Mother Love: ‘The Baby’ (1973)

 ‘The Baby’ is everything you could ask for from a cult movie – jaw-droppingly weird, transgressive, camp, and made with total commitment by everyone involved.

“The ending, which I don’t want to spoil, comes at you fast, one of the more bonkers and twisted happy endings committed to celluloid. In Alex Cox’s words: “the most outstandingly sick ending of any film ever shown on Moviedrome”.

Ted Post’s The Baby and me go back a long way. To 10 June 1994, to be precise – for it was then, as an unlikely double bill with John Carpenter’s Halloween, that your correspondent first happened upon this cult shlock-horror as part of filmmaker Alex Cox’s fondly remembered Moviedrome series on BBC 2.

Ah, Moviedrome. How many insomniacs and cult film neophytes with a taste for the bizarre received their education in the good, bad and weird of cult cinema in the wee small hours of Sunday nights during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, hosted by maverick director Alex Cox, himself no stranger to the genre through his masterworks Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Straight To Hell and Walker.

In a time when cinematic oddities were MIA on VHS,  before non-terrestrial channels such as Bravo and Film Four capitalised on cult and when the internet was still in its infancy, and well before the current golden age of pristine Blu-Ray restorations of arthouse and grindhouse, not to mention the easy accessibility of weird and obscure flicks on video platforms such as Youtube, Vimeo and file-sharing websites, one’s cinematic walk on the wild side required an aversion to early nights, keeping a keen eye on TV listings for anything unusual that might pique one’s curiosity, and keeping a stack of blank VHS tapes close to hand.

It was in this manner that yours truly received a first rate indoctrination in the more esoteric side of cinema, thanks largely to Cox’s Moviedrome, an annual Sunday night double feature season that introduced this young thrill-seeking cineaste and many others to the diverse charms of everything from midnight movie weirdfests Psychomania, Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, Night of the Comet and David Cronenberg’s Rabid to subversive pulp classics Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1978), Logan’s Run and The Fly (1958), by way of New Hollywood classics Two Lane Blacktop and Five Easy Pieces and the peerless Mishima, One Eyed Jacks, Rebel Without A Cause, Stardust Memories, One From the Heart, The Wicker Man and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.

The above-mentioned movies, just a handful of the films that Moviedrome found room for in its original 1988-1994 run, are generally acknowledged as cult classics of various stripes, respected within their genres – with even Psychomania recently receiving a respectful treatment at the hands of the BFI’s Flipside sublabel in 2016.

If any one film from Moviedrome’s entire run represents the spirit and the ethos of cult film, it’s this one. Made on a ‘TV movie of the week’ budget, with a former Hollywood leading lady leading a cast of misfits whose careers are merely fascinating footnotes in film history, and helmed by one of US TV’s most prolific directors, The Baby is everything you could ask for from an obscure cult movie – jaw-droppingly weird, transgressive, camp, and made with such total commitment and dedication by everyone involved that you’re filled with perverse admiration for it and a staggering amazement that it hit the screen.

The Baby is a slow-burning psychological horror wierdfest, played entirely straight (which, perversely, makes it utterly camp), concerning a fully-grown adult male who has been kept in a state of infancy, and what happens when a do-gooder child counseller, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer – The Loved One, The Mod Squad, Dr Kildare, Bonanza) comes between Baby (David Manzy/Mooney) and his protective, cloistered, all-woman family: Tough, oppressive matriarch Mrs Wansworth (Ruth Roman, who had starred alongside Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and James Stewart and was so good in Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train) and her daughters, the pouting, petulant Lolita-esque Alba (Suzanne Zenor, memorable as an object of Woody Allen’s desire in a disco scene in Play It Again Sam) and wide-eyed, dreamy, incipient lesbian Germaine (Marianna Hill – Messiah of Evil, High Plains Drifter) who gets my favourite line: “That tricky bitch!”. Providing strong support as Gentry’s austere mother-in-law is Beatrice Manley, who co-founded the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop.

Interestingly, men are almost entirely absent from The Baby, barring Ann’s supervisor Tod Andrews, Michael Pataki as ageing hipster Dennis, director Ted Post in a brief cameo, and of course the titular Baby, played with straight-down-the-line dedication by David Manzy/Mooney who really earns his crust here, waddling, grimacing and cooing as the overgrown infant subject to the dysfunctional nannying techniques of the Wandsworths and the attention of Gentry’s apparently philanthropic concern. It’s altogether a dark journey into the realms of the monstrous feminine (“what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” – Barbara Creed), in a suburban Southern Gothic milieu, set against the post-hippy culture of early 1970s California.

Counsellor Ann Gentry is drawn to the fascinating case of Baby Wadsworth to the exclusion of all her other charges, despite being warded off from day one by Ruth Roman’s protective mother and the bitchy mind games of Alba and Germaine. At first, we have no reason to doubt Ann’s motives as being purely altruistic, but before long writer Abe Polsky and director Post seed in the viewer’s minds hints that it’s entirely possible that Ann’s mercy mission is driven by something dark in her own personal history.

Nevertheless, she proceeds to attempt to encourage agency and development with ‘Baby’, as it soon becomes apparent to her that Baby’s state has been enforced by negative reinforcement, and the Wadsworths don’t care for this one bit: In a shocking scene, following Ann having successfully persuaded Baby to waddle from outside his man-sized playpen, Alba subjects Baby to a series of attacks with an electrified cattle prod, snarling, “Baby doesn’t talk! Baby doesn’t stand! And baby doesn’t walk!”

This is not as shocking as a scene clearly included for the ‘drive-in’ crowd in which a teenage babysitter finds her own way of pacifying Baby’s mewling, which provokes the memorable exchange upon Mama Wadsworth’s early return chez Baby: “Nothing really happened, honest!”/”Nothing happened? With your damn tit in his mouth, and you call that nothing? Lying bitch!”

The Wadsworth family make for a fascinating case study in hidden suburban weirdness: Ruth Roman is simply impressive as the mother, in the kind of role that could easily have been inhabited by Bette Davis or Joan Crawford in their second wind as deranged B-movie battleaxes, channelling the former’s tough, hardened exterior and the latter’s imperiousness, only combined with a coarse growl that reeks of Craven A’s and whisky, forever gracing the screen in such ensembles as double denim or an imposing rollneck sweater, black tights and A-line skirt combo, suggestive of a kind of blowsy, faded grandeur – this is all entirely deliberate, presenting a sharp contrast with the more well-heeled, unassumingly tasteful, efficient look of Anjanette Comer’s Ann – all neat hair, eyebrows pencilled to a hair’s breadth and a succession of wardrobe choices that run the full spectrum from light brown to dark brown.

The contrast between the well-heeled suburbanite Ann Gentry and the Psychedelic Gothic of the Wadsworth ladies is all the more pronounced in one of those groovy party scenes that were de rigeur for any exploitation film from the post-Manson, post-hippy early 70s, as the ladies hold an unconventional birthday bash for Baby: Gentry floats around, as steely as her blue-green eyes and unshakable to a crowd of ageing groovy swingers, in a classy purple frock, while Mama Wadsworth holds forth to a crowd of hippies and ageing swingers resplendent in a taffeta gown and Germaine rocks an incredible back-combed perm and witchy eye make-up.

In this same scene, Ruth Roman also gets to take centre stage as she rhapsodises about her unique brand of mother love with her arrested-development child; and in an age where pre-war mothers had seen their beloved children go off to freak out and burn out, either under a cloud of acid or in the killing fields of Saigon, suddenly one is presented with a moment of pathos for this matriarch.

By this point in the film’s proceedings it’s made clear to the viewer that Ann and Mama are in many ways quite similar, inasmuch as they’re both driven to do what is best for Baby as they see fit – Ann gets the sassy line, “When you’re a winner, Alba, the prospect of losing doesn’t even exist”.

The party scene leads to the film’s final reel, where the situation of who best Baby should be with steps up a few notches, with kidnap, blackmail, enticement and the sure prospect of murder ahead. And its in this final act that a lot of the themes and motifs that Post carefully foreshadows through dialogue and visuals pay off, although for a film originally aimed at the grindhouse, drive-in market, and promoted as a sleazy, transgressively sexual horror, it’s gore-free although masterfully shot and directed (For example, Post makes bravura use of low angles, for a Baby POV). Not for nothing was Ted Post in demand as a director for hire, and indeed in the same year shot Magnum Force, the sequel to Dirty Harry – he’d also directed the underrated Planet of the Apes sequel, Beneath The Planet of The Apes, which cleverly cut a few corners when presenting a post-apocalyptic, subterranean New York by taking standing sets of Grand Central Station from Hello Dolly! and covering them with Styrofoam gunk.

The ending, which I don’t want to spoil as it’s half the pleasure of watching this schlocky, soapy, twisted psychodrama, comes at you fast, with a score and shots that echo Psycho and anticipates Carrie. By that closing chapter, the body count is also a tribute to the fact that, as evinced by the special features on the Arrow Blu-Ray, every one of the main characters had their own through-lines and backstory, when the Wadsworths receive their just desserts, it’s weirdly affecting, and the ending is one of the more bonkers and twisted happy endings committed to celluloid. In Alex Cox’s words: of “the most outstandingly sick ending of any film ever shown on Moviedrome”.

The Baby is a film that is sure to stick in your memory for a long time after witnessing it; for while more explicit and outrageous films have been made, there is a lot to be said for its character-driven, sinister and spellbinding mood, and the questionable motives of its protagonist make for a film of woozy morals. It’s not the sexploitative shocker that its infamous poster art promises, it is in fact a lot darker, weirder, and more quietly disturbing than all that, and a much more interesting and curious film as a result.

Rewinding back to my first impressions of seeing The Baby on Moviedrome twenty-four years ago, while it’s clearly not the lurid exploitation flick that the film’s promotors clearly sold it to the drive-in crowd back in 1973, it’s a rather special B-movie flick that literally has to be seen to be believed. The digital remaster is crisp and fine, showcasing the understated cinematography, and the film’s rather unconventional ‘chamber muzak’ score of cello, music box twinkles and third reel string stabs and tympani (recalling the murderous climax of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls), and as one has come to expect from Arrow, there’s a pleasing amount of special features including a lovely chat with Marianna Hill, an archive recordings of Ted Post discussing the film and Baby himself, David Mooney, reflecting with good humour on the film, and film professor Rebekah McKendry holding forth on the film’s undeniably quirky charms.

❉ ‘The Baby’ (Director: Ted Post/Cast: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill) released on Blu-ray on 24 September 2018, RRP: £24.99. 

❉ 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 versions of the feature
❉ High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
❉ Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
❉ Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
❉ Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
❉ Down Will Come Baby – a new retrospective with film professor Rebekah McKendry
❉ Tales from the Crib – archival audio Interview with director Ted Post
❉ Baby Talk – archival audio Interview with Star David Mooney
❉ Theatrical Trailer
❉ Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil
❉ First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Kat Ellinger

❉ James Gent is a writer, designer, social media & digital marketing manager, and editor of We Are Cult.

Become a patron at Patreon!