Sandwiched between the groovy Sixties and the go-go Eighties, the Seventies—the decade when the detritus of the countercultural revolution washed ashore and was picked up by bored suburbanites—teemed with pop-culture horrors, from white afros and doormat-sized sideburns to deracinated disco, baby-blue eye shadow, pimp chic, candy-scented lip gloss, and sticky-lipped Penthouse Pets.
But the Seventies also spawned some of the most discomfiting exploitation movies in living memory, including game-changing provocations like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (71), Sisters (73), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Emmanuelle (74), Shivers (75), Halloween (78), and Caligula (79). And those are just the movies everyone remembers. Lost in the shuffle were creepy little mind-warps like Deathdream (72), Daughters of Darkness (71), Messiah of Evil (73), and The Baby (73).
A bizarre drama of family dysfunction, The Baby was one of three theatrical features directed by Ted Post and released that year—the other two being Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force and The Harrad Experiment, based on a once-controversial best seller about what happens when attractive college students are placed in coed dorm rooms (take a guess). You don’t see range and volume like that today, and it was dying out then. But Post, who broke into directing in 1950, managed to build a résumé that could have belonged to a golden-age Hollywood journeyman like Michael Curtiz, who in 1935 knocked out a labor drama, a workplace romance, and an action picture in rapid succession, along with a Perry Mason programmer, a gangster comedy, and part of an Al Jolson–Ruby Keeler backstage musical that somehow burned through three directors. The difference is that Post got his start churning out formulaic genre stories for television—that, and the fact that no Casablanca or Mildred Pierce ever crossed his desk.
Still, 40 years of distance has done wonders for The Baby. Long before it gets around to justifying the horror label its ad campaign embraced, the movie is so stupefyingly offensive to 21st-century sensibilities that it looks as suggestively out of time as those ancient artifacts that appear to depict astronauts and flying saucers. It delivers a steady stream of dialogue and situations so un-PC as to stun anyone too young to remember a time when cracking jokes about hiring the handicapped because they’re fun to watch and using terms like “retarded” and “mental case” wasn’t the fast track to mandatory sensitivity training. Say this for the film’s screenwriter, Abe Polsky: he wasn’t afraid to rush in where the genteel feared to tread, having also co-written The Gay Deceivers (69), in which two pals try to dodge the draft by pretending to be queer lovers.
The calm, reasonable eye of The Baby’s storm of pathology (initially) is social worker Ann Gentry (Sixties starlet Anjanette Comer, whose promising career foundered on personal problems). Ann is a compassionate and dedicated professional who goes far beyond the call of duty to assist the Wadsworth family, which comprises a fiftyish widow (Hollywood workhorse Ruth Roman, Farley Granger’s to-the-manner-born fiancée in Strangers on a Train); her underemployed sexpot adult daughters, Alba (Susanne Zenor) and Germaine (Marianna Hill); and their brother Baby (David Manzy), a fussy toddler in a grown man’s body. But Ann’s interest in getting Baby specialized therapy that might narrow the gap between his physical and mental ages dead-ends at Mrs. Wadsworth’s mama-grizzly conviction that she knows what’s best for her children.
The stage is set for what would be best described as a dick-swinging contest, were it not for the fact that the only dick in the room belongs to the supposedly pre-sexual Baby. Are you cringing yet? But wait, there’s more: Ann suspects that Baby’s “disability” is actually perversely conditioned behavior. But taking action means going to war with a strong-willed, middle-class white woman who isn’t afraid to fight back because Baby is clean, fed, and not visibly abused. Yet Ann persists to a degree that starts looking a little crazy—make that, is a little crazy, as becomes all too clear when she kidnaps Baby, knowing full well that Wadsworth blood is thicker than water.
I’ve heard The Baby described as a dark comedy in the vein of Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (68) or Murder, He Says (45), in which blandly normal pollster Fred MacMurray stumbles into the backwoods domain of a deranged hillbilly clan. I think that take is dead wrong: freaky families are only funny if the chain-saw massacre waiting to happen is never a real possibility, while in The Baby, every squirm-inducing wrongness is too close to the surface. The Wadsworths may live in a nicely maintained house on a nondescript suburban street, keep the lawn mowed and the refrigerator stocked, and have enough friends to throw Baby an SRO birthday party (the guests include Grave of the Vampire’s Michael Pataki as Alba’s hippie-dork boyfriend and Post himself, in the only on-screen cameo of his five-decade career). But Mrs. Wadsworth methodically massaging skin cream into Baby’s surprisingly manly thighs? His sisters being sisterly, Alba with a cattle prod, Germaine without clothes? The admirably caring and responsible babysitter—no beer chugging, boyfriend snogging, or acid dropping on her watch—who needs some serious guidance on the subject of boundaries? The Baby is seriously out of sync with generally accepted modern social mores, even by whacked-out Seventies standards, which I say as someone whose idea of what passed for okay back then was forged in the fire of experience, not binge-watching That ’70s Show.
The Baby defies the constraints of genre. It has one foot in the “hag horror” gutter of the mid-Sixties to mid-Seventies, movies that cast aging Hollywood luminaries like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, and Tallulah Bankhead as monstrous Golden Girls. But Roman was a handsome 50 when The Baby was made (five years younger than Michelle Pfeiffer is today), and though ill-served by the billowing caftans that were inexplicably then all the rage, she’s totally believable as the center of male attention at Baby’s birthday bash. There’s more than a hint of Mrs. Robinson about her, except that she’s not interested in seducing baby-men because she already has a man-baby—one who’s never going to run off with some hippie slut, get drafted (the draft ended a mere two months before The Baby was released), abandon her to start his own family, or mature (comparatively speaking) into a murderous mama’s boy like Norman Bates.
Nutty, yes, but also rooted in a very real fear that blossomed as the feminist movement encouraged women to reject the idea that happiness was marrying young, having babies, and keeping house for a faithful, hardworking husband. And The Baby is equally steeped in a visceral horror of children, little monsters of overwhelming primal neediness whose self-centered desires drove movies as marginal as A Reflection of Fear (73) and Who Can Kill a Child? (76) and as mainstream as The Other (72) and Willard (71). (When Polsky waged a public war to regain the rights after his script became bogged down in preproduction, he specifically invoked Willard as proof that The Baby’s producers didn’t get how in touch his script was with the zeitgeist.)
Of course, the real horror of creepy-kid movies inevitably turns out to be the smothering mothers who love their little darlings to needle-sharp slivers of retribution. And if the Wadsworth women’s eccentricities are marginally less baroque and more cloaked in a veneer of normalcy than some, they’re potently poisonous nonetheless.
There’s a master’s thesis on The Baby waiting to be written and I’ll be first in line to read it, but not because I expect to find the film’s provocations tamed or its utter bizarreness gently folded into the seething swamp of things that make us go hmm. I’ve made my peace with The Baby, surrendered to its down-the-rabbit-hole undertow—and I’m just fine with that.