There are a handful of ways that a horror movie can get a reaction. The most obvious way is for it to be absolutely horrifying, as is the case with films like The Exorcist and The Omen. Another way is to make the film as gory as possible, as with Hostel and Saw. Other films, like The Evil Dead and House, will inject a little humor into the fold. And finally, there are the films that are just weird. In 1973, one of those head-scratchers came along; a crazy movie called The Baby.
The Baby is the story of Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer from The Appaloosa), a social worker who is assigned the case of the Wadsworth family. The Wadsworths are a strange bunch; in addition to the matriarchal Mrs. Wadsworth (Strangers on a Train’s Ruth Roman) and her two daughters, Germaine (minor scream queen Marianna Hill from Schizoid, Blood Beach, and The Astral Factor) and Alba (soap opera star Susanne Zenor from “Days of our Lives”), the family also includes Baby (The World’s Greatest Athlete’s David Manzy), a twenty-one year old man with the mind of an infant. Baby looks and acts just like a real baby, wearing diapers, feeding from a bottle, and sleeping in a crib. Ann takes a special interest in Baby and does all she can to learn more about the youngster. Baby suffers physical abuse from Alba and sexual abuse from Germaine, but the overprotective Mrs. Wadsworth seems content to keep him as a child. Ann struggles to get the family to help Baby realize his full potential, but Ann’s motives are not as pure and altruistic as they might seem.
The only way to accurately describe The Baby is twisted. Written by Abe Polsky (Rebel Rousers) and directed by Ted Post (Magnum Force, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), the film is fantastically outlandish, walking the line between the depravity of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and the surrealism of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. It’s not overly sexual or violent, but it’s still difficult to watch; it’s like a car wreck, one from which viewers can’t look away although they know what they see will disturb them. It’s that uncomfortable of a film. For example, in one scene where Baby is playing with his babysitter and hurts himself, he wails inconsolably as the babysitter tries to pacify him. Suddenly, Baby tries to nurse on the babysitter, a woman who is about his same age. It’s a very unsettling scene, summing The Baby up in a neat, concise moment. And it’s moments like that which have helped turn The Baby into a cult classic.
The Baby has a strange pacing to it, with the film divided into three distinct parts, each with its own tone and feel. The first act starts out simply enough, with Ann exploring the Wadsworth’s home and meeting Baby, trying to piece together the mysteries of the family. The second act develops the conflict between the Wadsworths and Ann, and the film feels more like a television dramedy of sorts, culminating in a wacky birthday party for Baby that seems to have no end. By the time The Baby reaches the third act, it’s a full-on slasher movie, careening towards its inevitable and shocking conclusion. And the ending is shocking to a first-time viewer, with roles becoming reversed and secrets being shared that are nothing short of jaw-dropping. The conclusion may not be as surprising as The Sixth Sense or Planet of the Apes, but The Baby keeps the viewer guessing right up until the last frame…in some ways, it doesn’t make any sense until the last frame…but saying any more would be spoiling it.
Mrs. Wadsworth is a fun character. Ruth Roman plays her part like a cross between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, transforming the character into one of those villains that audiences love to hate. She is stubborn, headstrong, and uncompromising, willing to do anything to protect Baby from outsiders. Her firm belief that she is in the right gives the film a moral ambiguity, one that is reinforced when Ann’s true reason for her interest in Baby is revealed. Mrs. Wadsworth is a crazy woman, but she is grounded in reality, and her character adds a fun dimension to The Baby.
Even though the site of David Manzy dressed as a baby is insane enough, his performance is made even crazier by the sound design. During production, Manzy made his own baby noises while shooting. However, in post-production, sound effects man Richard Greer (High Risk) inserted the sounds of a real baby. The effect makes Manzy’s character even freakier; the image of a baby’s wail coming from the mouth of a full-grown man in a diaper is one that is not easily forgotten. It works well within the context of the already-crazy movie, however, and it all just makes The Baby that much weirder of a film.
In the world of horror movies, the ultimate goal is to scare the viewer. When that can’t be done, the aim is to gross them out. If that fails, the films will go for laughs. When all else fails, filmmakers try to confuse and befuddle. The Baby is a great example of a film that forces the audience to ask itself what the heck it just saw.