Wednesday, July 16, 2014

THE BABY (1973) Blu-ray Review

The Baby (1973) d. Ted Post (USA)

After taking on the curious case of “Baby” Wadsworth (David Manzy), a grown man developmentally arrested at nine months, recently widowed social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) suspects criminal negligence. As her interest grows increasingly personal, a war of wills develops between Ann and the zealously protective Wadsworth women, who will stop at nothing to keep their family together.

Director Post (Magnum Force, Good Guys Wear Black) handles this potentially ridiculous material straight-faced, and Manzy’s whole-hearted investment in his infantile characterization goes a long way toward anchoring the weird. But the film’s real power comes from its females, with whiskey-voiced Ruth Roman (resembling a cross between Stockard Channing, Virginia Woolf-era Elizabeth Taylor, and a dash of latter-day Joan Collins) leading the charge as the sassy, brassy, beat-your-ass-y Mrs. Wadsworth. A veteran performer of the prestige (Strangers on a Train) and the plebeian (Day of the Animals), Roman is always captivating, with an eye glint and lip curl that means business.

Marianna Hill, who genre fans will recognize from Messiah of Evil and Blood Beach, is a knockout as elder daughter Germaine, sharing a secret, more-than-sisterly relationship with her anatomically mature brother. Playing younger bratty blonde Alba, whose short fuse is as likely to blow up at her family members as outsiders, Susanne Zenor’s delicious shifts between crazy live wire and sulky teen are an unfettered hoot.

At the center of it all is the fascinating puzzle that is Comer’s Gentry. A child actress from the early ’60s, Comer worked sporadically, turning up on television or in smaller film roles, but never really caught on in the Hollywood circle. Based on her performance here, those closed doors proved to be our loss. She’s clearly the hero, but there’s something off about her as well, recalling The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson with a screw loose. We constantly wonder how far she’s willing to go and why this case is so personal to her.

Things grow more twisted at every turn, no matter which house we’re in. When the three Wadsworth women come upon Baby’s sitter (Erin O’Reilly) engaged in questionable behavior with her charge – a scene both disturbing and kinky – the violent, rage-filled repercussions meted out are terrifying to observe. Meanwhile, Ann sits at home watching old home movies through tear-stained eyes with her mother-in-law Judith (Beatrice Manley), then takes up her crusade with renewed vigor.

Inappropriate birthday parties (in which genre vet Michael Pataki shows up to make moves on every available female), cattle prods, and reverse home invasions all contribute to the oddball groove that Post and writer/producer Abe Polsky lay down, the biggest surprise being how well it hangs together. In spite of Manzy’s dubbed baby cries and the occasionally campy set-piece (the party's dart game is a bona-fide battle of the kooks), viewers stay invested throughout, with the final reveal leaving us slack-jawed in uncomprehending shock as the credits roll. The fact that this much aberrance slipped by with a PG rating is as mystifying as anything onscreen – the early 70s must have been a curious time for the MPAA, with this, Blood and Lace, and Legend of Hell House, sneaking past the morality guards.

Severin’s recent Blu-ray (I'm a little sorry they lost the original poster's "Three, Four, Close the Door! What goes on in this nursery isn't for Kids!" tagline for the cover art) carries over the audio interviews from its original 2011 DVD release. “Baby Talk” has Manzy (aka David Mooney) discussing the process by which he auditioned for and later prepared for the role, including shaving his entire body. Manzy goes through his entire roster of co-stars, offering a small anecdote for each, including O’Reilly as his unfortunate and confused sitter.

For “Tales from the Crib,” Post reveals his original hesitations for taking on such bizarre subject matter, and how he was ultimately convinced to take on the project by Polsky, who convinced him that the director’s predilection for telling a human story would make it accessible to the public. Both interviews are expertly conducted by Elijah Drenner (That Guy Dick Miller, American Grindhouse).

(One brief technical note: On the Blu-ray’s menu page, the supplemental links are reversed – Post’s button leads to Mooney’s interview, and vice versa. Just so you don’t start thinking you’ve gone insane.)

The Baby is available now from Severin Films and can be ordered HERE:

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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