By Scott Dorward
The Baby (USA, 1973)
One of my goals with the October Horror Movie Challenge is to watch films that reflect the wide range of horror cinema. This means seeking out productions that aim for shock, terror, thrills, comedy, or just plain weirdness. While The Baby may not seem like a standard horror film, it sits in that part of the genre which aims for discomfort and strangeness rather than blood or chills. This is often my favourite kind of horror, although it is also the trickiest to pull off. Is The Baby uncomfortable in the right ways?
Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) is a social worker in Los Angeles. She lives with her mother-in-law, and is coming to terms with the near death of her husband in an accident. When Gentry is assigned the case of the Wadsworth family, she becomes obsessed with their situation. The adult son of the family, known only as “Baby”, has learning difficulties that have apparently left his mind and behaviour locked in infancy. His mother and sisters treat him as a baby, making him sleep in an outsized crib and feeding him with a bottle.
As Gentry makes more and more home visits, the Wadsworths grow hostile, mounting increasingly desperate and vicious attempts to thwart her. But what are they trying to hide? And are Gentry’s motivations as altruistic as they seem?
The Baby is the kind of film that could only have been made in the 1970s. Its combination of exploitation and straight drama is unique to the period. Even more surprising is that the film was directed by Ted Post, who also made Magnum Force, the sequel to Dirty Harry, which was one of the year’s biggest action films.
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, the ’70s was a weird era in filmmaking. Restrictions on what could be shown on screen had largely fallen away. There was still something of a hippie, counterculture mentality that led to more experimentation. The big studios had yet to turn into the blockbuster-obsessed, risk-averse money machines that we know today. This unique combination of factors made a film like The Baby possible. While something similar might be made by an independent filmmaker today, it wouldn’t come from a major studio.
The plight of Baby is the creepiest part of the film. While this is a young man with learning difficulties, he has been deliberately infantilised by those around him. Apparently, there are two cuts of the film — one where David Manzy made his own baby sounds and another where these were replaced with actual baby noises. I watched the latter and hearing the goo-gooing of a baby coming from a man in his twenties is deeply unsettling.
From the synopses I’d read, I thought that The Baby would be some kind of campy, bad-taste John Waters-type affair. Much of it is played as a straight thriller, however, which makes an odd contrast with the premise. There are some moments of high weirdness, especially with the general sleaziness of the Wadsworth clan, but the film could have benefitted from letting its freak flag fly a little higher.
Despite its comparative coyness, The Baby is still an effectively unpleasant film. There are some horrific aspects to the Wadsworth family dynamics, although the worst is mercifully only hinted at. Unfortunately, it loses momentum in an odd final act that seems to think it’s building tension but only really shows us a bunch of people wandering around a house for ten minutes. This is turned around in the final scenes, which offer a grisly and weird payoff. I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending. While it is shocking and provides a neat resolution, it also feels like a tasteless joke.
If you are planning to watch The Baby, be warned that it involves both the violent and sexual abuse of a young man with learning difficulties. Perhaps surprisingly for the time, Baby’s plight is portrayed sympathetically, and the horrors inflicted on him are not played for laughs. Still, this is the kind of thing I can imagine many people not wanting to watch.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!