaborate birthday party. But the family has other plans for Ann and hope to get her out of the picture, so they can keep Baby all to themselves…
The ‘70s was a decade full of films about evil, possessed, and disturbed children, including The Exorcist, The Omen, Who Can Kill a Child?, Alice, Sweet, Alice, It’s Alive, and more, but there is nothing – and I mean nothing – like The Baby. This is a rare film that is horrifying without being gory, violent, or concerned with the supernatural. Of course, there is some pretty lurid subject matter, as the titular is an adult baby unable to walk, feed himself, or go to the bathroom without a diaper. There is plenty of additional insanity on display, including infantilism, sibling rape, torture with a cattle prod, a hint of lesbianism, and more. Though I would classify it as a horror film, The Baby has definite elements of exploitation. This feels like a darker Russ Meyer film without the nudity (and enormous tits), or like a John Waters film with more horror elements and a bigger budget. For example, Pink Flamingoes, a film about a different kind of demented family, came out the year before this.
The film certainly benefits from taking itself seriously and from a series of strong central performances. Anjanette Comer (The Night of a Thousand Cats) is likable as the well-meaning social worker with a tragic past and an air of undeniable sadness that perhaps makes her actions understandable, or at least somewhat easier to sympathize with. Marianna Hill (High Plains Drifter, Messiah of Evil) and Susanne Zenor are perfect as Baby’s two older sisters. Hill in particular gives off a vibe of absolute insanity and sexual frenzy buried very shallowly beneath the surface, though Zenor is also not to be outdone.
The real star here could have been Ruth Roman (Strangers on a Train), whose performance as Mrs. Wadsworth hints back to Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Unfortunately Roman is never really permitted to go fully off the rails, which would likely have driven this film over the line of obscurity and into real cult classic status. The unforgettable Michael Pataki (Grave of the Vampire) has an appearance as a party goer interested in Ann who won’t take no for an answer. I wish he was given a bigger role in the film, but outside of David Manzy’s Baby, this is a largely female cast.
Manzy is excellent as Baby, though acts more like a toddler or a puppy than an actual baby. Still, he’s convincingly creepy. Allegedly David Manzy made his own baby sounds, but these were later dubbed over by a real baby’s cries. I think it would have been creepier to leave Manzy’s voice in or, better yet, Manzy on helium. After the recent video of a different take on the famous Blue Velvet scene where Frank uses an inhaler (now with helium), I can think of nothing more terrifying.
There is so much more happening here that I can’t really cram into a review of normal length: an unpredictable, twist ending that I’m not going to ruin, a ‘70s disco party that should feel out of place, but doesn’t, and a scene where the sexually frustrated, young babysitter allows Baby to suck on her nipple. Pleasantly – or disturbingly – unpredictable, the only other film that I can really compare The Baby to is Jack Hill’s even more insane Spider Baby.
Director Ted Post (known for television, particularly episodes of The Twilight Zone, Magnum Force, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, etc.) does a solid, if serviceable job here. As I said earlier, his deadpan, serious treatment of the material helps the film go a long way towards being uncomfortable, gruesome, and sometimes downright scary. Another major bonus is the wild and varied score from Gerald Fried (The Killing) with some absolutely bonkers, carnivalesque moments. As with the disco birthday party, it is another element of the film that should not work, but does anyway.
The Baby is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix. It is not recommended for the faint of heart or sexually squeamish, but it is essential viewing for any fan of ‘70s horror or cult cinema. You’ve been warned.