Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a movie like The Baby slaps the sippy cup out of your mouth.
One look at the film’s provocative exploitation poster art and it immediately conjures up ideas of sex, incest, murder and other lascivious content. But describing The Baby as ‘sleazy’ is too simple, not to mention inaccurate. We’d wager that there is actually no single word to describe this film. Except for maybe ‘masterpiece’. Yes, the WTF-factor is pretty high, but let it be known that The Baby is in fact a superbly crafted psychosexual thriller, made by some of the finest Hollywood craftsmen of their time and told in a no-frills, TV movie-of-the-week style that actually works to its advantage.
As recently discovered by Severin Films in a previous blog posting, The Baby was slapped with a PG rating upon its release. No nudity, no f-bombs and no gory set pieces to find their way extracted off a VHS tape and dumped onto YouTube 30 years later. It’s a relief to see that the arbitrary rules of the MPAA have not changed at all, and that a movie so unsettling, so subversive and so steeped in maternal horror and incestuous overtones was waaaaaaay too much for the MPAA in 1973 and deviously glided right over their heads.
The Baby is a slow-burner that lures you in with the immoral charm of a stranger in a raincoat, using candy to entice you away from the safety of an unguarded playground. The promise of a ‘sleazy’ horror movie, as the poster suggests, is subtly jettisoned as the script moves deeper and deeper into unsettling sexual tension with each progressive reel. It’s as good as anything by Polanski, Solondz or Almodóvar. Had it been made overseas, we may not have waited this long to discover its genius.
Most exploitation films of the 1970s found filmmakers charting themes and ideas that went straight for the balls, mocking and attacking America’s hypocritical patriarchy. Drive-in films like Five Loose Women (1974), Coffy (1972), and Bonnie’s Kids (1973), to name a few, began showing women in a stronger and more realistic light. While these films’ exploits were fantasized versions of a very real, growing Women’s Lib movement, the tenacity of the freedoms for which they fought (and won) in these films is probably more obvious when looking back today, as opposed to their original releases. Indeed, there is not much separating the conflicts in these films from the likes of Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), besides a stronger cast of actors and larger budget. These films show us just how powerful the mothers and sisters of the world are, whether she’s hitting the road in search of a better life for her son or making sure dope pushers pay for hooking her baby sis on smack. Through thick and thin, these ladies have our backs.
And then a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) comes along, which demonstrates what the absence of a mommy figure can do to a family—turning men into deranged cannibals, hunting women and other victims for pleasure. Without a woman in the house, the family unit in TCM is deprived of their social sense and meaning. They have no sense of moral wrongdoing without mom around to slap their wrist and send them to their room to think about what they did.
The Baby deals with the exact opposite dilemma; it represents what effects growing up without a father can have on a young boy, and what can happen to a family of women who are left without a daddy to keep things in balance. Baby (David Manzy) is surrounded by women run amok: his two sexually possessive sisters (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) and his bitter, seen-it-all-before mother (Ruth Roman) who depends on such a vicious, co-dependant relationship with her own child that she keeps Baby (a grown adult) in diapers and sipping from a bottle. Family isn’t the only cause of the maternal freak fest that surrounds Baby; his new social worker (Anajanette Comer) has issues of her own. Grieving for her out-of-the-picture husband, she and her mother-in-law spend their lonely nights endlessly obsessing over happier times. These two are a deadly double dose of Miss Havishams in-the-making. But before the audience can keep track of all the women in Baby’s life, a downright dirty babysitter is added into the mix who… well… just watch the movie. In some ways, The Baby is a direct attack on feminism—or maybe just an exercise in man’s fears of female empowerment?
The ‘70s obsession with sex is taken to the next level in The Baby, and although Freud wasn’t around to comment, we’re pretty sure that the Oedipal complex didn’t account for this movie. It should do for unplanned pregnancy what Jaws did for skinny-dipping.
Elijah Drenner is the writer/producer/director of American Grindhouse. His interview with The Baby director Ted Post entitled “Tales From The Crib” was produced exclusively for Severin Films’ DVD release. Through END Films, Drenner continues to produce Special Features for Dark Sky Films, Shout! Factory and Subkultur Entertainment, among others. Although he had never seen The Baby prior to working on the DVD, he lied to Severin Films and said it was one of his favorite movies because he desperately needed the work.
Lianne Spiderbaby is a writer for FANGORIA magazine, and she is currently working on her first book,’GRINDHOUSE GIRLS,’ about exploitation and horror actresses. She is also the host of the horror web-show FRIGHT BYTES. Lianne holds an honors degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto and can be seen in the upcoming TBK: TOOLBOX MURDERS 2. Lianne had never seen The Baby, either, but was guilted into co-writing this piece by Elijah Drenner after buying her lunch at DisneyLand.