Ann Gentry, an attractive social worker still mourning the loss of her architect husband, becomes unusually involved with one of her district’s strangest cases. The Wadsworths are a somewhat trashy family made up of a blowsy middle-aged mom, her two sexy daughters and—most uniquely—“Baby”, her fully-grown adult son who has never intellectually matured past infancy. Ann appears to be convinced that there’s nothing wrong with “Baby” and that his infantile state is the result of severe negative reinforcement from his bitter, man-hating mother, but, then again, her interest in the case may not be as philanthropic as it seems….
Sometimes the best gift you can give an unconventional script is an extremely conventional director. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, the danger of giving a script with a strange premise to a “daring” and/or “imaginative” filmmaker is that they will push the strangest aspects of the work past the breaking point into either incoherence, pretension or self-indulgence. A journeyman, on the other hand, will simply shoot the story as straightforwardly as possible, with the result that the strangeness fades into the background and ceases to be a potentially alienating element, allowing the audience to enjoy the film as a narrative rather than a spectacle.
Ted Post, the director of The Baby, was just such a journeyman. Having spent most of his career in television his most famous film work came as the result of his directing a sequel none of the original filmmakers wanted anything to do with (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and his ability to take a back seat to a superstar performer who was less interested in a director than a yes-man willing to make the films he wanted to make (Hang ‘Em High and Magnum Force). A textbook “point and shooter” Post briefly flirted with the 70s counter-culture with three films that actually bore little connection to the zeitgeist they were based on. The first was the strange psychodrama under discussion today, the second was the “free-love” drama, The Harrad Experiment, and the third was the miserable M*A*S*H-wannabe, Whiffs. Of these, only The Baby can be considered a success, but more so for what Post failed to bring to the project, rather than what he actually did.
From a visual standpoint The Baby looks and feels like a somewhat standard TV movie from the era. This is understandable considering its budget and the fact that Post did the majority of his work in that medium (including the classic Dr. Cook’s Garden, which featured an unusually dark turn from Bing Crosby in the title role). Rather than detract from the experience, the film’s lack of visual interest gives it an authenticity that obscures the lapses in logic that could have easily derailed the film from the very start.
Sold in the poster and trailer as a bizarre expose of the depths of human depravity, the actual film has more in common with the “social message” TV movies of the era than it does with other sleazy grindhouse depictions of torture and perversion. In fact the moments that do extend into the perverse stand out to such a degree that they feel like last-minute additions to the script thrown in to please concerned financiers—every one of them could be excised completely from the film without affecting the plot.
The film's avoidance of obvious exploitation is made evident by how accepting everyone is of Baby’s condition right from the start. Not only is Ann, the social worker, not horrified by the site of a grown man acting like a baby, but it’s also made clear that the Wadsworth’s have made no effort at all to hide his condition. Along with semi-annual visits from other social workers, they’re completely comfortable hiring young babysitters to watch him while they enjoy a night out and have no problem inviting all of their friends to his birthday party. Rather than being presented as something perverse and strange, Baby is shown in the film to be exactly what he is, and though it does flirt with the idea that his condition is instilled rather than inborn, the film pretty much abandons this theme by the end, when it finally becomes the horror movie everyone’s been expecting from the very beginning.
Written by Abe Polsky (who also co-produced), the script for The Baby is a surprisingly adept affair. Having been previously clued in to expect a “twist ending” I assumed it would inevitably feature the revelation that Baby was merely faking his condition all along or that Ann’s interest was much more sexual than philanthropic in nature. Turns out I was wrong on both counts and found myself genuinely surprised by the film’s last scene, despite the clues I retroactively realized Polsky had peppered throughout his screenplay.
Polsky’s work is especially commendable for how he keeps us from siding too strongly with Ann. Though the Wadsworth’s do often come across as outright antagonists (younger daughter, Alba, repeatedly shocks Baby with a cattle prod, insisting, “Baby doesn’t walk! Baby doesn’t talk!”, while the oldest daughter, Germaine, is shown using Baby as an effective late night male substitute) the script works equally hard to show that things are not entirely what they seem. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman, giving a great performance) is actually more often shown as a fierce mama bear ready to protect her unique child than the monster who made him what he is. When she catches Alba with the cattle prod, she grabs it away and uses it on her to show her what it feels like. She beats the snot out of a teenage babysitter who allows Baby to suckle at her breast (which strongly suggests she does not know about and would not approve of her daughter Germaine’s nocturnal visits), and she becomes extremely angry when Alba later suggests the family should have sold Baby to a circus freak show when they had the chance to years ago.
It’s these moments that suggest her suspicions regarding Ann are less self-protective than genuinely maternal. We’re so intent on blaming her for her son’s disability that we naturally assume she’s a villain with something to hide, which the film’s conclusion suggests isn’t exactly fair. But, then again, her actions are not entirely blameless. The fact that the family owns a cattle prod to begin with doesn’t speak entirely well of her mothering methods, and the solution she comes up with for the problem of the pesky social worker (a problem, the film suggests, she may have dealt with murderously at least once before) is clearly criminal and inexcusable.
Both Post and Polsky are well-served by their cast, who manage to keep the film from rising to the level of camp most viewers are going to insist on stamping the film with regardless (that terrible trailer does not help matters any). The actresses all adeptly keep up with the film’s moral ambiguities and the effectiveness of the film’s denouement rests largely on their shoulders. David Manzy (now Mooney) has the most difficult role in the film as Baby and is mostly able to keep his scenes from being ridiculous, if not entirely credible. He isn’t helped by some poor ADR that asks us to believe his mental deficiency has wrecked havoc on his vocal chords as well.
I suspect the very aspect that allowed me to enjoy The Baby as much as I did is what’s going to disappoint the kind of person likely to seek it out. By avoiding kitsch and camp in favour of an actual plot with some compelling twists and turns, it’s an admirably straightforward thriller with an admittedly bizarre premise. As I mentioned at the beginning of this short essay, I suspect this can be attributed to a director who simply lacked the ego to paint outside the lines or get wild and overly creative. The result is a film that’s made unique by its almost perverse lack of distinction.