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Sunday, June 12, 2011

THE BABY -- DVD review by porfle


If you remember "The ABC Movie of the Week" or have seen some of the low-key but weird thrillers that showed up on it during the 70s (BAD RONALD, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK), you should recognize the dingy, suburban gothic style of THE BABY (1973).  Right down to the bland opening titles, mawkish musical score by Gerald Fried, and television-level production values, this looks like the typical made-for-TV chiller from that era. 

Surprising, then, that not only is this a theatrical film directed by Ted Post (MAGNUM FORCE, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES), but it contains language, sexual situations, violence, and an overall air of perversion that would've had the TV censors working overtime with their scissors.

Ruth Roman does her patented "tough gal" act as swaggering single mom Mrs. Wadsworth, who, along with her grown daughters Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor), must care for her son Baby, a twenty-one-year-old with the mind of an infant.  Their new social worker, the recently-widowed Ann (Anjanette Comer, a familiar TV face at the time), expresses great interest in Baby, which raises the jealous Mrs. Wadsworth's suspicions.  When it appears as though Ann may be scheming to take Baby away from her, she and her deranged daughters take deadly action.



The plot of this languidly-paced tale unfolds slowly but is dotted with enough bizarre incidents to keep things interesting.  The first one occurs when a babysitter (Erin O'Reilly) is caught breastfeeding Baby and is soundly thrashed by Mrs. Wadsworth and the girls.  Just hearing Ruth Roman say lines like "Nothing happened?  With your damn tit in his mouth and nothing happened?" is weird enough.  Seeing the babysitter begin to change Baby's diaper as he's stretched out in his giant crib conjures up disturbing images of diaper service men in hazmat suits.

The attitudes of Baby's sisters toward their developmentally-challenged brother are also less than wholesome.  Flaky blonde Alba, bless her, takes after him with a cattle prod when he displays too much progress (such as saying "Ma-ma") in one of my favorite scenes.  "Baby doesn't walk!  Baby doesn't talk!" she shrieks between zaps.  The horny Germaine, meanwhile, has even more perverse uses for her "baby" brother.  Nothing's explicitly shown, but it's still enough to make you go "Yuck!"

But perhaps the most off-putting thing about THE BABY is David Manzy's insipid antics in the title role.  He reminds me of a porn actor who's been asked to perform beyond his range.  Whether Baby's sucking on a bottle, frolicking around on the floor, or bawling and making pouty faces in his crib (with real baby noises dubbed in as he mugs it up), I just want to throttle the goofy bastard. 

(On the other hand, though--how, exactly, would a better actor approach such a role?  It would be interesting to see somebody like Sean Penn strap on the giant diaper and go for an Oscar.)

One of the film's key sequences is a birthday party for Baby, during which Mrs. Wadsworth and the girls make their move against Ann.  This dreary, dreadfully unhip bash, with middle-aged losers in mod attire dancing to quacky "rock" music, is somebody's idea of what a wild party looked like in the 70s, and it's cheesier than a platter of movie-theater nachos.  The great Michael Pataki appears here to wincingly comic effect as a bushy-haired horndog.  With the film's furious finale, THE BABY at last serves up a helping of Grand Guignol horror as Roman and Comer huff and puff their way through a hokey but bloody clash that leads to a nice little head-scratching surprise ending.



Ted Post's no-frills direction gets the job done and his two leading ladies deliver the goods.  Anjanette Comer was never all that forceful as an actress, so she gives her character a suitably vulnerable quality.  Hollywood veteran Ruth Roman, on the other hand, is the epitome of the brassy broad and her hot-blooded histronics are the most fun part of the whole movie.  Marianna Hill (Fredo Corleone's wife in THE GODFATHER PART II) and Suzanne Zenor, who played the "Chrissy" role in the first pilot for "Three's Company", hold up their end of the film's oddball quotient.

The DVD from Severin Films, restored from the original film negative, is in 1.66:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound.  No subtitles.  Extras consist of telephone interviews with director Ted Post and star David Manzy, and a trailer.

Those seeking the balls-out bizarro shock-horror flick promised by the posters will be disappointed, since it comes off more as one of those early TV-movies with forbidden exploitation elements tacked on.  But this is what makes THE BABY such a strangely interesting little curio.  If you're in the mood for something unabashedly off-the-wall, then it should be worth your while to check it out.



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