Rock-a-bye Judge Gordon Sullivan, in his Lazy-Boy...
Our review of The Baby, published July 1st, 2011, is also available.
Three, four, close the door…
In the world of film studies, there's a concept called Classical Hollywood Narrative. Even if you've never heard the term, you're likely familiar with it. It's used to describe classical Hollywood films that usually center on a male protagonist who wants some object (often work related) and pursues it in tandem with a heterosexual relationship. There's usually a sidekick or two to help set off the main couple, and by the end everything is resolved to satisfaction. Combined with this familiar narrative are a set of visual techniques designed to make viewers forget they're watching a movie. Shots create continuity in time and space, and there's an attempt to not disrupt the audience's engagement with the story and characters. Ultimately, Classical Hollywood Narrative strives to be invisible, but not all films are like that. Some are experimental in style or story, while others won't (or can't) conform to the Hollywood norms. Though not for everyone, films which fall outside the mainstream can have their own strange pleasures. The Baby is just such a case, a weird little film that seems to forget Hollywood conventions even exist.
Ann (Anjanette Comer, The Loved Ones) is a social worker investigating the Wadsworths, a rather strange family. In addition to the mother (Ruth Roman, Strangers on a Train) and her two daughters, there's a baby in the family. That doesn't sound so strange…until we learn the baby is 21 years old (David Mooney, Chaplin). What becomes clear is that our social worker is still working through the death of her husband, and may not have "Baby's" best interests at heart. But if Ann wants to succeed, she'll have to fight the mother and sisters in a bizarre power struggle.
The Baby is the kind of film most viewers spend the whole time thinking to themselves, "What the hell am I watching?!" On one level, that's because of the film's strange plot. Exploitation fans will recognize the precedent for Baby in Edith from John Waters' Pink Flamingos, but that makes it no less strange. In fact, The Baby shares with Pink Flamingos the sense that we're getting a peek into the life of a very odd family. But instead of a race to the bottom, The Baby adds the strangeness of having a social worker get a bit too personal with the Wadsworths. I don't want to give too much away, but things don't stop getting crazy once Baby is revealed. And if The Baby can't quite match the insanity of Pink Flamingos, it goes a lot farther than most Hollywood productions of the time.
The other level of the film which will have viewers scratching their heads is the production value. John Waters was working on a tiny indie budget with a cast comprised mainly of his friends and co-conspirators. The idea that he would ever make a legit Hollywood movie would have seemed laughable in 1972. The Baby, by contrast, was directed by a recognizable Hollywood director, Ted Post, who gave us Hang 'Em High and Magnum Force. The film stars recognizable actors, including Ruth Roman and Mariana Hill (High Plains Drifter). The fact that the direction and performances are actually quite good, if not great, gives the more exploitation aspects of The Baby an edge. Were this just a bunch of random incompetent filmmakers, it would be easy to dismiss it as a cheap attempt to cash in on the exploitation phenomena. Instead, this competence gives the film a seriousness that helps make the strange antics of the plot even stranger.
For a relatively little-known cult hit, The Baby has enjoyed a strong life on home video. There was a DVD in 2000 that was open-matte, and then the folks at Severin released an excellent re-issue in 2011 that upgraded the picture and extras. Now, that release has been given its own hi-def upgrade. The Baby (Blu-ray) a 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer that's surprisingly robust for a film of this vintage, and doesn't seem to suffer from excessive digital manipulation. Colors are appropriately saturated, with good skins tones, and black levels stay consistent and deep. The DTS-HD 1.0 mono audio track keeps dialogue clear but doesn't offer much in the way of presence or dynamic range.
Extras include an interview with director Tom Post, who talks about the film over the phone, spending 20 minutes on his recollections. We also get an interview with "Baby" himself, David Mooney, which runs a bit shorter, as well as the film's trailer. In short, everything is ported over from the previous DVD release.
The Baby offers none of the usual pleasures of Hollywood films. Its plot is very strange, and none of the characters are the kind you'll find yourself rooting for. It's earned its cult status for a reason, which means the audience is limited to those looking for something far from the beaten path.
Weird, but not guilty.
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