The Baby is chilling
Ted Post’s The Baby came at a time when children in movies were possessed by devils, dabbled in drugs, had multiple personalities, became teen prostitutes or teen alcoholics, fell in with gurus (of the Charles Manson variety), and in some cases, as in It’s Alive, were born with fangs and claws. The Baby brings us a young man who remains in his infancy, a lanky six-footer crawling around on his blanket with a drip of spittle on his chin.
For many years, The Baby was the sort of movie that occasionally turned up on a scratchy VHS tape, shared at odd hours among movie buffs. It needed word of mouth to develop a reputation, but the word never came. People who claimed to like weird movies didn’t know what to make of it.
It’s wrong to call The Baby a “cult film.” For one thing, there would have to be a cult of fans who knew about it. The Baby would be more accurately described as an “oddity,” something that belongs on a long forgotten midway somewhere next to the two-headed chicken and the dog-faced boy. Is it even a horror film? Not really. There are some murders, and a few crazy ladies wielding axes, but I don’t think this movie has ever troubled anyone with nightmares. It defies labeling. It’s sui generis.
Baby is over-protected by a shrewish mother (Ruth Roman), until a well-meaning social worker learns about him. The caseworker wants to liberate the unfortunate young man and help him mature. But Roman and her two weird daughters are determined to protect Baby, which leads to the sort of catfights and whippings usually found in the films of Russ Meyer.
The film nods to many other titles, from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to Psycho. Lording over the cheesy gothic atmosphere is Ruth Roman, who seems to be channeling Joan Crawford’s wacko period. Roman had worked with some of the top directors of the 1940s and ’50s, opposite such leading men as Kirk Douglas and James Stewart. Here she was at age 50, in a seedy little film opposite a drooling man-child. She’s brave, though, mugging like she was born to play eccentric mothers. The most horrific implication comes when we see Baby being worked over with an electric cattle prod, his mind being shunted by negative reinforcement: “Baby doesn’t stand! (Zap!) Baby doesn’t talk! (Zap) Baby doesn’t walk! (Zap! Zap!)” This is how the family has kept their baby boy from reaching adulthood. Mother dearest hates men, and there’s even a slight suggestion that she killed her previous husbands, just to get them out of the way.
Abe Polsky, whose claim to fame was a Jack Nicholson biker flick called The Rebel Rousers, wrote this warped family tale. Polsky allegedly begged Post for more than a year to take on his script. Post, 55 at the time, was primarily a television director, but he’d directed such features as Hang ‘em High (1968) and Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970). What drew him to The Baby is anyone’s guess. The Baby has the feel of an early ‘70s television movie (and has erroneously been labeled as such) but at times it achieves an almost psychedelic tone, with many scenes shot from high above, or far below. That’s just as well, because you wouldn’t want to get too close to these characters.
Cinematographer Michael D. Margulies, known mostly for shooting TV shows, gives The Baby a beautiful lava lamp glow. The music, which veers from wistful to weird, was by Gerald Fried, a television veteran who began his career scoring films for Stanley Kubrick (The Killing; Killers Kiss; Paths of Glory).
Scotia International, a short-lived theatrical distributor of exploitation films, released The Baby in March 1973 on a limited number of screens. At the time of its release, however, Post was hired to direct Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force. The announcement that Post was working again with the world’s biggest star far eclipsed his unusual little project about the overgrown baby. Roman, too, was in a very popular project at the time, the TV adaptation of Go Ask Alice, the controversial best seller about teen drug use. With its own director and star involved in such high profile projects, The Baby seemed to vanish in shadows cast by its own creators.
Post may have had bigger fish to fry in terms of his career, but one he gave The Baby his best shot. He took a script that felt like an old E.C. comic story and created a strange, dissonant, masterpiece. The creepiest touch of all is when Baby cries. What we hear is not an actor, but the recorded sound of an actual baby crying. It’s unsettling.
As the film’s title character, James Mooney (aka James Manzy) never seems like a baby so much as a dazed adult, looking dreamily at his objects of affection. He’s such a showstopper that one almost forgets the rest of the cast. Along with Roman’s scenery chewing performance, there’s a nice turn from Anjanette Comer as the social worker who has mysterious designs on Baby. Roman’s two daughters are played by Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor. Hill was the sort of sultry ’60s actress who appeared in everything from the Batman TV series to Medium Cool. Zenor, who was nearly cast in Suzanne Somers’ role in Three’s Company, spends most of the movie in a cheerleader’s outfit. She’s also hell with a cattle prod.
The film was barely noticed back in ’73, but it occasionally surfaced on network television at odd hours. In 1980 it was treated to a showing at New York’s Thalia Theater, a 299-seat neighborhood movie house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (if you’ve seen Annie Hall, it’s where Annie and Alvie go to see The Sorrow and The Pity). Former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto was known for his twice monthly parties where friends would come over to watch campy old B-movies, of which The Baby was allegedly a favorite. When Post died in 2013, Lincoln Center hosted a double bill of The Baby and Magnum Force. There was a Blu-ray release of the movie in the 2014.
Will The Baby ever become a full-blown cult object? A true cult film has to stand up over repeated viewings. This film seems to exist solely for Polsky’s twist ending, which is stunning. But films with trick endings tend to be viewable only once. Does The Baby hold up once you know the ending? That will depend on how you feel about watching a grown man in a crib.