Wednesday, October 05, 2011

31 Days of Fright!: Ted Post's THE BABY (1973)

Editor's Note: I first became familiar with filmmaker Matthew Saliba when a copy of his excellent short AMY'S IN THE ATTIC arrived in my PO Box. Mixing two parts inspired giallo tribute and one part fetishism (with a splash of J&B), AMY is a great example of a grindhouse homage that works on every level. I'm happy to have Saliba joining the ER staff as a reviewer and I'm sure you'll enjoy the perspective he brings as both a fan of trash cinema and a filmmaker who clearly loves what he does. You can follow Matthew on Twitter and Facebook.

One of the reasons why the world of BDSM and Fetishism excites me is its complexity and eclecticism when it comes to discovering the many things that can turn a person on. For every foot fetishist, there's somebody into masturbating with sandpaper whilst being flogged by an 80-year old woman in leather and lace, gyrating to the tune of "Baby Elephant Walk" by Henry Mancini.

But enough about my weekend.

Fetishism is a kaleidoscope of psychological complexity that just begs to be given the cinematic treatment. And it's been given just that to varying degrees of success. However, even the best films are ripe with cliche and focus on the all-too stereotypical aspects of kinky sexuality. But once in a while, a film comes along that focuses on a very obscure fetishistic niche that blows the mind and shatters the boundaries of acceptability in the world of mainstream cinema. Ted Post's THE BABY is one such film.

Directed by the man who brought us BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and MAGNUM FORCE (among others), THE BABY tells the story of Ann Gentry (Anjanette Corner), a social worker who volunteers to take on the case of the Wadsworth family, a demented quartet led by a domineering matriarch (Ruth Roman), plus daughters Germaine (Marianna Hall) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor) and "Baby," (David Manzy) a poster child for infantilism insofar as he's a fully grown man who acts like and is treated like a baby by his mother and sisters. After repeated visits to the household, Ann begins to suspect that all is not right with the Wadsworths and that Baby is being mistreated by his family who intend to love him but are not willing to give him the help that he needs in order to develop into a fully-functioning adult male. Her suspicions are proven to be just when the audience is given glimpses into the Wadsworth home where we see Baby being used as a sexual plaything by one of his sisters, getting electrocuted with a cattle prod by his other sister and serving as the butt of a series of verbal humiliation sessions from his mother. Ann takes it upon herself to save Baby and integrate him into a life where he can be with his own kind. Of course this won't happen without a fight. So needless to say, when she manages to successfully remove him from their home, the Wadsworth clan comes a calling, leading to a climactic battle with an M. Night Shyamalanian-esque final reel plot twist that forces us to reconsider everything we have just seen, in particular, the righteousness of Ann's cause.

THE BABY is a wonderfully twisted film that could only come out of the 1970s. This period in film history was by far, the most daring, innovative and conceptually experimental ever and as such audiences then (and now) have reaped and will continue to reap the fruits from this cinematic bounty. For all our talk about how we in the 21st century have come so far socially and artistically, we're incredibly repressed and constrained when it comes to our pathetic attempts to make sexually daring films. Ted Post takes themes of infantilism and incest and treats them with the kind of class and maturity you rarely see in horror films nowadays. This could have easily turned into a piece of cinematic schlock, but thankfully Post is far too accomplished a filmmaker to allow his material to deteriorate into superficial sensationalism. Instead, we get a story that's daring in subject matter, rich in subtext (themes of the lesser of two evils, the frustration that comes with laws protecting even the most horrible of parents, etc.) and genuinely unnerving in its characterization. It should go without saying that David Manzy is absolutely masterful as Baby. I've always maintained that a real actor is a man or woman who can completely immerse him/herself into a role at the expense of any personal or moral objections with the part or story and especially with their sense of self-consciousness. After all, if you're doing your job right, your friends and family who come to see your film will not see YOU up on the big screen, bur rather your character and as such you shouldn't be concerned with being embarrassed about what it is that the film requires you to do. With that definition in mind, David Manzy is bloody Laurence Olivier!

THE BABY is released on DVD through Severin Films who did a commendable job with the transfer. With the exception of some low-light scenes in which considerable noise is present in the blacks, the film looks stunning. The sound is thankfully presented in mono, which is the only way to properly appreciate a gem like this one. As far as extras go, they're unfortunately slim, but what we do get is satisfying in its own right. First off, there's the hilariously over-the-top and incredibly misleading trailer that makes THE BABY out to be a gruesome slasher film in the vein of H.G. Lewis. Then there's a pair of interviews, one with Ted Post who claims to not remember the film but somehow cranks out one anecdote after another about the production. The other interview is with David Manzy and it's the real highlight of the disc folks! As you can probably imagine, Manzy has chosen to distance himself from the production, going so far as to rechristen himself David Mooney in the time that's passed between the production and today. He regales us with a story about how he's now become a teacher but even a change in profession and name couldn't stop his students from discovering his past and in particular his participation in this film.

Needless to say, I highly recommend THE BABY. If you're into fetishes, there's plenty here to excite you. And if you're just looking for an excellent horror film to sink your teeth into, then they don't come any more transgressive than this one. – Matthew Saliba


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