Family begins at home, and so does horror; established for their scouring of the archives and releasing restored versions of a broad variety of cult cinema from around the world, Arrow Films now present one of their strangest offerings, The Baby, director Ted Post’s 1973 oddity of a social worker whose good intentions lead her into danger.
Anjanette Comer is welfare officer Ann Gentry, assigned to the Wadsworth family, the matriarch (Ruth Roman) and her three children, each by a different father, the two elder daughters Germaine and Alba (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) and their adult son referred to only as Baby (David Manzy).
Dressed as a baby and treated as such by his mother and siblings, Ann immediately connects with Baby beyond what she expected, believing him of being capable of more than he is permitted to do. Kind, gentle and encouraging, Baby responds to Ann better than his family, engendering the resentment of Mrs Wadsworth, but is it because she is protective of her child or the state benefits he brings to the family?
Looking further into Baby’s background, Ann finds that the only previous caseworker who took an interest in the family vanished; “the police were satisfied,” she is told, but she is not, and as Ann tries to move Baby to a more healthy environment she finds she is blocked by the increasingly hostile Mrs Wadsworth.
Written by Abe Polsky who had worked on The Virginian and Bonanza and would later contribute to Kung Fu and Fame, Ted Post’s considerable background was also in episodic television on such shows as Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke and Rawhide but among the slew of television movies he would make his feature films included Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the second Dirty Harry adventure Magnum Force.
Bizarre and meandering through the second act before a radical change in tone in the third where it steps from twisted family drama towards thriller, if not outright horror, it is undoubtedly the performances which carry The Baby, Anjanette Comer warm, caring and sympathetic as the emotionally intelligent Ann facing off against the might of the formidable Ruth Roman, venomous, menacing, manipulative and disturbed.
As Baby, Manzy is utterly convincing in his mannerisms and his impulsive needs and delight and also his fear of his family which he lacks the means to verbally express, the aloof Germaine of the hypnotic fixed gaze, the tantrums of the vindictive Alba who tortures him and his possessive and demanding mother who throws Baby a luridly lit birthday party more for her own benefit than his.
A motley gathering of equally damaged and pushy people, among them is Michael Pataki, playing against the typical authority figure for which he is known from Battlestar Galactica and The Changeling; a performer who guested twice on Star Trek, a Klingon officer on The Trouble with Tribbles and a general in The Next Generation‘s Too Short a Season, there are other connections with Star Trek.
Marianna Hill was Doctor Helen Noel in Dagger of the Mind while the soundtrack is by Gerald Fried, contributor to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible as well as Star Trek, his score for The Baby recalling the orchestration and themes of The Paradise Syndrome in particular, another tale of longing and confused identity.
Despite the superficial resemblance to the early work of John Waters, while not entirely effective The Baby is far from the trash it might have become in other hands considering the bizarre subject matter and the turns the plot takes, particularly the scene with the babysitter who endorses the idea that “breast is best,” but despite the fantastic period fashions Post never manages to shake the feel of another television movie, albeit one never intended for mass consumption.
The feature presented in two aspect ratios, 1.85:1 and 1.33:1, the supporting features include archive audio interviews with Ted Post who confirms the impression that he knew it was going to be a challenging and alienating project and actor David Mooney (formerly Manzy), now a teacher, who describes Post as a hands-off director who allowed his cast to establish their own characters and performances.
More interesting is Marianna Hill’s recent interview, recalling Anjanette Comer as “a very special person” and Ruth Roman as “a real tough girl,” while film professor Rebekah McKendry expresses her enthusiasm for The Baby and discusses its perhaps unwarranted association with the “shocksploitation” genre, agreeing that it is in fact a more sensitive film than the contemporary publicity would have it.