American society underwent radical changes during the 1970s. The debacle of the Vietnam War, coupled with the eye-opening progressions of the Civil Rights Movement, left a generation questioning the moral implications of traditional American values. The fallout from the war saw the draft scrapped in favour of an all-volunteer military, 18-year-olds were granted the right to vote, and the once ‘far-out’ counterculture of the 1960s reached the bored suburbanites of America, many of whom were looking to trade in the station wagon for the thrill of women’s liberation, a radical movement that reprogrammed housewives to see a world beyond high school marriage, 2.3 children and a lifetime of home appliance servitude.
Cinema was no less rebellious. In the realms of exploitation cinema, boundaries were pushed far beyond the levels of accepted decency. A wave of high-profile B-movies such as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) gave horror a very real and relatable edge that stirred controversy and offended sensibilities. The fantastical, supernatural horror of yesteryear had been replaced by housebound possession, devil-worshipping cults, suburban serial killers and roving zombies who were as much motivated by sociopolitical issues as they were by the taste of human flesh.
Of all the limb-slicing, brain-eating, vomit-inducing horror to come out of the 1970s, nothing unsettled me quite like Ted Post’s, Abe Polsky penned exploitation thriller The Baby. I caught the movie channel-surfing late one night as a teenager and my first impressions were… meh. At first glance it didn’t strike me as an exploitation movie. It lacked the shock title synonymous with the genre and I didn’t have the aid of the movie’s severely oddball promo poster, complete with ominous tagline, to ignite my imagination. Then I saw it: a fully grown man in a baby’s nappy sucking on a nursing bottle. At first I figured it was a slapstick comedy sketch from some outdated series, but then every instinct I had ever acquired gave way to a black hole of horror and confusion. And I couldn’t help but get sucked in further. It was like an all-consuming poison.
Watching David Mooney’s fully-formed man-baby doesn’t get any easier. The victim of a matriarchal family who hamper his mental development through emotional and physical abuse, Mooney’s oppressed jim-jam man is a tough pill to swallow, but also compelling to digest. In preparation for the role, the actor observed special needs children and even shaved his entire body. Watching him crawl around in diapers, bursting into theatrical bouts of tears with cake helplessly smeared across his face, I couldn’t decide if his performance was utterly ludicrous or borderline genius, and in the end I didn’t want to make the distinction. Most unnerving is the film’s remastered audio track, replacing Mooney’s voice with canned baby sounds, an accidental quirk resulting from lost material, but an absolutely frightening one.
It would all be utterly ridiculous if it weren’t for the fact that the movie is played as straight as a die, with stretches that feel like an honest-to-goodness drama. A film like this has no right to present itself as anything but exploitative trash, but The Baby doesn’t bow to convention, it dribbles from the mouth with impudent depravity. Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were as real as real can be, but there was an undercurrent of humour beneath the cannibalistic families and audio descents into hell. The Baby harbours no such wit, partly because it manages to reflect social feminist issues with the brazenness of a great grandfather questioning the moral advancements of a ‘snowflake’ society. It begins questionably and grows increasingly troubling, building to the kind of morbid climax topped only by the film’s deeply distressing twist. Boy, does it leave a bad taste in the mouth!
Baby’s mother is straight out of the suburban pit of 60s ‘Hag Horror’, a woman so casually sinister you’ll forget all about Baby Jane. There’s certainly a dash of Bette Davis to Ruth Roman’s Mrs Wadsworth. If gravelly-voiced dominatrix is your bag, then Wadsworth is quite the seductress, becoming queen bee at a delirious pot party thrown as a ruse to drug and murder Anjanette Comer’s concerned widow and family social worker Ann Gentry, who admits to having “made a special effort to get this assignment”. Such determination troubles the household’s Draconian master, and so it should. Gentry begins as the movie’s moral princess, a beacon of calm amid the tumultuous emotional turmoil, but this is The Baby we’re dealing with, so heed my advice and err on the side of caution, wherever your instincts may lead you.
Wadsworth also has something of a Norma Bates vibe. She has three kids to three different men, all of whom have upped and left her, and in Baby she has moulded a helpless antidote by imposing a routine of negative reinforcement and systematic punishment. Not only does Baby’s condition keep him completely at Wadsworth’s mercy, it eliminates any chance of Norman Bates style retribution, and the Wadsworth daughters are no better. Susanne Zenor’s sadomasochist-with-a-penchant-for-burning-human-flesh, be that with a cigarette lighter or a full-on cattle prod, is a sexy, severe looking creature who puts the Wadsworth matriarch to shame with her violent outbursts of sadistic torture. Marianna Hill’s Germaine is a little more protective of her fragile sibling, though if creeping into Baby’s room at night for a little cot-bound titillation is your idea of the moral side of the coin, you’ve been exposed to this film for far too long.
The ugliest part of The Baby is its frothing undercurrent of sexuality. Every woman in this movie is drawn to Baby’s prowess with a wild-eyed obsession that sways between possessiveness and morbid fascination. Ultimately, they’re all fighting over the mysterious, impotent magnetism of a blubbering man-child with a fully grown penis, sensually rubbing lotion into his thighs and offering the kind of tenderness typically reserved for kids. It’s tough going. The women were obviously cast for their sexiness. Zenor’s Alba is your archetypal, pig-tailed minx, and the man-child-molesting Germaine is another striking creature who would break hearts anywhere away from the context of this film. There is even a deeply troubling scene involving the family’s teenage babysitter, a curious young girl who indulges in some phantom breast feeding purely for kicks. For a man who has never been allowed to leave the Wadsworth homestead, Baby sure gets his fair share of action. He’s practically irresistible.
The Baby‘s climax is a Freudian nightmare come to life, a stifling flourish of hysterical slashing and wild-eyed insanity that is nothing short of startling. Again, there’s no humour to be found, particularly when Mrs. Wadsworth is captured and dragged outside for a worse fate than her helpless offspring’s, Gerald Fried’s doom-laden score perfectly capturing the endless void that our emotions inhabit. The film goes from creepy psychosexual thriller to all-out slasher in the blink of an eye, and a movie that refuses to adhere to the constraints of genre once again manages to flip the script in ways that are impossible to foresee. It’s not shock for the sake of it, either. The Baby doesn’t overwhelm you with gore or terrify you with chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Its monsters are draped in everyday suburbia, its insanity masquerading as good intentions. It’s insidious rather than in-your-face, revealing itself gradually at just the right moments.
It took writer Abe Polsky close to a year to convince Ted Post, who would direct Alpha male vigilante Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force only months later, to take on the project due to reservations concerning its dark content, and who could blame him? The Baby is like Kryptonite to modern sensibilities, not only because of its warped sexual implications, but also due to its clumsy handling of mental disabilities. Terms like ‘mental case’ and ‘retarded’ may have flown in the 1970s, but in the 21st century they pang of philistine ignorance, and the film’s startling depiction of women as negligent parents careening off the tracks of patriarchal tradition is gobsmackingly transparent. Exploitation cinema, you’ve gotta love it.