Friday, November 29, 2013

THE BABY (1973)

The Cult Film That Isn’t a Cult Film is Ready For its Close Up

Ted Post's The Baby came  at a time when  children in movies were possessed by devils; dabbled in drugs; had multiple personalities;  ran away from home; became teen prostitutes or teen alcoholics; fell in with gurus (of the Charles Manson variety); and in some cases, as in It's Alive, were born with fangs and claws.  The Baby brings us a lucky mother  who never has to face much defiance from her beloved son, for he is a young man who remains in his infancy, a lanky six-footer crawling around on his blanket with a drip of spittle on his chin.  

The title character might have been a nice alternative to all of the outlandish youth of the early 1970s. Instead, the character of "Baby" remains a legend, the sort you learn about the way I did many years ago, when a friend of mine slipped a VHS tape into his machine and said, “You’ve never seen this? You’re in for a treat.”  I envy the ticket buyers at Lincoln Center, for they will be seeing The Baby as part of a tribute to the late Ted Post (shown Dec. 17 on a double bill with Post’s Magnum Force).  To them I would say what my friend said: They are in for a treat. 

It’s wrong to call The Baby a “cult film.”   For one thing, there would have to be a cult of fans who knew about it, and aside from my friend who showed it to me, I've never met anyone who has seen it.  Cult film? No.  It would be more accurately described as an “oddity.”  It’s the bearded lady of films, something that belongs on a long forgotten midway somewhere in the Corn Belt, next to the two headed chicken and the dog-faced boy. Is it even a horror film? Not really. There are some murders, and a few crazy ladies wielding axes,  but I don't think anyone has ever been troubled by nightmares after seeing it. My general rule is, if you have to define a movie by one genre or another, then you're missing out on a lot of movies that defy easy labeling.

Where to start? Perhaps with the story, a strange one about a grown man who still sleeps in a crib and crawls around like, well, like a baby.  He’s over-protected by a shrewish mother (played by a raspy Ruth Roman), until a well-meaning case worker learns about him.  The case worker wants to liberate  the unfortunate young man and help him mature. But Roman and her two weird daughters are determined to protect “Baby,” which leads to the sort of catfights and whippings that are usually reserved for films by Russ Meyer.  A monstrous mother and her unfortunate son is not so unusual in movies (or real life), but a grown man in a crib is disturbing. The creepiest touch of all is when Baby cries. What we hear is not an actor, but the recorded sound of an actual baby crying. It's one of the film's many unsettling touches.
The film nods to many other titles, from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to  Psycho. Adding to the grand guignol atmosphere is  Roman, who seems happy to borrow from Joan Crawford's wacko period. Roman's career had run the gamut from  jungle queens to noir sirens, and she'd  worked with some of the top directors of the 1940s and '50s, including Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and Mark Robson. She'd also starred opposite such leading men as Kirk Douglas and James Stewart, yet here she was ate age 50, in a seedy little film opposite a drooling man-child. She's brave, though, mugging like she was born to play whackjob mothers.
The film also touches on lesbianism, child abuse, and the erotic implications of breast feeding. In other words, it's a fine family picture. The most horrific implication comes when we see  Baby being worked over with an electric cattle prod, his mind being shunted by negative reinforcement: "Baby doesn't stand! (Zap!) Baby doesn't talk! (Zap) Baby doesn't walk!(Zap! Zap!)" This is how the family has kept their baby from reaching adulthood.  Roman hates men, refers to them as weak and spineless, and there's even a slight suggestion that she may have killed her previous husbands, just to get them out of the way.  
This warped family tale was written by Abe Polsky, a writer whose claim to fame prior to The Baby was The Rebel Rousers, a Jack Nicholson biker flick that sat in the can for two years but was released in 1970 to cash in on Nicholson’s sudden popularity after Easy Rider.  Polsky allegedly begged Post for more than a year to film The Baby 

Post, 55 at the time, was primarily a television director, but he’d made inroads into a career directing features with Hang ‘em High (1968) and Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970). What drew him to The Baby is anyone’s guess. The Baby  has the feel of an early ‘70s television movie (and has erroneously been labeled as such by some folks) but at times it achieves something almost psychedelic, with many scenes shot from high above, or far below, as if we're seeing the action from a bug's perspective - just as well, because you wouldn't to get too close to these characters, anyway.

Cinematographer Michael D. Margulies was known for shooting TV shows, everything from George Plimpton documentaries to The Waltons ( he also shot John Cassevetes’  Minnie and Moskowitz a year before The Baby). He gives The Baby a beautiful 1970s sheen; at times it looks like an explosion in an old Sears catalog. The house where Baby lives looks lifeless and unkempt from the outside, but the interiors have a lurid, lava lamp glow, especially during a birthday party scene for Baby.  The music, which veers from wistful to weird, was by Gerald Fried, a television veteran who began his career scoring films for Stanley Kubrick (The Killing; Killers Kiss; Paths of Glory).

Scotia International, a short-lived theatrical distributor of exploitation films, released The Baby in March 1973 on a limited  number of screens, but The Baby was overshadowed by various things. At the time of its release, Post was hired to direct Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan in Magnum Force.  The announcement that Post was working again with the world's biggest star received more press than The Baby did.  Roman, too, was in very popular projects at the time, particularly the TV adaptation of Go Ask Alice, the controversial best seller about teen drug use. With its own director and star involved in more high profile projects,   The Baby seemed to vanish in shadows cast by its own creators.   Polsky’s pursuit of Post may have backfired in that regard, but one can’t say Post didn’t give The Baby his best shot.  He took Polski's E.C. comic style script and created a strange, dissonant, masterpiece. The emphasis, of course, is on dissonant. Post may have been a journeymen director of mainstream fare, but he knew exactly how to handle oddball material.


As the film's title character, James Mooney (aka James Manzy) gives an all out bizarre performance.  He never seems like a baby so much as a dazed adult, looking dreamily at his objects of affection. The first few times I watched this film, though, he was such a showstopper that I barely noticed how good the rest of the cast is. Along with Roman's scenery chewing performance, there's a nice turn from Anjanette Comer as the social worker who has mysterious designs on Baby. Roman's two daughters are played by Marianna Hill and  Susanne Zenor, who add to the film's incongruous atmosphere. Hill was the sort of sultry '60s actress who appeared in everything from the Batman TV series to High Plains Drifter and Medium Cool.  As Germaine, she gives off a campy lesbian vibe, even asking Comer if she'd like to go away for a weekend, just to get to know each other.  Zenor, who was nearly cast in Suzanne Somers' role in Three's Company,  spends most of the movie in a cheerleader's outfit. She may look like Lolita, but she's hell with a cattle prod.
The film came and went quickly, barely making a blip on the radar back in '73. It occasionally surfaced on network television at odd hours, and in 1980 was treated to a showing at New York’s  Thalia  Theater, a 299-seat neighborhood movie house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (if you’ve seen Annie Hall, it’s where Annie and Alvie go to see The Sorrow and The Pity).  Richard F. Shepard, a Times writer dispatched to review the film's 1980 showing,  described it as “a good story” but added that it was “too obvious, except in its surprise ending, to be first-rate, so we'll have to fall back on that bland non-chiller of an adjective, ‘interesting.’" Former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto was known for his twice monthly parties where friends would come over to watch campy old B-movies, of which The Baby was allegedly a favorite.

Can The Baby, which turned 40 this year, ever develop into a full blown cult object? Probably not. A true cult film has to stand up over repeated viewings.  This film seems to exist solely for Polsky's twist ending, which is amusing, something out of Tales from the Crypt, or The Twilight Zone.  The first time I saw it, I thought, ah, ya got me. It left me with a good feeling in my gut, the sort I get when I've seen an offbeat gem, and am better for having seen it. But films with trick endings tend to be viewable only once.  Does The Baby hold up once you know the ending? That will depend on how you feel about watching a grown man in a crib. And if you haven't seen it at all? You're in for a treat.


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