Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cult Club: ‘The Baby’ (1973)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.
According to John Waters, the only sexual peccadillo that disturbs the man who made a 300-pound transvestite eat dog shit is the adult baby. Apparently, there are folks who get off on donning giant Pampers, tossing tantrums in over-sized cribs, and dribbling Pablum down their stubbly chins. To each his or her own, says I.

Call me sheltered, but my only exposure to adult babies was in Waters’s most recent film, 2004’s A Dirty Shame (2004? Get cracking on a follow up, Johnny!). Perhaps that’s why I expected The Baby to be super campy, Waters-style. It isn’t, and its straight-faced delivery makes a really twisted film that much crazier.

Our adult baby is named, rather unimaginatively, Baby, and he’s played by David Mooney (with the vocal talents of an actual rug rat). Mooney was a good-looking man in his early twenties when he made this film. That he doesn’t look like Officer Alvin— the big-boned, elderly adult baby Alan J. Wendl played in A Dirty Shame— is an early tip-off that The Baby isn’t mining laughs.

And unlike Officer Alvin, Baby doesn’t act like a baby because it gets his diaper going; his horrible, horrible mother and sisters have forced him into perpetual infancy through negative reinforcement. When Baby tries to walk, sadistic sis Alba (Susanne Zenor) zaps him with an electric cattle prod. Yet, Baby is sexualized by horny sis Germaine (Marianna Hill), who mounts him in his crib in a scene that may be more disturbing because it cuts away before we see any of the incestuous action. No, that’s not true. Showing it probably would have been more disturbing. The sisters’ horrible behavior is down to the horrible parenting of their horrible mother (retro T.V. regular Ruth Roman), who so resented Baby’s father leaving her that she decided to force their baby to remain a baby.

Enter Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), one of several child-protection social workers dispatched to the Wadsworth home to yank Baby into long-overdue adolescence. Ann is determined to get the job done even though previous social workers didn’t have much luck with the kid. In fact, they all mysteriously disappeared just as they were on the verge of making progress with him. What could possibly be the explanation for their disappearances? What, I ask you? What?

Turns out, one of the reasons Ann is so adamant about the Baby case is that she is in her own state of arrested development since her husband was killed (or “hurt”, as she tells a jackass at Baby’s birthday orgy) in a car accident. Ann now lives with her mother-in-law (Beatrice Manley) and spends her nights watching old home movies of happy times with hubby and weeping, “It should have been me.” Perhaps helping Baby out of his seriously dysfunctional household will help her bounce back from despair.

For most of its 85 minutes, The Baby is really hard to assess. The premise is wack-a-doo ten fold. No doubt about it. But the rather excellent acting from the totally committed cast and the moody direction by seasoned T.V. director Ted Post (who helmed “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”, one of the best episodes in the sketchy final season of “The Twilight Zone”) kind of rule out the possibility that it’s a bad movie. Still, it’s hard to peg as a good movie, because the raw ingredients—a twenty-something man crawling around and cooing like a six-month old, the elder Wadsworths’ hard-to-swallow motivations, Ann’s increasingly strange behavior, a baby-sitter who gets a little too into Baby’s urge to breastfeed, Germaine’s massive hairdo —seem to sound the “bad movie” alarm. The Baby doesn’t divulge its true quality until its final reel, which reveals a completely unexpected twist that is— no exaggeration— brilliant. These final moments make sense of the particularly crazy turns the film had taken in the preceding scene.

Although Wikipedia classifies The Baby as a “Cult classic,” the first I ever heard of it was in the watch instantly section of Netflix. I’m not aware of there ever being midnight showings of the film in which attendees came dressed in their best onesies and shot breast milk at the screen whenever Baby feels peckish. But if there’s a film crying out for a cult—or at least renewed interest—it’s this obscurity. Just be sure to wear your burp cloth.
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